Monday, December 06, 2004

Periodizing the History of War

I circulated the last entry to my colleagues. Geoffrey responded:
Thanks, Mark, for laying this out so clearly, and to Joe for sharing his concerns. I agree that "European warfare" is VERY restrictive and makes it hard to accomplish Mark's goal of globalization. I see two possible alternatives:

1. Leave the title alone and fudge. (Been there, done that.)
2. Submit a title and course outline change. It must *include* Europe -- I don't see a way of supporting, justifying or staffing an *additional* course on global history as well as American and European -- but its title could be amend to something like "The Western way of war and its enemies", which would leave each instructor free to weight the Western/non-Western components according to his/her choice. It would also encourage a debate on the Hanson theory -- and its enemies!

Whether or not we do that, I think we must face the fact that (as Mark says) each year that passes increases the periods a course on "since XXXX" must cover. I like his case for a THREE quarter sequence in "West & the Rest" military history: one to circa 1450 (pre-colonies AND pre-decisive artillery); a second from then until circa 1830 (or if necessary 1850: pre-rapid colonization and pre-industrialization of war); a third "Since XXXX".
On the first big point, I like very much the idea of writing a course description that gives instructors the flexibility to approach the survey according to their own gifts and sense of what really matters. On the second, all I did was suggest a three-quarter sequence. The periodization Geoffrey outlines is Geoffrey's. But it raises some interesting questions.

Figuring out the time limits for any historical subject is always more subtle and complex than it would at first glance appear. Geoffrey's suggested periodization, for instance, would sharply reduce the scope for coverage of the two world wars. This would be a defensible but major change in the way military historians traditionally approach those subjects. The upside is that it would force us to take a longer view of both conflicts. Locating them between the wars of imperialism and the wars of decolonization would almost certainly suggest a different set of concerns and emphases than those we currently select. The downside is twofold. Intellectually, one wonders whether the presentation of the two world wars might become too abstract or idiosyncratic. Pragmatically, one would have to revise one's existing lectures on the wars so extensively that you might as well as do them de novo.

Geoffrey's suggestion also implicitly questions the tendency for surveys to look at the past through reverse binoculars. That is to say, historical eras closest to us are usually treated in far more detail than those which are more remote. For instance, the current 580 sequence allocates just 74 years to the second half, while the first half is expected to cover nearly 400 years. It's much the same in 582 (American military history): the first half covers about three centuries, the second half less than a third of that. History surveys in other fields follow the same pattern. The underlying assumption, of course, is that students need a more detailed understanding of the recent past. Like most assumptions, it's open to question, but I seriously doubt most historians would reject it.

I think that in the short run we may as well keep the temporal parameters of the 580 sequence pretty well in place, especially if we want parameters that would permit an instructor to select either a European or a global focus. If excising the word "European" from the course title is necesary to create room for the latter focus, retaining the current time limits is arguably best to allow the former focus to be handled coherently. As for a third, post-1945 course: we used to have such a course under the auspices of the now-defunct subject of National Security Policy Studies (NSPS was created back in the days when the Mershon Center involved itself with formal coursework). We could resurrect it as a History 594, Topics in History--a catch-all devised to allow instructors to experiment with a new course before putting it permanently on the books.

All that said, I think I'll pursue Geoffrey's parting suggestion: "Since John Lynn [of the University of Illinois] has experience of both the subject and of this department, why don't we ask his opinion?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you think that there might be something structurally wrong - actually I don't think "wrong" is really a fair way of phrasing it, but still - in organising your courses in terms of a chronological progression? I merely ask because my experience of being taught on military topics has been thematic rather than specifically a chronological history. This doesn't mean that the courses have not run in a largely historical progression - nor that they have not still been somewhat Eurocentric! - but it might allow a greater degree of flexibility. Could you, for example, look at the equivalent of the Experience of War and the Conduct of War, rather than "Military History from X-Y"? It seems to me that that does offer a degree of flexibility in terms of looking at non-European conflicts. An Experience of War course positively screams for non-Western angles to be brought into the discussion and for different attitudes and value systems to be compared and contrasted.

I don't know whether I'm making any sense here or not. Just a thought really, very much off the top of my head and not particularly well thought through.
Plus of course it has to be said that if you are running a specific military history programme there is a danger of it straying into the territory of "war and society" rather than mil hist. As Ohio State is very proud of its record on academic history, I suppose coming at it from a War Studies approach is probably not very attractive.