Interrogating the Project of Military History

January 14, 2004 - It's amazing how little time there is in 24 hours.  I feel as if I've scarcely had a moment to relax since my last entry, yet I have found barely a moment to read the stack of books and articles on postcolonialism that await me.  Instead I have been mainly engaged in three things:  embarking on an introductory course in Spanish (which for some reason I like much better than French); evaluating graduate applications; and delivering a paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington.  If you're interested, you'll find my paper here.  And for a Washington Post reporter's take on the conference theme--which focused on war and peace--look here.

I am not a big fan of conference papers.  They are generally read word-for-word, which strikes me as more than a little silly.  Some people do so out from fear of being intellectually skewered if they make a misstep.  Others, including me, do so from fear of breaking the usually tight delivery times--in the case of my session, twenty minutes each.  Since it takes about two minutes to read one typed, double-spaced page, you can see that it's hard to put out much information in the time available.  And when you read it, at a fairly rapid clip, instead of speaking conversationally as best suits a face-to-face setting, the result is seldom optimal.

I rarely attend sessions and at the recent AHA I went to exactly three, including my own.  Instead I met with editors.  I had appointments with four and must have talked to at least twice that many in all.  In part they wanted to discuss my work.  But mainly they wanted to discuss the direction of military history in general--both the direction in which I think it's going and the direction in which I think it ought to go.  Since what I told them generally reflects what I've been writing here, I won't rehash matters.  I will say, however, that while they all understood the attraction of military history in terms of the market for it, they equally believed that military history could profitably broaden its intellectual territory.  It's not a question of repudiating traditional subjects and approaches, but rather of expanding the repertoire to include nontraditional and emerging approaches, too.

The first session I attended was the Saturday presidential session (which AHA president James McPherson had asked me to organize). It dealt with "The Cultural Approach to War."  Don Kagan of Yale University presided, my colleague Joe Guilmartin gave the comment, and the three papers were delivered by Barry Strauss (Cornell University), Joanna Waley-Cohen (New York University) and John Lynn (University of Illinois). [John should be familiar to you from my first entry.]  It was a good panel.  They did an excellent job and I congratulated myself on having done such a good job of selecting them.  Of the three papers, however, I thought that John's paper on the reciprocal influence of what he termed the "discourse" on war and the reality of war was best suited for discussion, and in my opinion the audience never really came to grips with it.  Given the comparatively brief time available, perhaps that was to be expected, but I was still a bit disappointed.

The other session I attended, other than my own, was a Sunday session on the teaching of military history to undergraduates.  This proved very interesting, though I cannot say I heard much on the ostensible subject.  Instead it consisted mainly of some self-congratulatory remarks on the importance of military history and its popularity among students, coupled with the usual hand-wringing about how our colleagues in other fields fail to value us and give us jobs.  [Later (January 17): I have been asked to revisit this assessment, and I readily concede that this is a summary view of the overall impact of the session--papers and Q&A combined, but especially the Q&A.]  Interspersed with this, however, were some very interesting comments [in the papers] about the ways in which we inadvertently perpetuate an adversarial relationship by highlighting, for instance, the demand for our courses--which implies a swipe at the lack of demand for courses in other fields.  If we're popular, our colleagues are unpopular.  This is an insight from which I too could benefit.  For if I champion a particular vision of the field as the most promising for the future, and your work doesn't fit that vision, you are quite likely to see me in adversarial terms as well.  [For a synopsis of the papers given at the session, click here.]

One final remark and I'd better get on with my day.  This conference was packed with sessions dealing with issues of war and peace, but only about twenty percent or so fit within the traditional boundaries of military history.  Among most military historians I detected little interest in expanding those boundaries to include the subjects covered in those other sessions--in other words, to reach out to the obviously substantial group of historians with an interest in war broadly conceived.  A significant few, however, liked the idea of reframing the field in more expansively, whether in terms of "the history of war," "the history of armed coercion," or "the history of collective violence."  By the last day of the conference I had begun asking historians if they might be interested in forming a professional organization to draw into regular contact scholars involved with armed coercion or collective violence.  The response was positive, principally because like me, few could imagine the Society for Military History ever broadening itself to such a degree.  Now it becomes a matter of actually forming such an organization.

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