Interrogating the Project of Military History

January 21, 2004.  Today I sat in on a graduate readings course known around here as "History 768:  Studies in Military Thought."  It was like visiting an old friend.  I first took the course as an undergraduate, when it was taught by Wick Murray (at left, top).  In Wick's edition, the course consisted of five weeks on Thucydides--I kid you not--followed by five weeks on everyone else--Clausewitz, Mahan, Douhet, Liddell Hart, the usual suspects.  Later, as a grad student, I audited the edition taught by Allan Millett (at left, center).  (It rapidly became two editions:  the enrollment was so large that Allan voluntarily taught it as two sections, effectively doubling his investment of time.)  Then as now, Allan's version of 768 started with Machiavelli, not Thucydides.  It had a few other differences with the course as Wick taught it; e.g., consideration of Mao Zedong and Che Guevarra.  For that matter, our colleague Joe Guilmartin has his own take.  And come to think of it, so do I:  I finally taught the course myself last summer. (Here's the syllabus.)

Today Allan was again the prof at the head of the table.  The subject du jour was Karl von Clausewitz (the young guy at left, bottom).  Clausewitz is the Prussian military theorist whose unfinished magnum opus, On War, is widely admired as among the most perceptive discussions of the subject ever written.  It's an interesting question as to whether his work might be of use to a postcolonial military historian.  I've as yet no idea, since I've barely begun this  journey to discover what postcolonial military history might be like.  For all I know it might be an oxymoron.  Or maybe just plain moronic.  But I do know that around the table the sentiment, at least among those who voiced an opinion, was that Clausewitz's analysis was so robust as to be universal.  Thus, when I asked whether On War was applicable to non-state as well as state societies, everyone agreed that it was.  That went for every group from Al-Qaeda to the Yanomamo.  Why?  Because violent conflict always has a purpose, and that purpose can always be defined as "a continuation of policy by other means."

I didn't really buy that.  More precisely, I didn't think this was an insight that deepened our understanding of non-state conflict.  But I didn't argue because a) it was Allan's class, I didn't want to hijack it; and b) the question mattered far more than the answer.  As far as I'm concerned it remains an open question.  In any event the discussion moved on--centered thenceforth, quite quickly and perhaps tellingly, on modern nation-states.  I thought no more about it.  But late this evening, as I sat down to address the reading for Claire Robertson's colonialism course tomorrow, I saw that the first article was entitled, "'Aba Riots' or Igbo 'Women's War'?  Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women,"  by Judith Van Allen. [Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, eds., Women in Africa : Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 1976)].

It describes an episode in southern Nigeria in 1929.  Thousands of Igbo women converged on Native Administration centers (established by the British and run by Nigerian "Warrant Chiefs" appointed by the British).  They chanted, danced, sang songs of ridicule.  In sixteen instances they attacked Native Courts and in most cases destroyed them.  In a handful of instances they broke into prisons and released inmates.  The "disturbed area" covered 6,000 square miles and contained two million people.  The number of women involved was estimated in the tens of thousands.  The threat posed to British authority was serious enough that British District Officers called in troops to deal with it.  The troops fired upon the women, killed more than fifty, wounded about as many more.  Afterward the British called the episode the "Aba Riots."  Among the Igbo, however, the event was known, then and later, as the "Women's War," a name Van Allen invites us to take seriously.  I'm glad to do it, but would Clausewitz?  Does it fall within "war" as he would define it?  And if not, does that serve as confirmation that definitions of war are inherently politicized (as Van Allen argues), or does the term have some objective meaning?  Was the violence employed by the women "a continuation of politics by other means"?  How meaningful could a Clausewitzian analysis be in the context of a society in which, as one analyst explains, "the polity or political system [was] not . . . a concretely distinct part of the social system, but rather a functional aspect of the whole social system?"

As usual, I have time to raise the question but not answer it.  One of the frustrations of having a life beyond this blog.  I'll have more to say about the Women's War in a future entry.

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