War in Slow Motion

In 1858 the abolitionist John Brown was an extended guest at Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester, New York. Already well embarked on his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown’s imagination extended to the creation of an independent, interracial state in the American southeast. The idea gripped him so tightly that he spent three weeks writing a provisional constitution for the government of such a state. Its preamble begins:

Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is nothing other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . .

I ran across this quote a few years ago when the students in a graduate readings course read a recent biography of Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton.  (Like Douglass, Tubman was acquainted with Brown and his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid. Brown, in turn, referred to her, in complete seriousness, as “General Tubman.”)

No one happened to remark upon the quote during our discussion, which was understandable given that our focus was on Tubman. Still, I was struck by Brown’s equation of slavery with war. Most of us are conditioned to regard that as rhetoric, but Brown meant it quite literally. Gandhi made a similar point when he insisted, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Indeed, slavery, colonization/neocolonization, apartheid, and so on, can all be seen as examples of war in slow motion. Of course, the idea that they are conducting a slow motion war is alien to those in positions of dominance, because they have a vested interest in considering the existing order of things to be normal and in convincing others of that idea, most especially the groups they oppress. But for those alive to the fact of oppression the notion that a war is underway has greater resonance.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from an essay published in 2004 by the black scholar and activist Manning Marable:

The political economy of the “New Racial Domain” . . . is driven and largely determined by the forces of transnational capitalism, and the public policies of state neoliberalism. From the vantagepoint of the most oppressed U.S. populations, the New Racial Domain rests on an unholy trinity, or deadly triad, of structural barriers to a decent life. These oppressive structures are mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disfranchisement. Each factor directly feeds and accelerates the others, creating an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty, and civil death, touching the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.

Though Marable never uses the term outright, his portrayal of developments abroad and at home is redolent of the idea of an ongoing war in slow motion.

A Small Essay on A Small Place

I originally wrote this January 2004, while auditing a course on women, colonialism and sexuality.  At the time, I was very curious about the relationship of military history to other, seemingly disparate fields.  This was one of my attempts to relate military history to postcolonialism.

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is a small book–just eight-one pages.  You can read it in one sitting, and since she writes so wonderfully well, you will probably do exactly that.  The book opens in the second-person:  Kincaid addressing the reader directly, a conceit she maintains throughout.  The notional reader is a white American or (worse) European or (worst of all) Briton, and Kincaid leaves you in no doubt that you suck.  You don’t get it.  Notwithstanding the fact that you’re reading her book.  Because if you got it you would neither be reading the book nor, in Kincaid’s imagination, peering down with pleasure at the beauty of Antigua as your plane makes its approach into the main airport at St. John’s, the capital.  You would be reflecting on the fact that “this empire business was all wrong” and would be “wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their [your forebears’] bad deeds [from which you still benefit, you bastard], for no disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did.  Actual death would have been better.”

By contrast, the indigenous population of Antigua is pure and innocent.  Well, not exactly indigenous, the Siboney, Carib, and Arawak Indians having been long since wiped out and replaced by west African slaves, from whom most of the 68,000 citizens of Antigua & Barbuda are descended.  And not exactly pure, since Kincaid makes clear that the government is spectacularly corrupt.  But the Brits showed them how to do it, so the Brits are to blame.  And have I mentioned lately that you suck?

As the book progresses, the tone shifts somewhat.  It’s as if Kincaid, hearing her jeremiad, begins to question one aspect of it, namely whether the Antiguans–even ordinary Antiguans–are really that pure and innocent.  She doesn’t unbend about whites, though.  Or for that matter Arabs, for Arabs from Syria came to Antigua some years ago, made a killing, got hooked in with the government and enthusiastically nursed at the public teat.  (Antigua even maintains, at considerable expense, an ambassador to Syria, and you can easily guess why it does and who gets to draw the salary as ambassador.)

