Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 6 - Two weeks ago I promised to report on the first meeting of History 873 in "tomorrow's entry."  I should have known better.  In the great scheme of life, a good many things take precedence over this blog--sleep not least among them.

The seminar has now met three times.  The first was, indeed, just a get-acquainted session.  I have ten students:  two early Americanists, two "civilian" military historians, and six active-duty officers (three West Point Army officers, one Navy ensign, an Air Force major, and a Republic of Korea army captain).  Initially I had some worries that some of the students wouldn't twig to the seminar's organizing concept--race and racism in the American experience.  But as nearly as I can judge my fears were quite definitely misplaced.  Thus far people are engaging with the material as well as I could wish.

I'm also about five lectures into the History of War course.  The first meeting was an extended, ninety-minute lecture-discussion on "The Nature of War."  I showed the roughly 140 undergraduates in the class four film clips:  a Luftwaffe air raid over 1940 London (from The Battle of Britain), the 1943 liquidation of the Lodz ghetto by SS troops (from Schindler's List), the planting of time bombs in the European quarter of Algiers in 1957 (from The Battle of Algiers), and the march of Gandhi's followers on the Dharasana salt works in May 1930 (from Gandhi).  Afterward I asked the students to tell me what the film clips had in common.  A number recognized that in each, one of the contending groups was armed, the other wasn't.  I then asked them to tell which clips were depictions of war.  Everyone considered the air raid an act of war, albeit perhaps regrettable or immoral.  Opinion was more divided concerning the scene from Schindler's List, with a number of students wanting to call it an act of atrocity, genocide, or ethnic cleansing in contradistinction to war.  They seemed implicitly to reserve the term war to describe something that was, if not noble, then at least morally defensible.  The same division occurred, to a lesser extent, with regard to the time bombs, while the scene from Gandhi struck most as an act of civil disobedience, not war.  There wasn't any correct answer, of course.  The point I wanted to make was that "war," and many terms associated with it, are inherently politicized and that it's important to think in terms of who is making the claim that a particular act is or isn't war; also to think about what any definition encompasses or excludes.

 

I wonder if the term "war" is not also racialized.  At first blush this will seem a reach, but I think I can make the case in two easy stages.  The first stage is simply to note that people of European heritage tend to think of war in a particular way, really a Clausewitzian way:  the continuation of a political struggle--usually an interstate political struggle--by violent means, and also involving the employment of violence by both sides.  The second stage is equally straightforward:  to note that people of European heritage are white.

If this still sounds perverse--and frankly it does, even to me--it might be illuminating to consider the thinking of two popular historians of the nineteenth century.  The first is William O. Swinton, who published Outlines of the World's History in 1874.  World historians consider Swinton's book a founding work in their field, notwithstanding Swinton's confident belief that "world history" was really the history of, well, white people:

Viewing history as confined to the series of leading civilized nations, we observe that it has to do with but one grand division of the human family, namely, with the Caucasian, or white race.  To this division belonged the people of all the elder nations--the Egyptians, Assyr'ians and Babylo'nians, the Hebrews and the Phoeni'cians, the Hin'doos, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  Of course, the modern European nations, as also the states founded by European colonists, all belong to this ethnological division.  Thus we see that history concerns itself with but one highly developed type of mankind; for though the great bulk of the population of the globe has, during the whole recorded period, belonged, and does still belong, to other types of mankind, yet the Caucasians form the only truly historical race.  Hence we may say that civilization is the product of the brain of this race. . . .

If we trace back the present civilization of the advanced nations of the world--our own civilization, and that of England, Germany, France, Italy, etc.,--we shall find that much of it is connected by a direct and unbroken line with the Roman.  The Romans, in turn, were the heirs of the Greeks.  Now, all this is Aryan; and when we go back to the primitive age of the undivided Aryans in Asia, we see that this race must even then have been placed far above the condition of mere savages, and that they made good beginnings in government, and social life, and religion, and the simple mechanical arts.  Thus we are fully authorized to say that the Aryans are peculiarly the race of progress; and a very large part of the history of the world must be taken up with an account of the contributions which the Aryan nations made to the common stock of civilization.

[from Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History:  A Teacher's Companion (Boston and New York:  Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 16-17]

The second historian is Edward S. Creasy, whose Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851) involve without exception at least one European side and usually both, and whose selection of battles was determined almost entirely by which battles preserved European and (above all) Anglo Saxon civilization.

When I think about how the basic narrative of military history, as generally taught and understood, starts with the Greeks and faithfully pursues the same path as a textbook in Western Civ, it's a more than a little disquieting to realize how well the narrative fits the Swinton/Creasy model. True, our choice of what to include and exclude isn't explicitly dictated by race.  We usually talk about how, for better or worse, Europe has managed to dominate so much of the world.  But I wonder if that's a distinction without a difference.  And I wonder to what extent our concept of war is conditioned by the sort of armed conflicts that white people are used to, the sort of conflicts they like to fight and therefore regard as legitimate, as bearing the hallmarks of "real war."

Continue to next entry.

Return to main page.