Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 23 - Yesterday my friend Bill Donnelly, a historian at the Center for Military History, emailed me a recent invited lecture by Anthony Cordesman, a well-known strategic analyst  who becomes a familiar sight on television every time the shit hits the fan.  The speech never goes near the word "metanarrative," but in effect it critiques the dominant metanarrative in American military history that, in his opinion, has very poorly served the interests of American grand strategy.  I barely skimmed the early sections of the speech before realizing that it was something I wanted my students to be able to access.

Hi Bill,

Thanks for passing this along.  You're right--I'd definitely like to place it online. I do think I ought to see if Cordesman is OK with that.  Do you happen to have an email address for him?




Bill shot me an email with Mr. Cordesman's home page embedded in it.  The page included a portrait photo and Bill commented, "Sometimes to me he looks like a cross between Wick [Murray] and Allan [Millett]."  I suppose only an OSU Ph.D. would make this connection, but maybe he has a point.  You be the judge:

Top left:  Williamson "Wick" Murray, Professor Emeritus; lower left:  Allan Millett, Raymond Mason Chair in Military History
Right:  Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS

Anyway, I wrote Mr. Cordesman, "A friend of mine at the CMH passed along to me your 2004 S.T. Lee Lecture on Military History.  Would you mind if I made it available to students, etc., on my web site?"  I figured I might wait days for a response.  Instead, it came back almost instantly:  "Please do.  Thanks, Tony Cordesman."

The lecture is entitled "Iraq, Grand Strategy, and the Lessons of Military History."  The complete text is available here, but this is the excerpt most relevant to metanarrative:

There are many reasons for our failures in Iraq and Vietnam, but the one I would like to focus on tonight is the way that we as a culture tend to think about military history. Anyone who has ever visited a military bookshop, the military section of a major bookstore, or the military history sections of the Internet, is all too familiar with how much of military history focuses on the "superstructure" of war and not on the "foundation." Professional historians may look more deeply, but the popular culture of military history focuses on fighting and battles, human interactions of combat, and the paraphernalia of war. It is amazing how many illustrated books have been written on military uniforms alone, and some have even been written simply on their buttons. The literature of military history is filled with specialized volumes on subjects like tanks, ships, swords and armor, or on individual combat elements like the history of Napoleonic riflemen.

At a somewhat broader level, book after book has been written on virtually all of the world's major military battles, and on virtually every aspect of tactics and strategy. Yet, most of these books fail to seriously examine grand strategy before, during, or after the fighting. When military history does address entire wars, the normal pattern is to have an introductory chapter setting the stage for the battles to come, to write virtually the entire book about the course of the fighting, and to end with a chapter on the final battle that touches briefly on the peace agreement or immediate aftermath. Even the official histories of grand strategy in World War I and World War II tend to focus on the history of civil-military decision-making and see the end goal of war as the defeat of the enemy. 

There are notable exceptions -- and some as old as Herodotus and Thucydides -- but far too often military history is decoupled from a detailed analysis of why wars occurred, from the analysis of grand strategic perceptions of the time, and from the political and grand strategic impact of military action. As Sir Basil Liddell Hart pointed out during World War II, "The discovery of uncomfortable facts has never been encouraged in armies, who treat the history as a sentimental treasure, rather than a field of scientific research."

I think this is a fairly accurate observation.  The basic job of a metanarrative is to determine which stories are regarded as of central importance and which are relegated to the margins.  That's why it can aptly be defined as "a narrative about narratives."  Cordesman argues that the dominant metanarrative of military history privileges stories that address "fighting and battles, human interactions of combat, and the paraphernalia of war."  The causes of war are dealt with in fairly summary form.  Detailed studies of why a given war began are more often done as political or diplomatic history than military history.  The end of a war gets dealt with in even more summary form.  The metanarrative requires the curtain to ring down at some definite point that gives maximum closure to the drama--which is why the surrender at Appomattox is synonymous with the end of the Civil War, even though a larger Confederate surrender occurred weeks later in North Carolina, the last military engagement took place about two months afterward, and the Andrew Johnson administration did not officially declare the rebellion at an end until the following year.

Moreover, as Cordesman notes in his speech, the Union victory did not result in peace, but rather in a low intensity conflict that continued until 1877.  He's a military analyst, not a historian of the Civil War era, and his portrayal is tinged at times by an outmoded interpretation of Reconstruction, but in the main he's correct.  Southern white conservatives used a combination of political, sociocultural, and paramilitary tactics--"by the ballot if we can, by the bullet if we must"-- to overthrow the postwar Republican state governments and restore home rule.  Last spring I gave a lecture in which I systematically compared the problems of establishing democracy in Iraq with that of establishing a biracial democracy in the Reconstruction South.  I was far from the only Civil War era historian to see the parallels.

But then we're professional historians (not to mention effete liberal eggheads).  In the mind of most Americans, the Civil War ends with a stacking of guns and a Grand Review and the restoration of lasting peace.  The metanarrative of military history demands that it be so.  And it's not just that the requirements of good drama demand it.  Arguably it's because because those in power need a metanarrative which confirms the belief that the use of lethal force solves problems, period, rather than the more accurate and far less satisfying view that the use of violence solves one problem at the cost of generating new ones.  The rock star Sting puts it this way in one of his songs: "Never saw no military solution / That didn't always end up as something worse."  That may be too despairing a view, but it's plainly a subversive sentiment, dangerous to those in power.  The metanarrative of military history functions, in part, to insure it never becomes a mainstream opinion.

Left:  The Grand Review, May 1865; right:  Pres. George W. Bush on board the USS Abraham Lincoln, May 2003

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