Interrogating the Project of Military History

November 18 - I used a couple of blog entries as the basis for the informal remarks with which I opened Session I of the conference.  The lion's share came from Entry 59.  Since so much of it played off the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, edited by Geoffrey Parker, I sent Geoffrey a link to the entry and asked for his feedback.  I got it the next day, about halfway through the session, when by prearrangement I invited Geoffrey to set aside his role as moderator and enter the conversation.  Here it is:

Mark Grimsley makes two very important points, and it says a lot about his collegiality that he shared them with me in advance.  It says a lot about mine that he has no idea what I'm about to say now.

In defense of teleology

Just suppose the triumph of the West is an aberration, and "the center of the world economy once again shifts back to China."  So then "the European metanarrative has it all wrong."  So what then?

Will it still be true, as J. P. Coen wrote in 1614, that "there is no profit without power, and no power without profit?"  And if it is, will history not have to construct a new metanarrative explaining the hidden and deceptive weaknesses of the Chinese way of war?

And then, since I feel the counterfactual adrenalin flowing, just suppose that in a couple more centuries, spaceships arrive from Mars filled with youthful, talented, and ruthless men and women (perhaps suffering from a strange neurological disease), and that they displace the Chinese at the center of the world economy?  Would that mean that the new Chinese metanarrative also has "the end of the story all wrong"?

By Mark's logic, yes, it would.  But I have to ask:  "So what?"  The arrival of the youthful, talented, ruthless, and neurologically challenged Martians does not invalidate the metanarrative; explaining how Chinese world hegemony rose, and the role of force and military  advantage in that rise, are still legitimate questions.

Just so with the "Triumph of the West."   Its global mastery, based in part on the superiority of the western way of war, may be temporary, and it may be under challenge, but it has been a fact for over half a century, and is, moreover, a unique fact:  no other military style before has enjoyed global mastery.  If the West loses it, the successor--whether Chinese or Martian--will be the second, able to build on the global system created by the West.  How that happened, whatever the ultimate outcome, seems to me a subject worthy of study.

The remnants of war

Here I think Mark is absolutely right.  The teleological approach privileges the victors.  Why "we" won, not why "they" lost--especially when "they" are "irregular" forces.  Again, as Mark says, terminology is important:  "insurgents," "terrorists," "irregulars."  (And I admit that sales of the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare in Fallujah have been, frankly, disappointing.)

In the century in which I normally live--the 17th--my colleague Stephen Dale has drawn attention to the desperate and resourceful enemies of the Portuguese in India, "criminal gangs" known in all western sources as "the Malabar pirates."  Some pirates:  They waged war on the West for three centuries.  In 1735 they captured an East Indiaman, a "Blackhawk Down" moment that enraged and appalled Western opinion but proved a powerful recruiting tool for the "pirates."

But in the Islamic sources these same warriors are Mujahideen--an Arabic word that means "those who struggle."  In their chronicles, the "pirates" fight against cruel and ruthless invaders, who loot and destroy the property and end the lives of people who have done nothing to harm them.  In the south Indian sources, the Malabar freedom fighters are not the criminal gangs portrayed by Western sources; the Europeans are.

Returning to the 20th century, I am not familiar with those involved in the ethnic wars of Yugoslavia studied by John Mueller because I do not read Serbo-Croat or Shqip (the language of Albanians).  But I am familiar with the languages in Northern Ireland, where a 30-year civil war has cast a shadow over much of my adult life.  Now John Mueller claims that "Europe has now spent longer at peace than at any time since Rome."  His assessment will be met with disbelief by anyone living in Britain; in Spain, where ETA's [Euskadi ta Askatasuna—Basque Homeland and Freedom]  war against the central government is, I fear, in only temporary abeyance following the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid; and in the Balkans (surely part of Europe).  The more than thirty years of sectarian violence in the UK--the "Troubles"--cost thousands of lives and have maimed or impoverished tens of thousands.  To deny that this is a war, because so few people have died in it,  makes no sense to me.  You could say, correctly, that more people died in road accidents in the UK in the past 30 years than in the Troubles (the same, incidentally, may be said of Israel).  But influenza killed more people in 1919 than died in the First World War, yet I have never heard anyone claim that the conflict of 1914-1918 was not a war.

For me, it's not the body count that makes a war.  Nor is it the number of perpetrators.  After all, on September 11 just nineteen men killed well over 3,000 of those they perceived as their enemies. Yet again, no one I think would deny that those attacks were an act of war.  So I entirely agree with Mark that the Western metanarrative needs to include far more on the vanquished--on why the enemies of the West lost.  I also agree that this oversight marks a major defect in all existing accounts, Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare included.  And therefore I urge all of you to get out the non-western sources, as Pradeep Barua and others have done, to provide this important extra dimension.  Only then will we have symmetrical military history:  history that reflects the experience of "both sides."  It won't alter the teleology--the West is still going to "triumph" by the end of the 20th century--but, studied that way, we will understand two things better:  1) exactly how it happened; and 2) why its continuance cannot be taken for granted.  That's how I think we should study the "History of War in Global Perspective."  Learn the languages, write the books.  You've tackled a bit of French, German and most recently Spanish, Mark.  On to Sanskrit and Mandarin!

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