But at the end the tone becomes wistful and heartbreakingly sad.  Here is the conclusion:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island.  It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long.  It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493.  Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted, there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty–a European disease.  Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually the slaves were freed, in a kind of way.  The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, assuming you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves.  Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being and all the things that adds up to.  So too with the slaves.  Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

It takes Kincaid eighty-one pages to get to that point.  The average white person wants to be at that point on page one, if not the title page, if not the cover.  The average white person wants to object that he himself never held slaves or sat behind a desk in a colonial office, or shot any “wogs,”  so he is in no way responsible for the on-going pain and poverty in postcolonial societies.  And weren’t the Japanese just as bad?  The Moguls?  The Aztecs?  The Africans themselves through their complicity in the slave trade?  Don’t all human societies dominate other groups given the chance?  Well, yes.  But you have to ask yourself–or at least, I have to ask myself–whether questions like that open up terrain for exploration or foreclose further inquiry.

What does any of this have to do with military history?  It happens that Kincaid thinks that “race is a false idea. It’s just an invention to enforce power. So I never talk about race. I talk about the inflammatory thing which is power.”  She thus has something in common with military historians, who seldom talk about race but have as their core concern that inflammatory thing called power.  It’s just that Kincaid hits it from an unusual angle of vision.  An angle in which Admiral Horatio Nelson, by preserving British command of the seas, makes it safe for British ships to carry British goods, British officials, British soldiers everywhere and thereby perpetuate the British colonial project.  Which makes him “a maritime criminal.”

So that’s one thing.  Another is that it also happens that Jamaica Kincaid lives in Vermont with her husband and two children.  She wrote for The New Yorker until she had a falling-out with the editor. She writes and gives readings and is, for all the anger in her work, harmless.  Give her an AK-47, however, and she would look quite differently.  One might say that Jamaica Kincaid articulates with flowing prose what other postcolonial men and women articulate with streams of bullets and book bags filled with plastic explosives.  That makes her of interest to military historians.

 

SMH 2013 in the cloud

The long-awaited program for the New Orleans SMH conference has finally been released. And, sure, you could download the PDF yourself and read through that long list of paper titles, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an impressionistic ‘blink’ of the conference in its entirety? Of course it would be. So here it is:

Wordle cloud of SMH 2013 paper titles

Wordle cloud of SMH 2013 paper titles (click to enlarge)

In future posts I’ll analyze what the 2013 program suggests about the interests of SMH members by delving a bit more into the details, but for the time being, a few painfully-obvious conclusions based solely off of the titles of the papers:

  • I think the Society of Military History is interested in the Military and War. Though a few do promote Peace, at least in the paper titles.
  • Befitting a conference themed “War, Society and Remembrance,” Memory is a popular word, Remembrance (bottom left) not quite as much. Other synonyms of note include Memories, Myth, Legacy, Remembering, Remembered, Unremembered, and Forgetting. Some have clearly figured out how to get their papers accepted!
  • SMHers are an Anglo-centric lot, with multiple papers on American (including African-American), British/English and Canadian subjects. France also has a respectable showing, although the Germans are perhaps a bit too close for their liking. But aren’t they always? A smattering of other papers are dedicated to the history of all those other countries that Americans still can’t locate on a map, such as China and Sweden.
  • Among the wars (in gray), no surprise that World War II (Second World War, D-Day, Eastern Front) rules the roost. WW1 (Great War) also makes a strong showing. The American Civil War (Civil War) seems to be comfortably in third place, while the War of 1812 and the Cold War jockey for a respectable fourth. The War of the Spanish Succession can see the Vietnam War ahead of it, but has been dropped from the peloton (last session!). Here’s hoping for the lanterne rouge.
    [Update: In a stunning development prompted by the discovery of a scoring error, a recalculation of the results allows the Vietnam War (Vietnam) to vault into third, stripping the American Civil War of its bronze medal. The League of Concerned Nineteenth Century Historians says it plans to protest the decision.]
  • The most popular varieties of military history are fully represented: intelligence, command (Decision), politics (Political), campaigns, foreign policy, strategy and defense, and military-civilian interactions (Occupation).
  • Army can’t seem to beat Navy in the stadium, but the opposite is true at the podium.
  • A new historical record, with explicit historiographical mention of sieges actually eclipsing that of battle.

That’s all for now.

