Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 21 - This evening I received an email from a colleague of mine who had read the flyer publicizing the upcoming conference and visited its web site.  Glancing through the capsule bios of the panelists, he noticed that the only one with a non-western research agenda seemed to be Pradeep Barua, and, given that Pradeep actually focuses on the armies of the British raj in India, his agenda was arguably not really that non-western after all.  He asked how an assembly of panelists exclusively composed of scholars working primarily in European and North American history could possibly succeed in shifting military history from its Eurocentric bias.  It seemed to him that I had erred fundamentally in overlooking the many scholars who have written on the military experience of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia.

It was a reasonable point to raise.  I wrote back explaining some of my rationale:

Many thanks for your email. You're quite right, and I can only say that when considering my slate of panelists I consulted with Jerry Bentley, who edits the Journal of World History, concerning people whom I might invite, and a number of those he suggested are those who are now on the panel. I tried to consult with another world historian, Patrick Manning, who founded the PhD program in world history at Northeastern University and created the (apparently now-defunct) World History Center. In fact I invited him to be a panelist, but he didn't respond to my request. Nor, come to think of it, did a couple of other world historians.

I considered the model you suggest--that is to say, to invite panelists whose research focuses on the military experience of various regions of the globe. The difficulty with this approach, it seemed to me, is that not all regional historians are interested in the project of creating a global approach to history, much less military history, and many do not self-identify as military historians. I drew my panelists from those who self-identify principally as military historians and who have also demonstrated an interest in creating a coherent world history of war. I'm sure it's true I might have done a better job of putting together a panel, but honestly, I did my level best.

As for whether this conference can possibly achieve the goal of transcending the European metanarrative, the answer is rather obviously no. But it can start the conversation. It can pave the way for future conferences and collaborations aimed at the larger goal--efforts that may well look a lot more like the sort of conference you have in mind. It can begin to shift the field a bit, and move it toward that goal.

In retrospect I wish I had indicated explicitly something that is only implicit in the email:  that in coming up with a strategy for shifting toward a world metanarrative I took the field of world history as my principal model.  World history was--and for that matter largely remains--a teaching field.  Instructors in high school social studies are required to teach it, as are many college faculty.  In my department, this duty falls almost exclusively on non-western historians, which of course makes no intellectual sense at all:  Europe and North America are still part of the world, so European and North American faculty ought logically to teach the world history survey.  (For reasons of student demand they teach western civilization and U.S. history instead.)

A lot of  people assigned to teach the world history survey dislike it.  Some, however, have found it a fascinating challenge, and out of their experiences in the classroom they came up with many questions about how to make world history more comparative and coherent.  Those questions drove them to do research, initially just for the sake of crafting more effective lectures.  But the experience of teaching world history prompted some practitioners to form the World History Association in 1982.  The research soon found a home in the Journal of World History, founded in 1988.

Thus the thrust of my grant proposal to the Mershon Center was for a conference that would focus on the teaching of military history in a global perspective.  I figured the overwhelming majority of practicing military historians were, like me, trained as North American or European specialists.  We might be gratified to know that somebody out there was exploring the military experience of China, Japan, or the Mogul Empire, but there wasn't a prayer of our ever integrating that stuff into our courses, even assuming we read it.  But that would likely change if the field experienced a shift toward survey courses in the world history of war.  We'd at least have to read that stuff, integrate it into the courses, and, at a minimum, make it more likely that our graduate students would conceptualize the history of war globally and frame their research agendas accordingly.

Still, why not invite a raft of non-western military historians to this conference?  What grounds did I have for supposing that "not all regional historians are interested in the project of creating a global approach to history"?  Two grounds, really.  First, having read a good deal about the development of world history, I knew that many non-western historians prefer to remain specialists of their selected regions, even if they acknowledge that world history is a useful field--and some emphatically do not.  Second, having been in my department for twelve years and heard my non-western colleagues grouse about world history far more often than they have endorsed it, I've seen this reality at close range.  Put simply, to pull a bunch of regional military historians together and blithely expect them to reconceptualize the field was a losing bet.  Better to identify scholars with a proven interest in the issues, a record of having thought about them and, often, having written extensively about them as well.

Consequently I don't feel too distressed about having organized the conference as I have.  It's a first step--I hope a good one--and I think it deals with the most basic conceptual issues:  first, why is the existing emphasis on the "western way of war" inadequate; second, what themes, factors, or approaches hold the most promise for crafting a coherent world history of war; and third, what are the next steps, intellectually and organizationally?

In a subsequent email to my colleague, I broached one possible step that might be taken organizationally:

Getting back to the challenge of transcending the Eurocentric focus, a different but related issue concerns the flagship organization of my field, the Society for Military History. It is a sort of hybrid organization, composed partly of academics and partly of public historians, military officers, etc. In fact in its earlier incarnations its membership was mostly officers and retired officers. Academic military historians sort of glommed on to it, and over the years gave its journal and annual meetings more of an academic appearance, but it still remains a pretty conservative organization and unmistakably antipathetic toward mainstream academic culture. [See especially entries 1, 45, and 46] It draws few scholars who do non-European or non-North American research, and seems disinterested in doing so. In fact, when some of us talk about wanting to broaden the field, most military historians interpret that as wanting to dilute the field. Nominally their concern is that we should not lose sight of the central issue in military history--the conduct of war--but of course they define war in a highly Eurocentric way.

I've wondered more than once about creating a separate organization that would further a broader approach to the history of war. I don't care much for the term "military history" as a way of naming the field. It smuggles in a lot of western baggage and doesn't readily suggest a lot of the ways by which historical change is implemented or contained through violence. "History of war" doesn't quite do it, either. So far my favorite choice is "the history of armed coercion." The basic purpose would be to draw together scholars whose work deals in any way with the subject; e.g., social banditry, nonviolent resistance, genocide, the use of the military as an instrument of domestic control, etc. I'm not sure I'm the person to do this, but I think it's something that needs to be done. Do you suppose that an attempt to create such an organization would strike a responsive chord among scholars of your acquaintance?

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