Interrogating the Project of Military History

January 17, 2004.  I hope this blog is worth it, because it sure eats up a lot of time.

A couple of days ago I revealed the existence of the blog to my colleagues on H-War.  This quickly resulted in about a hundred hits, with another ten or fifteen hits on each day since.  Judging by my email, a few people have read a good chunk of it, but I wonder how many took a look at the images on the main page, or the question posed beneath the images, or the Spivak quote, and just . . . well, rolled their eyes.

Or worse, read a few entries and were turned off by the tone.  Those who have written me privately have been supportive, but in one case a correspondent had gained the impression that I was "increasingly disapproving and, perhaps dismissive, of many practicing military historians and their students."  Yikes!  As I explained in my reply, I mean for my tone to be challenging and engaged (as well as relaxed and occasionally humorous).  If it come off as disapproving or dismissive, then I need to work on that.  It's not as if it would be the first time I hit the wrong note in terms of tone.  On at least two occasions, readers who have assessed my manuscripts for presses have thought my style came off as "breezy."  (They were correct. I had to tame the writing.)  It's no stretch for me to imagine myself coming off as contemptuous or simply obnoxious.

To return to Claire Robertson's class on Thursday (see entry 7) . . .

Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place is a small book--just eight-one pages.  You can read it in one sitting, and since she writes so wonderfully well, you will probably do exactly that.  The book opens in the second-person:  Kincaid addressing the reader directly, a conceit she maintains throughout.  The notional reader is a white American or (worse) European or (worst of all) Briton, and Kincaid leaves you in no doubt that you suck.  You don't get it.  Notwithstanding the fact that you're reading her book.  Because if you got it you would neither be reading the book nor, in Kincaid's imagination, peering down with pleasure at the beauty of Antigua as your plane makes its approach into the main airport at St. John's, the capital.  You would be reflecting on the fact that "this empire business was all wrong" and would be "wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their [your forebears'] bad deeds [from which you still benefit, you bastard], for no disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did.  Actual death would have been better."

By contrast, the indigenous population of Antigua is pure and innocent.  Well, not exactly indigenous, the Siboney, Carib, and Arawak Indians having been long since wiped out and replaced by west African slaves, from whom most of the 68,000 citizens of Antigua & Barbuda are descended.  And not exactly pure, since Kincaid makes clear that the government is spectacularly corrupt.  But the Brits showed them how to do it, so the Brits are to blame.  And have I mentioned lately that you suck?

As the book progresses, the tone--that word again!--shifts somewhat.  It's as if Kincaid, hearing her jeremiad, begins to question one aspect of it, namely whether the Antiguans--even ordinary Antiguans--are really that pure and innocent.  She doesn't unbend about whites, though.  Or for that matter Arabs, for Arabs from Syria came to Antigua some years ago, made a killing, got hooked in with the government and enthusiastically nursed at the public teat.  (Antigua even maintains, at considerable expense, an ambassador to Syria, and you can easily guess why it does and who gets to draw the salary as ambassador.)

But at the end the tone becomes wistful and heartbreakingly sad.  Here is the conclusion:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island.  It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long.  It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493.  Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted, there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty--a European disease.  Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually the slaves were freed, in a kind of way.  The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, assuming you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves.  Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master's yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being and all the things that adds up to.  So too with the slaves.  Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

It takes Kincaid eighty-one pages to get to that point.  The average white person wants to be at that point on page one, if not the title page, if not the cover.  The average white person wants to object that he himself never held slaves or sat behind a desk in a colonial office, or shot any "wogs,"  so he is in no way responsible for the on-going pain and poverty in postcolonial societies.  And weren't the Japanese just as bad?  The Moguls?  The Aztecs?  The Africans themselves through their complicity in the slave trade?  Don't all human societies dominate other groups given the chance?  Well, yes.  But you have to ask yourself--or at least, I have to ask myself--whether questions like that open up terrain for exploration or foreclose further inquiry.

What does any of this have to do with military history?  It happens that Kincaid thinks that "race is a false idea. It's just an invention to enforce power. So I never talk about race. I talk about the inflammatory thing which is power."  She thus has something in common with military historians, who seldom talk about race but have as their core concern that inflammatory thing called power.  It's just that Kincaid hits it from an unusual angle of vision.  An angle in which Admiral Horatio Nelson, by preserving British command of the seas, makes it safe for British ships to carry British goods, British officials, British soldiers everywhere and thereby perpetuate the British colonial project.  Which makes him "a maritime criminal."

