Interrogating the Project of Military History

November 10 - The conference on the History of War in Global Perspective begins in two days, with an informal reception at a local pub tomorrow evening.  At last count it looks as if we'll have eleven panelists and forty participants, which is just about exactly the size I hoped for.  The sessions will be videotaped, the tape converted to streaming video, then placed on the conference web site.

The list of panelists, incidentally, includes Prof. David Graff of Kansas State University (see entry 54).  He returned from a research trip to China just in time to accept my invitation to come join the conference.

As the faculty member responsible for organizing the conference, I'll be plenty busy over the next three days, which at this moment makes me wish I had not assigned myself the duty of kicking off the first session with twenty minutes of remarks, even informal ones.  On the other hand, it does give me the chance to set aside logistical matters for the moment and focus once again on the event's intellectual raison d'etre.

Although the conference as a whole deals with shifting the master narrative/metanarrative of military history from a European to a global perspective, I decided long ago that our initial session ought to reflect on the existing European narrative.  My job, then, is to set up that discussion.  And what better way to rough out my remarks than to blog about them? 

 The European narrative has its strengths as well as its limitations, and the strengths deserve consideration.  They are well-expressed in the preface and introduction to the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, a splendid volume edited by my colleague Geoffrey Parker.  The title notwithstanding, it very much emphasizes the western military experience, as the subtitle--The Triumph of the West--makes clear.  In the preface, Geoffrey explains his reasons for such a focus:

We are fully aware that our approach, from the subtitle onwards, lays itself open to the charge of Eurocentrism, but we offer three defences.  First, it would be impossible to provide adequate coverage in a single volume of the military history of all major cultures (some of them, like the Chinese way of war, stretching back even further than that of Europe.)  Second, merely to pay lip-service to the military and naval traditions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, while devoting the lion's share of attention to the West, would be unpardonable distortion.  Finally, as explained in the Introduction, for good or ill the past two centuries the western way of war has become dominant all over the world.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries remarkably few states and cultures managed to resist western arms for long--and the few that did so usually succeeded by imitation or adaptation.  The rise and development of this dominant tradition, together with the secret of its success, therefore seems worthy of examination and analysis.

In the introduction, Geoffrey goes on to suggest that the western way of war has five distinctive characteristics.  First, western armed forces have always relied heavily upon superior technology, usually to compensate for numerical inferiority.  (In the instances where they did not possess superior technology, they were quick to learn from those who did.) Second, "Western military practice has always exalted discipline--rather than kinship, religion or patriotism--as the primary instrument that turns bands of men fighting as individuals into soldiers fighting as organized units."  Third, Geoffrey maintains, "the western tradition has shown a remarkable continuity of military theory," from Vegetius to Clausewitz.

These first three characteristics--"the triad of technology, discipline, and an aggressive military tradition"--are perhaps shared with other military cultures; e.g., China.  But the fourth and fifth characteristics of the western tradition are unique:  "the . . . ability to change as well as to conserve military practices as need arose;" and "the power to finance those changes."  These Geoffrey collectively terms "the challenge-and-response dynamic."

In essence, then, the European metanarrative is the story of a single military culture.  That gives it a great deal of coherence, a coherence that may be difficult if not impossible to match in a global metanarrative.  But that's only part of the European metanarrative's appeal.  The other part--really the more important part--is that by the twentieth century the European metanarrative is also  the global metanarrative, because every non-European power that wished to remain a power had to import the western way of war.  Moreover, long before that, the western way of war had fundamentally established European military and economic mastery over large swaths of the earth:

By 1800 western states controlled some 35 per cent of the world's land surface; by 1914 they had increased this total to almost 85 per cent--acquiring 10 million square miles between 1878 and 1914 alone.  Even in the 1990s, although the area under their direct control has shrunk dramatically, the ability of western armed forces to intervene directly and decisively by land and sea more or less wherever they choose serves to safeguard the economic interests of its component states and to perpetuate a favourable balance of global power.  The military abilities that preserved the West at Salamis (480 BC) and Lechfeld (AD 955), and expanded its dominance at Tenochtitlan (1519-21) and Plassey (1757), for better or worse still sustain its preponderant role in the world today.  The rise of the West is inconceivable without them.

All in all, I think Geoffrey supplies a very good overview of the substance of the European metanarrative and makes a very good case for its significance.  It's worth noting, however, that this metanarrative is not just Eurocentric; it is teleological.  Because we know how the story turns out--or think we do--we emphasize those elements that seem central to the story.  If the story is the triumph of the west, the western emphasis is obvious.

