On Counterfactual History

For many years now I’ve been fascinated by counterfactual history. I make no claim to coming up with anything original by way of approaching it conceptually, but I’ve written a couple of articles about it for general audiences and contribute a “what if” column to each issue of World War II magazine. (So far I’ve published close of forty of them.)  I’ve also done workshops and team taught graduate courses on the subject with my colleague Geoffrey Parker

The genesis of my interest tracks back to a 1997 conference at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, in which several scholars examined case studies concerning the rise of the West and key events that might have “unmade” it. The fruits of the study were published in 2006 as Unmaking the West:  “What If” Scenarios That Rewrite World History.  It’s the best and most accessibly written introduction to counterfactual history that I have yet seen.

Counterfactual history routinely gets a bum rap, mostly from people who haven’t taken time to explore it and reject “what if” scenarios out of hand.  One of the conference organizers, political psychologist Prof. Philip E. Tetlock of Berkeley, noted that many influential historians “have excoriated ‘might have been’ speculation,” adding, “The ferocity and stature of the critics are a bit unnerving.” Nevertheless, when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of “might have been” history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable–an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition–they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently. Moreover, as the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently expressed it: “To assume that what happened was bound to happen is to beg the question of why it happened and to deprive history, at one blow, both of its lessons and its life. . . . If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a colored pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must . . . leave some room for the imagination.”

Counterfactual history is a good corrective to the tendency to see developments as “overdetermined.” “Few predicted World War I,” writes Prof. Tetlock, “the rise of the East Asian tigers, or the collapse of the Soviet Union but virtually everyone today–who claims professional competence in such matters–stands ready to trot out half a dozen ‘fundamental’ or ‘structural’ causes why these outcomes had to happen roughly at the time and in the manner they did. Indeed, given the overwhelming array of causal forces often invoked, it is difficult for some contemporary observers to resist the inference that the original historical players were a tad dense not to appreciate where events were heading. Creeping determinism emerges as a key obstacle to the time-honored objective of historians to see the world as it appeared to the decision-makers of the day, not as it appears now with the benefits and curses of hindsight.” By contrast, the counterfactual approach can help sensitize scholars to the role of contingency in the problems they study.

It can also encourage scholars to think more carefully about the assumptions on which their theories and historical interpretations rest. For example, Prof. Richard Ned Lebow notes that “apologists for the Soviet system insist that communism would have evolved differently if Lenin had lived longer or had been succeeded by someone other than Stalin. Attempts to address this question have not resolved the controversy but have compelled historians to be more explicit about the underlying assumptions that guide and sustain contending interpretations of Stalin and the nature of the Communist party and the Soviet state. Those assumptions have now become the focus of controversy, and scholars have looked for evidence by which to evaluate them. This process has encouraged a more sophisticated historical debate.”

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And Now For Something Completely Different…

Actually, not so much ‘different’, as ‘earlier’. Earlier modern that is. The SMH, possibly aware of my status as one of the world’s few self-identifying academic early modern European military historians, and probably unaware of my status as one of the few military historians who didn’t grow up reading about the Civil War and World War II, has chosen me to help Brian represent the early modern tribe on this blog. And represent I shall. Admittedly, I won’t be able to contribute much to debates over whether Trenchard wanted to bombard protesters into submission or whether Nigerian female activists believed that Clausewitz ever finished his magnum opus On War, though I may have one or two comments on early modern military culture. I do, however, plan to dedicate my contributions towards a discussion of early modern military history in the broader context of military history writ large. Sometimes this will take the form of me chiming in with “Us too! We have that in early modern Europe also!” and “But, but, early modern warfare wasn’t really like that at all!” Occasionally I’ll have something a bit more original to say.

As my contributions here will parallel my personal blog (to those uninitiated: Skulking in Holes and Corners, at www.jostwald.wordpress.com), a division of labor will be necessary. Skulking will continue delving into the minutiae of early modern warfare, while my contributions here will tend more towards the contextual: discussing broader debates in early modern military historiography and their relevance to military history more generally, hinting at early modern precedents to modern military phenomena, distinguishing early modern practices and mentalities from more recent ones, and generally pestering military historians to remember that war existed before Napoleon and Clausewitz, and that it needs to be understood on its own terms.

