War Diaries and Digital Humanities

The growing pace of archival digitization is creating tensions in communities of researchers and archivists. Digital Humanities projects hold great promise, but also substantial risks for today’s researchers and for future generations of scholars.

Andrew Hoskins (Interdisciplinary Research Professor at University of Glasgow) points out that “digital networks and databases appear to crush historical distance. Archives of war increasingly come to us. A simple YouTube search throws up a chaotic mix of official and unauthorised, user-generated content, from helmet cam footage to images of snipers in the field. But this immediacy, volume and pervasiveness can mean less reflection. The rawness of media memory distills a history without horizon and without hindsight. The sheer scale and complexity of digital data as primary source creates an immediate but unwieldy archive. It also hides what is really lost in paper’s demise.”

So, as war diaries and other military records are increasingly being digitized, Hoskins asks: “what are the prospects for the future of the history of warfare?”

The digitization of documents “might make records easier to find,” but Hoskins warns that: “something important is lost. The digital file strips away the subliminal context that comes with the finding, filing, handling and searching through the physical file. The mental map of the archive and its contents dissolve.”

Hoskins raises important questions on preserving, organizing, accessing, and utilizing digitized documents in archival collections dealing with the history of war and society. His own work seems concerned particularly with war diaries as a distinct textual genre. But, many of the issues he discusses are equally relevant for Digital Humanities work in other fields of research.

Hoskins’s article is available online at The Conversation.

This post is cross-posted from Brian Sandberg: Historical Perspectives.

The Ethics of War

War is often perceived as completely unethical, yet the people who engage in warfare always have ethical systems and cultural frameworks that shape their military practices and individual behaviors.

Classic texts on warfare from Thucydides to Clausewitz grapple with ethical issues, and many modern historians of war, culture, and society raise ethical questions in their work.

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The New York Times has published an article showcasing Professor Robert H. Latiff’s Philosophy course on the “The Ethics of Emerging Weapons Technologies,” at the University of Notre Dame. Latiff was a major general in the United States Air Force who retired in 2006. The Notre Dame website indicates that Latiff earned a Ph.D. in Material Science at the University of Notre Dame and is currently teaching there as an Adjunct Professor at the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

According to the New York Times, “Dr. Latiff has written forcefully of his concerns about ‘emerging robotic armies’ with ‘no more than a veneer of human control.’ He has served on a committee that is producing a report on ethics and new weaponry for the National Research Council. It will be the subject of a conference at Notre Dame in April.”

It is refreshing to see a major news organization report on the teaching of ethics in warfare. Historians and philosophers have been actively researching and teaching ethical considerations of war since the 1960s, integrating ethical issues into military history, peace studies, political philosophy, and related disciplines.

The New York Times reports on the ethics of war.

Reposted from the Center for the Study of Religious Violence, led by Professors Brian Sandberg and Sean Farrell at Northern Illinois University.

Refugee Shelters by IKEA

Most wars produce numerous refugees, who flee from war zones. Protracted civil conflicts often force millions of civilians to flee from their homes and to seek shelter in safe regions or in neighboring countries. Refugee camps proliferate across the borders from war-torn countries as refugees band together under the protection of a host country’s military forces.

Today’s refugees often end up in refugee camps set up by the United Nations. The UNHCR manages camps around the world for millions of refugees, who often live for years in shelters provided by the organization. UNHCR has long used canvas tents as the basic shelters for refugee families, as seen in this photo of a refugee camp in Jordan:

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UNHCR is currently experimenting with new shelters, including one designed by IKEA. The new shelters would be pre-fabricated semi-permanent shelters that could be transported to sites and constructed by refugee families. UNHCR is sending prototypes of the new shelters to several refugee camps to test their effectiveness.

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NPR reports on the IKEA shelters and UNHCR’s refugee camps. The UNHCR website has additional information.

Historians and other researchers working on civilians and refugees in warfare will be interested in the testing of these shelters, which may have the potential to transform refugee camp conditions worldwide.

[Reblogged from Brian Sandberg: Historical Perspectives]

Sex, Gender, and World War II

Marie Louise Roberts explores gender and sexuality among American soldiers serving in France during the Second World War in a new book entitled, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France.

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Roberts is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she studies gender relations in modern French history.

This post is cross-listed with Brian Sandberg, Historical Perspectives.

 

Sexual Assault in the US Military

Sexual assault in the United States military has recently been recognized as a serious problem, but the issue has deep roots.

Veterans of the Vietnam War have begun to offer testimony of sexual assaults during the 1960s and 1970s. A number of these cases involve male veterans who were assaulted by other male soldiers and sailors.

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These stories of male victims of rape and sexual assault suggest a broader pattern of sexual violence that is often ignored: male-on-male sexual assault.

Recent assessments of sexual violence in the US military indicate that male soldiers and sailors apparently made up the majority (c. 53%) of victims in reported incidents of sexual assault in 2012.

Gendered analyses of sexual assault need to avoid the presumption that sexual violence is “violence against women.” Males are often victims of sexual assault in military organizations. Some incidents of female-on-male sexual harassment and assault in the US military have also emerged. This should remind us that both men and women can be victims of rape and sexual violence.

The problem of sexual assault in the military thus needs to be assessed through a careful study of the violent acts and the perpetrators of those attacks.

The New York Times reports on sexual assault in the US Armed Forces.

This post is cross-posted from Brian Sandberg, Historical Perspectives.

