Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 29 - I have discarded the title for this thread* that was specific to Willing Obedience--"Autonomy and Allegiance"-- because I can see that I'm likely to return to the larger concerns with critical theory and the task of writing history, including military history, in a postmodern era.  Indeed, some of these concerns are already embedded in the thread on postcolonialism.  Hence the new title:  "A Postmodern Military History?"

I see myself, with reason, as a "traditional" historian who has wandered fairly late in life into certain intellectual galleries into which he rarely ventured before.  A lot of what I have to say must therefore seem obvious to some readers, and those to whom it is new--well, they're not likely to be reading this blog in the first place.

Which is too bad, because most of what I have to say will be of relevance mainly to historians who do what Robert Berkhofer calls "normal history."  Normal history follows this paradigm:

There is such a thing as a real human past.
The past has left behind traces in the form of texts and artifacts.  These constitute evidence.
Evidence yields facts--nuggets of truth--about the past.
The facts can be interpreted and synthesized into a coherent narrative.
This narrative bears an imperfect but direct relationship to the real human past.

Most normal history, writes Berkhofer, concentrates on the problems of validating sources as evidence and deriving reliable facts from such evidence.  It worries much less about how to connect those validated facts into a coherent narrative or other exposition.  A complete paradigm would have to include the belief of most historians that moral and political value judgments shape the selection of topics and the synthesis of facts; ditto for historians' perspectives on basic human nature and social arrangements.  But historians don't worry much about the validity of the paradigm itself.  A few actively defend it, while the rest of us sort of shrug our shoulders:  Our readers accept the paradigm, so who cares if it's valid?  Besides, if the paradigm isn't valid, would history be worth doing in the first place?

Postmodernism invites us to reconsider the paradigm.  Well, invite may be a mild word--like saying the Vikings invited coastal dwellers to reconsider the paradigm of "private property" and "ownership." But in some ways, postmodernism can be a friend and ally of normal history.  Historical problems for which there is little evidence, in the usual sense of the term, may benefit from the application of methods suggested by postmodernism.  And in fact this is already a common occurrence. It's just that, like Prof. Samet, most practitioners figure that somehow you just know what they're up to.

That leads me to Ronald Takaki's Iron Cages, first published in 1979 and issued in a (very slightly) revised edition in 2000.  Takaki wanted to look at the mindset of white racism as it applied to all major targets--not just Native Americans (which had been done) and African Americans (ditto), but also Mexicans and Asians (work had begun to emerge on both groups).  This was a big topic.  It would have been unwieldy if Prof. Takaki had not attacked it strategically, through examination of selected writings by significant white American elites concerning these groups.  That's much the same strategy Prof. Samet has adopted in Willing Obedience, the difference being that Prof. Takaki explains the rationale for it:

By culture, I mean what Antonio Gramsci has called cultural hegemony, "an order in which a way of life and thought is dominant, in which one concept of reality is diffused throughout society in all its institutional and private manifestations, informing with its spirit all taste, morality, customs, religious and political principles, and all social relations, particularly in their intellectual and moral connotation."  . . . 

Employing Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony, I have focused on the culture-makers and policy-makers, or the white men in positions of influence and power:  political leaders, editors, novelists, educators, ministers, military leaders, doctors, and businessmen.  Their ideas and decisions mattered, for they were consequential. . . . Although their role as culture-makers did not preclude criticism of certain aspects of American capitalism, the men analyzed in this study shared a basic commitment to the system and its values, and participated in its maintenance and advancement in varying degrees and ways.  [They were members of the power elite.  What they] thought and did mightily affected what everyone thought and did.  (Iron Cages, vi-viii)

NB. Incidentally, although I have found the concept of cultural hegemony useful in my own work on race and war, Takaki's view of it is incomplete.  See T. J. Jackson Lears, "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony:  Problems and Possibilities," American Historical Review 90:3 (June 1985):567-593, available through J-STOR at:

Iron Cages operates within the historical criticism school of literary theory.  Which is to say, it subjects certain texts to a very close reading, but it contextualizes these texts within a fairly "normal history" that assumes a real and at least partly knowable human past.  Unwilling Obedience works within the same tradition--unless of course it is part of the rejection of the new historicism (it's all text; there is no "normal history") which I understand is the most recent iteration in literary criticism.  Since Prof. Samet is so maddeningly silent about what she's up to, she may very well see her work as part of this latest swing of the pendulum and therefore up to the moment.  Personally I can't tell the difference yet between the old historical criticism and what I suppose must be called post-historicism.

In any case, I think that at last I know enough to complete the review, particularly after a conversation this afternoon with Maurice Stevens.

I rapped at the door of his office.  "Maurice, I got three quick questions for you."

"Okay," he said.

"First, when you're doing literary criticism, do you have an obligation to tell the reader what school you're working in?"

He hesitated only a second before responding that as a general rule, you did, and that he expected his students to get that out of the way in their introductions.  This was especially the case because he worked across disciplinary lines, and you couldn't expect people trained in one discipline to automatically know what you were doing if you were coming to them from another disciplinary tradition.  He added that there was a difference between being interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary.  A multidisciplinary scholar uses the methods of one field and is interested merely in the conclusions of investigations done by scholars in other fields.  (This in effect is what Wick Murray meant when he used to complain that political scientists conducted "raids on history.")  An interdisciplinary scholar, by contrast, is interested in the methods as well as the conclusions.  I suppose you could say that my review of Willing Obedience aspires to be interdisciplinary.

"Second," I asked, "do you have an obligation to tell the reader why you chose certain texts over others?"

Maurice took a little longer this time--I think to figure out how to explain his answer to someone outside the discipline.  The basic answer was, you could, but you didn't have to.  Within literary criticism circles the choice of text argues for itself.

"Finally, when an author creates a work of criticism, how do you assess whether they've pulled it off?"

That's a good question, Maurice said.  It was also the question that took him by far the longest to answer.  The basic answer was how well the work performed according to the critical task it set for itself.  You couldn't evaluate it according to some absolute standard, because modern criticism doesn't work that way. Nor could you fault it for choosing one text over another.  My beef with the metaphor of "cord" instead of "chord" (see Entry 34) was thus a bit out of place, and anyway Prof. Samet could argue validly that sometimes the lesser known of two passages can provide the better window into a given issue.  That said, it was okay for me to suggest that the author might have placed both passages alongside one another and looked at the connections and tensions between them.

Man, this has been a ton of work just to be in a position to evaluate Willing Obedience on its own terms.  Fortunately I think that once this part of the job is out of the way, assessing its value to the historian will be straightforward.

* For those who may not know--and as Will Rogers once said, "Everyone's ignorant, only on different subjects"--a thread is a series of linked comments on a given topic.  The term originated years ago on "Usenet," a massive discussion network on which users could talk about literally any topic under the sun, and for that matter still do.  For an example of a usenet discussion group, see: alt.war.civil.usa.

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