But now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

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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[Cross-posted at Airminded.] In the published version of his 2008 Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture, Richard Overy concluded that now

air power is projected for its potential political or moral impact. In Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan it is the political dividend that has been central to the exercise of air power, just as it was when Trenchard’s Independent Force flew against German cities in 1918 with the hope that a demoralised urban population might pressure the German government to make peace. In this sense it might be possible to argue, without stretching the history too far, that the RAF has begun to forge a new sense of identity in the past two decades more compatible with the traditions of Trenchardism.1

My interest here is in that last word, ‘Trenchardism’. Overy nowhere defines it — in fact, it’s the only time it occurs in his article — but as an airpower historian I have a pretty good idea what he means, despite the fact that it’s actually a relatively uncommon term. Marshal of the Royal Air Force (as he ended up) Lord Trenchard is well-known for his belief in strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, particularly through its effects on morale, and as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff from 1919 to 1930 he was in a position to promote it. This sense of Trenchardism, something like Douhetism, seems straightforward enough, and it’s the sense in which I’ve encountered it in the secondary literature.2 But here I’m interested in other uses of this word Trenchardism: specifically the way it is used in a a Wikipedia article of that name which was created recently by Jo Pugh of The National Archives, who invites additions and comments (as discussed on Twitter).3 There, Trenchardism is taken beyond simply an enthusiasm for bombing, indeed beyond the military sphere entirely. The dilemma is that in so doing it risks diluting Trenchardism past the point of usefulness. But equally, it highlights a contemporary understanding of Trenchardism which is very different to that we understand now. Are they reconcilable? And if not, which should we prefer?
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Clausewitz and “The Women’s War”

As a faculty member some years ago, I sat in on a graduate readings course known as “Studies in Military Thought.”  It was like visiting the an old friend, since I had taken the course as an undergraduate and audited it as a grad student.  The subject du jour was Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose unfinished magnum opus, On War, is widely admired as perhaps the most perceptive discussion of the subject ever written.  Around the table the sentiment, at least among those who voiced an opinion, was that Clausewitz’s analysis was so robust as to be universal.  Thus, when I asked whether On War was applicable to non-state as well as state societies, everyone agreed that it was indeed applicable.  That went for every group from Al-Qaeda to the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, a group that lives and makes war in a fashion little removed from neolithic times.  Why?  Because violent conflict always has a purpose, and that purpose can always be defined as “a continuation of policy by other means.”

I didn’t really buy that.  More precisely, I didn’t think this was an insight that deepened our understanding of non-state conflict.  But I didn’t argue because a) it was someone else’s class, I didn’t want to hijack it; and b) the question mattered far more than the answer.  As far as I’m concerned it remains an open question.  In any event the discussion moved on–centered thenceforth, quite quickly and perhaps tellingly, on modern nation-states.  I thought no more about it.  But late that evening, as I sat down to address the reading for a course I was then auditing on women and colonialism, I saw that the first article was entitled, “‘Aba Riots’ or Igbo ‘Women’s War’?  Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women,”  by Judith Van Allen. [Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, eds., Women in Africa : Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 1976)].

It describes an episode in southern Nigeria in 1929.  Thousands of Igbo women converged on Native Administration centers (established by the British and run by Nigerian “Warrant Chiefs” appointed by the British).  They chanted, danced, sang songs of ridicule.  In sixteen instances they attacked Native Courts and in most cases destroyed them.  In a handful of instances they broke into prisons and released inmates.  The “disturbed area” covered 6,000 square miles and contained two million people.  The number of women involved was estimated in the tens of thousands.  The threat posed to British authority was serious enough that British District Officers called in troops to deal with it.  The troops fired upon the women, killed more than fifty, wounded about as many more.

Afterward the British called the episode the “Aba Riots.”  Among the Igbo, however, the event was known, then and later, as the “Women’s War,” a name Van Allen invites us to take seriously.  I’m glad to do it, but would Clausewitz?  Does it fall within “war” as he would define it?  And if not, does that serve as confirmation that definitions of war are inherently politicized (as Van Allen argues), or does the term have some objective meaning?  Was the violence employed by the women “a continuation of politics by other means”?  How meaningful could a Clausewitzian analysis be in the context of a society in which, as one analyst explains, “the polity or political system [was] not . . . a concretely distinct part of the social system, but rather a functional aspect of the whole social system?”

My own view, then and since, is that it isn’t meaningful, that the Clausewitzian concept of war was created in the context of wars between nation-states.  It is, I concede, a durable concept that can also apply to many internal wars, but scarcely all wars.  This raises a second question that has also exercised me over the years:  What are the proper intellectual parameters of our field?  Are they essentially defined by conflicts that fit the Clausewitzian paradigm?  If not, do they extend widely enough to include an episode like the “Women’s War”  If so, why?  If not, why not?

Welcome–and Front & Center

Welcome to the official blog of the Society for Military History.  It will be devoted to all things related to academic military history, including historical perspective on current national security matters.

For our maiden post, we call attention to the blog maintained by SMH member Rob Citino.  Entitled Front & Center, it offers insights into numerous aspects of World War II history.

Recent topics include:

Just Right:  the B-17/P-51 Combination;and two posts on the October 1944 battle of Leyte Gulf: Playing the Odds:  The Battle of Leyte Gulf and Irrational Actors:  The Battle of Leyte Gulf

The posts are always pithy, insightful, and well worth taking time to read.