井底之蛙

2/14/2006

Pruning hooks into spears

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:46 am

K.C. Johnson calls our attention to a post by which discusses the state of military history. K.C. is mostly interested in getting military historians the representation they deserve in the academy. He links to Tom Bruscino at Big Tent who is more interested in making military historians a bit less defensive about what they do.

As luck would have it, my copy of JAS has arrived, and in it is Mary Elizabeth Berry’s Presidential Address to the Association of Asian Studies “Samurai Trouble: Thoughts on War and Loyalty.” Presidential addresses are often things best listened to over drinks, and in most cases probably don’t need to be printed. Usually they are think pieces which are sometimes quite good, but often are both not very revealing to those who know the President’s work and opaque to those in another field (a real problem in the Association for Asian Studies, a “big yurt” sort of organization.)

Berry sidesteps this problem by building her talk around teaching. This was a good thing in a number of ways. One, I liked it, because an article on how Berry teaches the sengoku period is of course, worth reading. It also sort of immunizes her from attack and frees her up to take intellectual risks. In a presentation like that, or on a weblog, there is a certain tendency for historians to be timid. Don’t speculate, someone will jump on you.1 If you are just talking about teaching you can get away with more by saying its only for undergrads. The most important thing, however, is that it lets her give a fairly basic lecture to her colleagues without directly talking down to them.

One of her points is that military history is worth studying and that war is not just something to be skipped over. While I agree with that I also find it rather stunning that a scholar who published a book on Hideyoshi in 1989 in would be saying that in 2005. She gives a footnote to Geoffrey Parker whom she thanks for his “generosity in response to my many fumbling queries about his field.” To some extent this is just typical academic politeness, but I found it odd that she would call it “his field” and that the whole piece has the tone of someone discovering a set of ideas for the first time. Maybe this is just a ploy to help convince a probably skeptical audience, but it does not really feel like it. While I think what she is doing is admirable and interesting, I’m also a bit bothered that it has taken so long. As Bruscino points out “Is there a historiography on women’s history that goes beyond burning bras?” is not a question one would expect to hear among historians of any sort, and one would certainly not get points for open-mindedness for asking it.

A more substantive point of the Berry piece is that there is a complex relationship between the experience of war and the way it is remembered and re-made. Almost all of the lessons about loyalty and duty and such do not grow directly out of the experience of battle in sengoku but rather out of stuff like The Book of Five Rings and later movies. It is not just modern (P.C., liberal academic, etc.) scholars who try to obscure what war is. Berry was struck by the fact that while West Point takes its ethical responsibilities very seriously, a search of its web page for the words “kill” and “killing” yields mostly references to the volleyball team. It’s a good article and worth reading.

1 In the printed version she deals with some of the objections that were brought to her attention immediately after the original talk. It doesn’t take long.

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