 

Piazza Fontana and Romanzo di una Strage

Major historical events often have to wait for years to receive serious treatment in historical film, especially in the case of controversial episodes that produce sharply opposing narratives of those events.

For the first time, the bombing in Piazza Fontana in 1969 is the subject of a major feature film, Romanzo di una Strage. A large bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milano on 12 December 1969, killing 17 people and wounding 88. The bombing shocked Italians and produced outrage across the country, a crucial moment in the so-called strategia di tensione campaigns of right-wing and left-wing radicalism and violence in Italy in the late 1960s.

Piazza Fontana launched a period of intensified political and social conflict, known as the Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) throughout the 1970s.

Romanzo di una Strage (2012) is directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. The film focuses on the competing investigations, political murders, and cover-ups in the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969-1972. Giordana controversially places a sympathetic portrait of police commissioner Luigi Calabresi at the center of his political thriller. The Piazza Fontana case still remains unsolved today, despite several investigations, trials, and overturned convictions. The film posits its own theories on various threads of the complicated story, but hesitates to present its own definitive verdict on the case and the cover-up.

Marco Tullio Giordana explains his perspective in an interview published by Nouvel Observateur. Giordana actually witnessed the Piazza Fontana bombing from a passing tram and was interviewed by Luigi Calabresi as an eyewitness. It seems that Giordana’s personal experience strongly shaped the narrative structure and cinematography of the film.

The film’s interpretation of the Piazza Fontana bombing and its protagonists has provoked much interest and also sharp criticism. Republica TV published a video review of the film in Italian. Nouvel Observateur, Marianne, Libération, and Le Figaro provide reviews in French. For the reactions of Luigi Calabresi’s son, Mario, see a story in Corriere della Sera.

For context on the Piazza Fontana bombing and film representations of political violence in Italy during the Anni di Piombo, see: Alan O’Leary’s Tragedia all’italiana: Italian Cinema and Italian Terrorisms 1970-2010 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), Alan O’Leary and Pierpaolo Antonello’s Imagining Terrorism: The Rhetoric and Representation of Political Violence in Italy, 1969-2006 (London: Legenda, 2009), and Paul Ginsborg’s A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Romanzo di una Strage is released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy.

[Note that this article is cross-posted from my blog.]

Armistice Day in France

This past Sunday was Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War in 1918. France celebrates 11 November each year with a series of ceremonies commemorating the dead of La Grande Guerre, as the First World War is often known. This commemoration is arguably much more important in France than it has ever been in the United States, where it is now celebrated as Veteran’s Day, since France suffered many more deaths, in addition to the occupation of parts of northern France and the devastation of the Western Front.

This year’s celebration of 11 November is different, however. Last year, the Nicolas Sarkozy government decided to expand the celebrations « en hommage à tous les morts pour la France ». So, the ceremonies will now commemorate all French veterans killed in any wars, not just the fallen of La Grand Guerre. The new François Hollande government has chosen to continue with this new model and celebrated 11 November with the expanded symbolic format more similar to the American Veteran’s Day.

Libération and Le Monde report on the 11 November ceremonies.  Some commentators and politicians have criticized the new ceremonies as obscuring the importance of the First World War and its horrifying legacy of trench combat and attrition warfare.

In addition to the controversy surrounding this year’s ceremonies, questions have been raised about amnesties for French soldiers who were executed during the war, especially during the army mutinies of 1917. Some individual soldiers’ cases have been reviewed, leading to rehabilitations, but some want a general amnesty for all French soldiers. Le Monde reports on one of the soldiers.

The French Armistice Day commemoration reminds us how important it is for historians of war and society to look beyond the history of American involvement in warfare. European and global perspectives often offer strikingly different understandings of the experience of war.

Armistice Day also highlights an important scholarly debate over the historical memory of the First World War has been raging for over a decade, since the publication of Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The current controversies over 11 November in France will certainly add to this expanding debate, which has been dominated by historians using cultural methods. Historians of war and society could be more active in contributing to our understanding of the historical memory of the First World War and other past wars that continue to be commemorated.

The Cultural History of War

“The cultural history of war, then, is here to stay.”  So concluded Rob Citino in an impressive historiographical essay, which can be considered the first major article of military history to be published in a generation by the American Historical Review, the flagship academic journal in the historical discipline in the United States. [Robert M. Citino, “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” American Historical Review 112 (October 2007): 1070-1090.]

Citino cites John A. Lynn’s Battle, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton’s The Dominion of War, and Isabel V. Hull’s Absolute Destruction as providing exemplary new histories of warfare utilizing cultural history approaches. [John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, Colo., 2003); Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500–2000 (New York, 2005); Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca, N.Y., 2005).]

The same year that Citino published his AHR article, Wayne E. Lee similarly underlined the importance of cultural approaches to warfare. Lee has gone on to publish two fascinating collective volumes on the cultural history of war. [Wayne E. Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” The Journal of American History 93 (2007): 1116-1142; Wayne E. Lee, ed., Warfare and Culture in World History (New York: NYU Press, 2011); Empires and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion, and Warfare in the Early Modern World (New York: NYU Press, 2011).]

As a practitioner of the cultural history of warfare, I am certainly glad to see the outpouring of cultural histories of warfare in various time periods and geographic regions. But, I also wonder why it has taken so long for historians of warfare to embrace cultural approaches to the study of war, an all too common human activity.
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