Short, sharp shocks

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

(Or, ‘Trenchard at sea’.)

Jamel Ostwald’s recent post on urban bombardment in the early modern period, itself partly a response to my post on Trenchardism, prompted me to wonder how straight the line was between aerial bombardment and earlier naval and land bombardments? Was the naval precedent more influential or the military one?

This does not quite answer the question, but in his Air Power and the Cities (1930) the Air Ministry civil servant and lawyer J. M. Spaight, the most prolific British airpower writer of the interwar period, spent an entire chapter talking about the historical precedents afforded by naval bombardments, calling it ‘The lesson of the naval bombardments’. Stated negatively, this lesson was that ‘it has been no part of the policy of belligerent nations to destroy enemy coastal cities’.1 Or, stated positively, ‘there has been a clearly marked tendency to confine attack to certain objectives’, mostly (but not exclusively) ‘those the destruction of which was calculated to prejudice the enemy’s military effort and to which, therefore, the term “military objectives” may be broadly applied’.2 (He was a lawyer, after all.) Spaight projected this naval trend onto aerial bombardment, arguing that air forces in the next war would be unlikely to bomb cities indiscriminately:

On the few exceptional occasions in which objectives not of a military character have been shelled, the result has been protest, excuse, condemnation, never justification on the merits of the practice. It is sufficient to recall the salient facts of the naval campaigns of modern times to conclude that there has been no settled policy of indiscriminate bombardment in naval war. In general, bombardment has been confined to military objectives and undertaken for a military purpose.3

Ultimately, this served to buttress his argument that not only was disarmament a bad idea, but it wasn’t even necessary, because airpower itself ‘is the great disarmer’.4

How can war go on when air power can leap upon it, smother it, smash it? That would be bad work for civilisation if it meant smashing the cities; but it need not mean that. Indeed, it cannot mean that unless air power is to be mishandled, misdirected, grossly misapplied. Used aright, used to the fullest advantage, it will be kept for smashing the nests and. breeding places of armament not the cities.5

So why did Spaight emphasise the naval precedent and not the military one? Because, regrettably, ‘it cannot be denied that the bombardment of a defended, town as a whole has been a practice not unknown to land warfare’.6 Indeed, he noted that both the British and the American manuals on the rules of law took the view that ‘an attacking force is under no legal duty to limit the bombardment to the fortifications of a place attacked’.7 Moreover, land bombardments tended not to be decisive: ‘the terrible bombardment of Strassburg [1870] only made its inhabitants more determined to resist’.8

The naval bombardments Spaight was referring to included Alexandria (1882), Beirut (1912), Canton (1841), Greytown (1854), Kagoshima (1863), Pisagua (1879), Tripoli (1828), Valparaiso (1866), and others mostly from the Crimean and First World Wars. Not all of these examples really serve his larger argument — the German naval bombardments of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (1914) attacked targets of no military value and killed more civilians than any air raid on Britain in the next four years — but he seems to have missed one that did.

In the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, three British cruisers anchored close to the shore and bombarded the ruling Sultan’s palace without damaging the surrounding city, as discriminate a bombardment as any. (Though there were at least some civilians among the 500 or so casualties, this was not intended.) It was also decisive, in that it forced the Sultan to flee and allowed the British to install their own preferred candidate, which was the reason for the war in the first place. And it was also incredibly quick: the war began at 9:02am on 27 August 1896 and ended at 9:40am. Indeed, at 38 minutes the Anglo-Zanzibar War is supposedly the shortest war in history. With such effective examples of short, sharp shocks before them, it’s easy to see why airpower theorists were drawn to the idea of using the air to strike at cities unreachable by sea. But not why so they so easily discarded the principle of discriminate, precision bombing so easily, confounding Spaight’s prediction. The reasons for that lie in the technological and operational limitations of the air weapon, limitations which were not clear when Spaight wrote and would not be clear for some years yet.

  1. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 92.
  2. Ibid., 93.
  3. Ibid., 165.
  4. Ibid., 235.
  5. Ibid., 234-5.
  6. Ibid., 95.
  7. Ibid., 96.
  8. Ibid., 95.