Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Rebel Jesus

An irony of this blog is that its inspiration came from my encounter with a gifted scholar who implicitly viewed military history as the servant of an oppressive political order, that it has explored most closely such things as the potential for a postcolonial or antiwar approach to the subject, but that its first year ends with a decision to engage with what has been considered (though Tom Barnett would contest the characterization) a neoconservative vision of U.S. national security policy.

I have wondered for several weeks now what Michael Hames-Garcia (the "Marco" of my first entry) would make of this blog if he were to read it. I suppose I could ask him, though the request would make an enormous demand on his time. I would imagine that, however useful the journey has been to me, from his perspective I haven't gotten that far--that I've barely scraped the surface of postcolonialism, for instance--and that, whatever my good intentions, I really just don't get it. But on second thought that's probably just projection. From my (admittedly quite limited) acquaintance with Michael, I had the impression that he had a gentle soul and a generous spirit.

I guess my basic conclusion so far is that the field of military history is too closely and--worse--unreflectively connected to the elites who create, sustain, defend, and benefit from a political system based on domination through the threat, veiled or blatant, of violence. I think it tends to follow an agenda congenial to that elite, to ask the questions that this elite would ask, to limit the realm of potential answers to those acceptable to this elite, and, most importantly, to block from consideration questions that would threaten this elite.

Individual military historians are entitled to follow their own interests and incorporate their own political viewpoints. But I can think of no intellectual reason for military history, as a field of inquiry, not to turn the status quo on its head and identify with the dominated, not the dominators. Or better, to take a step back and examine issues of war and peace from both perspectives. Or better yet, to step back far enough to question the morality and efficacy of solving human problems by killing human beings.

One of the beauties of scholarship is that it's a collaborative enterprise: a community of those dedicated to the life of the mind. Members of that community should listen to the voices of everyone in it but nobody can adopt all the potential postures and points of view at once. I'm trying to expand my ability to listen, yet I know that at the end of the day, temperament if nothing else will draw me back to what for me is an instinctive itch to build bridges of communication between people who don't usually talk to one another. Among other things, that means I'll probably never adopt an antiwar perspective so strongly as to reject engagement with the strategic policy-making community.

All the same, the older I get, the more I question the things I was raised to believe, especially the idea that war is legitimate, but also the idea that the United States is all about truth, justice, and a square deal for everybody. The United States is, like any other society, a community of flawed human beings. Its government, like every other government, tends in aggregate to manifest a lower degree of morality than its component individuals. I'm firmly with the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on that one. Somebody once asked him about the title of his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr replied that, strictly speaking, it should have been Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society.

Of course, as soon as I say that I'm reminded that you can't breathe a word of criticism, in some quarters, about our policies and their effects without being told that you don't love your country and you must be one of the "blame America first" crowd. Too many Americans on the left and on the right have raised to an art form the instant putdown and the ad hominem attack. I'm too much of an historian to believe that things used to be better--after all, I cut my teeth on the Civil War. All the same, the quality of public discourse could stand much improvement.

I'm heartily tired of the Jane-you-ignorant-slut, you-shot-my-dog, you-fucked-my-wife tone of what passes for political discussion in most TV and radio talk shows and most books and articles dealing with current affairs. I can't decide which I hate the worst: people who talk that way because they mean it or people who talk that way as a kind of performance art. The other day I stumbled across a FOX News round table discussion--it may have been "Hannity & Colmes", because I remember seeing Colmes--in which the participants were batting around the recent Mosul attack as if it were a beach ball. I'm serious. They were smiling and having a gay old time.

And there were good men dead.

And millions of lives in the balance.

And we're getting to the point--hell, we're well past it--where we think that kind of gabfest is okay.

I'm not sure that I'll get a chance to post another entry before the holiday, so I'll take this chance to wish everyone a merry Christmas (or to hope that you have/had a happy Hannukah, joyful Kwanza, contemplative Ramadan, or dysfunctional Festivus).

I leave you with the lyrics of a song that seems appropriate to both the season and this entry. They're by Jackson Browne.
Original recording from the Chieftain's album The Bells Of Dublin

The streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants' windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

They call him by the "Prince of Peace"
And they call him by "The Saviour"
And they pray to him upon the sea
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

(c) 1991 BMG MUSIC


Stephen M. St. Onge said...

      Personally, I can't see any reason for a military historian to identify with anyone, as a matter of policy.

      I take the view that history is interesting in and of itself, and that military history is just another part of history.  The goals of military history should therefore be:

      1) Find out what happened.

      2) Explain why.

      I don't see how sympathizing with either side advances that project.

      Of course, there probably will be times when I sympathize with one side or the other, but that has nothing to do with historical research.  To use what may be the paradigm example, understanding how and why Nazi Germany succeeded so well at first in WWII, and ultimately failed, does not require me to sympathize with either side, though I am in fact on the side of the U.S.

      Over here, you say:

      "If one's research focuses on counterinsurgency, that's military history.  If insurgents--unless with an eye to "learning lessons" that can be applied to counterinsurgency--then apparently it isn't."

      That looks like the correct dividing line to me.  Studies of the English Colonial people who became the USAmerican people, say 1756-1783, are cultural history, or political history, or both, but not military history per se (although miltary history would help inform the studies, because of the various wars of the period).

      In short (*HAH!* the readers mutter, That windbag is never short.), if you think postcolonialism or postmodernism is a good tool for creating better military history, go ahead and use them, and we'll judge the results.  We can also judge the results of history written from a colonialist perspective.  But history itself isn't on anyone's side.  It just is.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, lovely piece.