So that's one thing.  Another is  that it also happens that Jamaica Kincaid lives in Vermont with her husband and two children.  She wrote for The New Yorker until she had a falling-out with the editor. She taught for a while at Bennington College (she may yet be there, but I cannot verify that) and she has an adjunct appointment at Harvard University.  She writes and gives readings and is, for all the anger in her work, harmless.  Give her an AK-47, however, and she would look quite differently.  One might say that Jamaica Kincaid articulates with flowing prose what other postcolonial men and women articulate with streams of bullets and book bags filled with plastic explosives.  That makes her of interest to military historians.


From an interview with Jamaica Kincaid in Mother Jones magazine:

Q: You once gave a speech at a symposium on botanical gardens but talked about colonialism and peoples being forcibly transplanted to foreign soils, and the great cost that lies behind what most of us want to just see as beautiful...

A: Yes. They were shocked!

Q: Why this insistence on provocation and unpleasantries? On saying that a daffodil is not just a daffodil, for example, because of the way it was cultivated, who cultivated it, and who sweated over it?

A: I don't know how to say it without sounding pompous: Why this insistence on truth? Everything has all sorts of sides. The daffodil has this peculiar side to it. The garden has a peculiar side to it, a qualifying side. For instance, most of the nations that have serious gardening cultures also have, or had, empires. You can't have this luxury of pleasure without somebody paying for it. This is nice to know. It's nice to know that when you sit down to enjoy a plate of strawberries, somebody got paid very little so that you could have your strawberries. It doesn't mean the strawberries will taste different, but it's nice to enjoy things less than we do. We enjoy things far too much, and it leads to incredible pain and suffering.

Q: You have said that you will never forget "how my ancestors came from Africa to the West Indies as slaves. It's like a big wave that's still pulsing." Much of your writing springs from this heritage, yet, elsewhere, you almost heap scorn on those -- mostly African-Americans -- who define their identities by their blackness.

A: I hope I don't heap scorn on African-Americans for anything, but I do often find the conversation African-Americans have frustrating. I, for instance, wish that not one African-American had had anything to say about Mr. O. J. Simpson's guilt or innocence. I wish not one African-American felt that it was necessary to participate in some ridiculous, diverting spectacle called the Million Man March.

Do you know the journals of Lewis and Clark? Captain Lewis had what is described as a servant by the name of York. York was not a servant. York was a slave. But they can't face it, so York is called a servant. On this journey with Lewis and Clark, York is often used by the party to divert the Indians. York would dance and sing. The Indians would rub York's hair. That, for me, is the beginning of the stereotype of the African-American as the diversion.

The African-American is often used, and has conspired with the rest of America to be used, as a diversion from America's problems. I wish African-Americans would stop contributing to this sideshow. I also wish all African-Americans would cease to sing and dance just for a generation. I think we provide too much entertainment.

Q: What are we being diverted from?

A: Well, the fact that the schools are very, very bad, for example. Or that there is such a real thing as racialism. It's not about the specifics of whether O. J. killed his wife and her friend. There is such a thing as racialism, and one would just like to face up to that and move on. I also think people like Jesse Jackson do not help matters. I mean, "I am somebody"? My God, of course you are! Nobody needs to claim anything. This just drives me insane. How can you claim to be somebody? A human being is a human being. What frustrates me is to see African-Americans behave as though what European-Americans say is worthwhile. It simply isn't. It's just some silly people who can make laws and have the power to enforce them. I'm often amazed at the conversations black people have about themselves. They ought to be having these conversations about white people. It's white people who are flawed and at fault.

Q: You dedicate My Brother [a memoir published in 1998] to Ian "Sandy" Frazier, your former colleague at the New Yorker. You've also dedicated a book to your friend George Trow. It's nice to know you have friendships with these two white men, who have supported you personally and professionally, since most of your work is about the oppressive relationship between men and women and between the powerful and the powerless.

A: Oh, gosh, yes! You can make these broad generalizations creatively, and then you have your own life. The strange thing about my life is that I came to America at about the time when racial attitudes were changing. This was a big help to me. Also, the people who were most cruel to me when I first came to America were black Americans. They made absolute fun of the way I talked, the way I dressed. I couldn't dance. The people who were most kind and loving to me were white people. So what can one make of that? Perhaps it was a coincidence that all the people who found me strange were black and all the people who didn't were white.

The other strange thing is that, whatever I say in my writing, in my personal life I'm really incredibly lucky. I suppose that's what gives me the freedom to express negatives.


Jamaica Kincaid on the Web

Jamaica Kincaid (Emory University)
Jamaica Kincaid (Postcolonial Web)
Jamaica Kincaid Interview (Salon Magazine)
Jamaica Kincaid (New York State Writers Inst.)
Voices from the Gaps (Univ. of Minnesota)

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