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.

5 responses to “Pruning hooks into spears”

  1. It helps that Berry specializes in a period of intense military and organizational (changes in military technology, like almost all technological innovations, require new forms of social organization to integrate and exploit) change, where the dividing line between military and civilian is functionally non-existent. Most of what I know about military history comes from looking at similar turning points — my interest in the connection between military necessity, technological innovation and social organization (if it were a focus of my research) would probably get me excluded from the category of “military historian” under Bruscino’s definition — and most of the time, at a world historical level, conflicts are resolved mostly by superior technology and economic resources rather than by tactics, strategy or other battlefield issues so dear, apparently, to his heart.

    The analogy that he uses — gender history beyond bra burning — isn’t anywhere near as brilliant as he thinks, either: there’s lots of historians and other scholars out there, particularly but not exclusively conservatives, who think that modern gender studies is just subtler forms of bra burning. And, let’s face it, Western historians are at least as uninformed (I would say that it’s worse, frankly, and Berry has talked about this, too) about Asian history and historiography — which mostly stops with Reischauer for them — as most social historians are about military history.

    Now I have a reason to look forward to the JAS arriving! Thanks.

  2. Alan Baumler says:

    I donno, I thought it was a pretty good line. Yes, there are lots scholars who will make fun of women’s history or Asian history, or at least not take them seriously. I would argue, however, that those types of people would not be taken seriously by the Great and the Good of the profession. Military history really is different.

  3. Tom B. says:

    Thanks Alan, that was my point.

    Jonathan writes: “Most of what I know about military history comes from looking at similar turning points — my interest in the connection between military necessity, technological innovation and social organization (if it were a focus of my research) would probably get me excluded from the category of “military historian” under Bruscino’s definition — and most of the time, at a world historical level, conflicts are resolved mostly by superior technology and economic resources rather than by tactics, strategy or other battlefield issues so dear, apparently, to his heart.”

    Two points: First, if you did research and write on “the connection between military necessity, technological innovation and social organization” then you would be a military historian, much like I.B. Holley, David E. Johnson, and Timothy Moy I never even hinted otherwise.

    Second, most world military historians (Jeremy Black, John Lynn, John Ferris, Christon Archer, etc.) would reject the techonological determinism of the statement “most of the time, at a world historical level, conflicts are resolved mostly by superior technology and economic resources rather than by tactics, strategy or other battlefield issues….” (I wonder what Mao would think.) As far as those topics being dear to my heart, well, I have no problem with tactics, strategy, or other battlefield issues, but my major research has been on a social history of the World War II U.S. military as the driving force for widespread tolerance among white ethnic and religious groups in the United States.

  4. Alan Baumler says:

    Dear Tom,

    Thanks for stopping by. I think that Jonathan is right and that to some extent every subfield can claim that they deserve more respect/lines/money and probably all of them are right. The thing that makes the military history thing odd to me is that I can’t figure out why it don’t get no resepect.

    -I agree with you that it is not for a lack of bridge-building.
    -It is certainly not that military historians can’t fill their classes. Could part of it be that the students who are most attracted to military history are less likely to be interested in other forms of history. I like for my colleagues to attract good students, because they may take my classes as well. I have not really thought about it, but the military history types seem statistically less likely to be interested other things than the Japan types, the labor historians, and the women’s historians. (Three types we get here.)
    -Is the field too internally cliquish? I remember one person I know become rather unhappy that after she published on women’s history some people assumed she no longer did social history, and that if she went back to social history she was abandoning women’s history. I think those people were silly, but it was seen as a pretty clear line, and it strikes me as harder to pass yourself of as a military/social historian than as an intellectual/social historian.
    These are just some random ideas, I assume you have thought a lot more about this.

    Another sort of question is what you think “enough” would be. You may have followed K.C. Johnson’s posts on the decline of political history on Cliopatria, and also seen what troubled me about his position, which was that, as Tim Burke pointed out several times, K.C. was never willing to say what enough was or why it would be good. I assume that nobody wants to go back to the old days when Western political and military history were all that existed, but what do or should we want?

  5. Tom B. says:

    Interesting questions–obviously I do not have any definitive answers, but let me take a stab.

    -“Could part of it be that the students who are most attracted to military history are less likely to be interested in other forms of history?” There probably is some truth to this, but it only goes so far. Most military history courses I have seen spend a lot more time on issues outside of the battlefield than most people would expect. Much like other fields of history, the non-battle narrative is interesting and challenging stuff. In effect, the battles are the hook that get the students in the class, and once they are there, many of them become interested in the other issues. Even if the percentage of such students is relatively low, military history classes draw so many students that it is still a pretty good number. It is shortsighted for history departments with the means not to use this recruiting tool.

    -“Is the field too internally cliquish?” “…it strikes me as harder to pass yourself of as a military/social historian than as an intellectual/social historian.” In the non-academic military history crowd there is some truth to this statement. Within the academy, the answer is “no.” The best examples of this are now-retired Wisconsin professor Edward Coffman and his students. Coffman’s major work was a social history of the U.S. Army in peacetime that covered topics like life for women and children on frontier posts. His students, including my major field adviser, wrote on African-Americans in the military, ethnic groups in the military, intellectual culture in the Army, and so on. They are all well-respected in the field of military history. And there are plenty of other examples. (When Coffman retired, the University of Wisconsin did not replace him with a military historian.)

    -“Another sort of question is what you think “enough” would be.” This is a tougher question given the forum, but let me be honest. I think it is fair to say that most American colleges and universities should and do focus on U.S. history first. For major research universities, that means that they have a whole list of specialists in various aspects of American history. Every major American research university should have a U.S. military and/or diplomatic historian.

    Most major universities try to cover as much of the spectrum of world history as possible, and most have areas of the world they decide to focus on. If a history department chooses to focus on Europe and hires multiple Europeanists, I think it would be a good idea to have a diplomatic/military historian among them. It seems to me that the question is tougher for non-Western fields in American universities because there aren’t as many people working in those fields. Limited resources mean that only the very best one or two programs in East Asian history could afford to go after specialists in different subfields of East Asian history, and in that case I think a military historian would be beneficial. Don’t get me wrong, the rest would do well to have their one East Asianist be a military historian (at Ohio University I took a field with Don Jordan, who is pretty much a military historian of 1920s-1930s China), but that should not be a condition for employment unless the department has chosen to focus on military history.

    The same goes for small schools and smaller departments. Again, the focus will most likely be on the U.S. first (which might mean two Americanists), but those who get such jobs have to be jacks of all trades. I think military historians are well-suited to that task, so a lot of smaller schools would benefit from hiring a military historian, but, again, that should in no way be a condition for employment.

    -The point is that being a military historian should not preclude an individual from getting a job, which is too often the case. The question, still out there, is why. Mark Grimsley came up with as good an answer as I’ve seen a while back on his blog. I think many if not most historians would be fine with having a qualified military historian in their department. But there are just enough folks out there who are hostile to the field that they tip the scales. Because the folks who are hostile, for whatever reason, are usually very hostile, and even if the hostile individual is not on the hiring committee, everyone knows that they will have to face that individual at some point. Rather than deal with the drama, and looking at hundreds of applications and dozens of qualified applicants, the hiring committee chooses finalists who may not be quite as good as the military historian but can still do the job. And here we are.

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