Supposing, however, that the triumph of the west is a temporary aberration?  In ReOrient:  Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998), Andre Gunder Frank makes this case explicitly.  He sees Asia, especially China, as the hub of the world economy as late as 1800.  European states, in effect, used their military prowess to acquire the silver-rich colonies of the Americas, whose precious metals in turn bought entry into an expanding Asian market that already flourished in the global economy. Resorting to import substitution and export promotion in the world market, they became Newly Industrializing Economies and tipped the global economic balance to the West. That, Frank concludes, is exactly what East Asia is doing today.  As a result, the "center" of the world economy is once again shifting back to China.  If Frank is correct, the European metanarrative has the end of the story all wrong.

But one does not have to embrace this thesis to recognize, prosaically, that just as it makes sense to examine the histories of China, Latin America, or sub-Saharan Africa for their own sakes, so too it makes sense to study the military experiences of these regions for their own intrinsic worth--to do "military history as a part of general history," to quote the title of a 1990 conference at Princeton University.  And to place these experiences in conversation with one another, it makes sense to create a metanarrative that facilitates comparative work of the sort done by panelist Stephen Morillo in "Guns and Government:  A Comparative Study of Europe and Japan."

Even so, to my mind the principal limitation of the European metanarrative lies elsewhere.  It was suggested to me by an email that Geoffrey sent me yesterday which alluded to the current battle in Fallujah.

Well, what can the European metanarrative tell us about that?

In one sense, quite a lot.  I doubt that anyone questions whether the U.S. forces engaged--superbly-equipped, well-disciplined, officered by the products of command and general staff colleges, flexible and quick to adapt, and backed by all the financial muscle that a deficit-spending superpower can wield--will swiftly recapture the city of Fallujah from the insurgents that have made it their haven since early spring.  But plenty of people question whether this inevitable tactical victory will blossom into strategic success.  If only the insurgents had read The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare and understood the hopelessness of their plight!  In a real sense, however, it may be said that the insurgents do possess at least an intuitive grasp of the western way of war and have a crafted a method of war designed to avoid or circumvent its strengths. 

I've been throwing around the term metanarrative for several paragraphs now.  Before continuing, it may perhaps be worthwhile to remind the reader that a metanarrative is essentially "a narrative about narratives."  It's a big story that determines which smaller stories are of central and which are of peripheral importance.

A key limitation of the European metanarrative is not merely that it privileges one military culture above all others, but that it comprehends the world largely in terms of nation-states, and emphasizes the conflicts between nation-states and the armed forces employed by nation-states.  Stories involving nation-states and regular armed forces are the core; other stories are ignored, relegated to the margins, or even defined as something other than war stories, no matter how blood-soaked their pages may be.  This metanarrative notably slights non-state actors.  The very terminology I just used--"insurgents"--derives from this metanarrative.  An insurgent, we are told, is "a person who takes part in an armed rebellion against the constituted authority."  Yet who gets to say what is the constitituted authority?  Usually it's the very authority under attack--the authority whom the insurgent refuses to recognize.

We probably need a vocabulary that can describe this type of combatant in less politicized terms.  But at a more basic level, we need to create a metanarrative capable of giving this type of combatant as central a place as the soldier who serves a nation-state; or to put it differently, a metanarrative that manifests as much curiosity about this type of combatant.  We also need a metanarrative able to examine this type of combatant on his (or her) own terms, rather than through the lens of "counterinsurgency."

Similarly, we do not have a metanarrative that knows what to do with what political scientist John Mueller has termed "criminal war."  Most current warfare, he argues, is opportunistic predation waged by packs—often remarkably small ones—of criminals and bullies.  The ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia fit this description, as does the on-going civil war in the Sudan.  This "criminal warfare" also has a history, as does what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm calls "social banditry."  Why does this matter?  It matters because if you think about how people have experienced collective violence down the centuries, a large percentage of that experience--and therefore the history of that experience--has been made up of  insurgencies, criminal wars, and social banditry.

Moreover, it's important to note that the European metanarrative focuses our attention on elites--if not the statesmen, generals, and admirals that directed the western military juggernaut then the common soldiers who nevertheless belonged to the dominant states.  As I said in a previous entry, it is not really much of a stretch to think of the European metanarrative as the history of white people at war.  Very often, military historians look over the shoulders of the dominators, not the dominated.  Yet if the history of the oppressor and the oppressed, the colonizer and the colonized, is a history of violence--and it invariably is--I can think of no intellectual reason for the historians of that violence to adopt the perspective of one side and not the other.  By this, I'm suggesting the possibility of what I have elsewhere described, tentatively and no doubt clumsily, as "postcolonial military history."  Gautam Bhadra's "Four Rebels of Eighteen Fifty-Seven", an essay suggested for the conference by panelist Pradeep Barua, is a good example of what postcolonial military history might look like.

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