Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 15 - Slightly less than a month to the conference on The History of War in Global Perspective.  The idea, as I explained in Entry 27, is to explore how we might shift military history from its current, Eurocentric metanarrative to a metanarrative that looks at the subject within the framework of world history.

I suppose I ought to stop right here and explain the meaning of that ten-dollar word "metanarrative."  Basically the term originated in postmodern discourse as a way of referring to a narrative about narratives.  It's a narrative that determines which other narratives are considered central and which are deemed marginal.  For instance, a few decades ago the dominant U.S. history metanarrative was a story of how the United States evolved from a string of colonies hugging the Atlantic Ocean to a republic that spanned the North American continent and eventually rose to global power.  Its central story was political; indeed, most U.S. histories were organized according to major presidential administrations--the so-called presidential synthesis.  Geographically this story flowed from east to west.  Discussion of the settlement of, say, Santa Fe, New Mexico, did not fit the metanarrative until the United States acquired the Mexican Cession in 1848--notwithstanding the fact that the settlement of Santa Fe actually occurred just two years after that of Jamestown, Virginia.  Demographically this story focused on persons of European descent, since until the mid-nineteenth century only such persons could be citizens of the United States, and manly on elite men, since this group held most of the political power.  Needless to say, since the 1960s this metanarrative has been sharply challenged, and most present-day U.S. history textbooks (at least at the college-level) are written in a more inclusive fashion.  But it's fair to ask whether they have succeeded in creating a new metanarrative, particularly since the point of identifying metanarratives is to question and undermine them, not replace them.

Military history also has a metanarrative.  Our basic textbook understanding of the field flows along the same lines as western civilization--basically from the classical Greeks through Rome, medieval, early modern, and modern Europe, down to the present day.  This is the tradition in which I was trained and I think the same holds true for pretty much all us military historians.  With few exceptions, we have not as yet seriously questioned this metanarrative, much less sought to create a new one  that integrates what we're learning about the military history of other societies.  Although we certainly have works of military history that deal with Latin America, Africa, Australasia and Asia, the present metanarrative unequivocally accords Europe and North America central importance.  The rest are implicitly considered marginal.

Because the implications of metanarrative are somewhat sinister, a great strength of metanarrative can easily be overlooked:  namely its power to organize a large swath of material into a coherent storyline.  Partly for that reason I'd like to employ the term "master narrative" in preference to metanarrative.  We have a Eurocentric master narrative.  We need to find a global master narrative that is more inclusive but retains a coherent storyline.  Thus, recasting the master narrative of military history involves not only an expansion of geographic coverage but also a reworking of the way in which we organize how we think about military history.  The conceptual frameworks and themes that work for the European master narrative almost certainly won't work for a global master narrative.

The November conference represents a preliminary attempt to come to grips with this agenda.  I decided to organize it as a series of four round-table discussions.  The first session will discuss the limits of the present master narrative.  The next two will focus on two recent efforts to shift toward a world military history.  The last session will concentrate on where we go from here, both intellectually and organizationally.  You'll find details of the conference (as well as a list of preliminary readings) at the following link:

The History of War in Global Perspective

In the days ahead I'll be updating the conference web page frequently.

Continue to next page

Return to main page.