The Human Use of Human Beings: A Brief History of Suicide Bombing

I’d like to call your attention to an article that has appeared in the April issue of Origins, the Ohio State history department’s online magazine.  Here’s the overview:

Since the attack on the World Trade Center in on September 11, 2001 the world has grown accustomed to reports of “suicide bombers.” They are often portrayed as deluded or crazed, and they hold an almost lurid fascination for their willingness to kill themselves while killing others. This month, historian Jeffrey William Lewis puts what many of us see as a recent phenomenon in a longer historical perspective. He argues that it is more useful to think about suicide bombers as a type of human military technology that is controlled by an organization rather than as a form of individual fanaticism.

The full text of the article is here.

Border Patrol — II

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

Previously I argued that two books by Frank Joseph, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011), were at the very least bad history and, in the case of Mussolini’s War at least, possibly apologies for fascism as well. I also promised that I’d take a closer look at Joseph himself. It turns out that military history is only one of his interests, and that he is better known as a pseudoarchaeologist and a former neo-Nazi.

It took a little bit of detective work to piece this together, but only a little. It’s in the author biographies supplied by his publishers. Praeger’s author biography of Joseph says that

Frank Joseph is professor of world archaeology with Japan’s Savant Institute, and recipient of the Midwest Epigraphic Society’s Victor Moseley Award. His published works include more than 20 books in as many foreign editions, such as Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935–45.

Helion’s biography is more extensive (Mussolini’s War, 312):

A member of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and a scuba diver since 1962, Joseph has participated in underwater archaeological expeditions in the Bahamas, Yucatan, the Canary Islands, the Aegean, and Polynesia. A frequent guest speaker across the United States, he has lectured in Britain, Slovenia, and throughout Japan, where he was made ‘Professor of World Archaeology’ by Kyushu’s Savant Society. Before the close of the past century, Japanese national television broadcast two different programs about his work.

In 1998, he received the Victor Moseley Award for his work on behalf of cultural diffusionist archaeology from Ohio’s Midwest Epigraphic Society (Columbus). He also received 1999’s Burrow’s Cave Society Award, and his work has additionally commended by the Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation (Marquette, Michigan).

At first blush this perhaps doesn’t sound so bad. The Oriental Institute is perfectly respectable, of course, though becoming a member requires nothing more than paying an annual fee. The ‘Savant Institute’ has very little web presence, at least in English, but it appears to have something to do with archaeology (Nobuhiro Yoshida, ‘President of Japan Petroglyph Society and Professor at the Savant Institute & Japan Academic Center’, spoke at the 2005 conference of the American Rock Art Research Association). The Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation exists ‘To collect and preserve evidence of ancient civilizations in North America, and the Great Lakes region in particular, in a manner that supports their study by amateur and professional scholars and to educate the public about the significance’. The Midwestern Epigraphic Society ‘researches the ancient migrations of mankind to the Americas, especially Pre-Columbian and particularly to the Midwest US, as revealed by cultural similarities, archaic writing, ancient world history and evidence found by modern science’.
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“War,” what is it good for?

We historians like words. So we just love it when computers let us count words really quickly. In fact, I’ve even done it once or twice. So we should all be really interested when the AHA (courtesy of Robert Townsend) comes out with a study of lots of words. The words in 23,000 history dissertation titles since 1920, to be exact. Summarizing the results of the study, reportage from Inside Higher Ed included the following:
‘For the recent titles [1993-2012], some of the analysis may challenge conventional wisdom about the state of the disciplines. There has been much discussion in recent years from some historians who say that issues of race, class and gender have come to dominate history, at the expense of traditional studies of politics and war. But the new AHA study found that “war” appeared in 11 percent of dissertation titles and “politics” appeared in 7.6 percent of titles. By contrast “women” and “gender” appeared in 7.8 percent of the titles, and “race,” “ethnic” and “ethnicity” appeared in only 4.5 percent of the titles.’

I was struck by this interpretation. And I was reminded of the dangers of using single words to conclude too much from a work. I was particularly curious about that word “war. ” What is it good for? What does it really tell us about the extent to which a study adopts a ‘traditional’ approach to war? Does it tell us whether the author is doing ‘military’ history, and if so, what kind?

I don’t claim to know the answer. But while I don’t have those 23,000 dissertation titles at hand, I have played around with Google Ngram Viewer, and done some basic analysis of the paper titles for the upcoming SMH conference. And I’ve noticed how the word “war” really does need some kind of semantic markup (as the digital humanists like to say), because the word “war” could mean many different things. Often times it may refer to the study of war in a traditional sense, but just as often (not sure about the exact proportion) it is actually being used as a shorthand for a timeframe, rather than an approach, much less a subject of study. You can probably think of various titles that deal with, say the homefront during World War II, as examples. These examples clearly indicate a willingness to use the term “war,” and even study life during wartime. But that’s not exactly the same thing as military history, or at least not a traditional approach to military history as the above quote suggests. (I’ll ignore here the odd fact that ‘war history’ sounds more military than ‘military history.’)

If we really wanted to get a sense of the relative frequency of various historical subfields, we should be a bit more sophisticated. Better than “war” might be “wars” and “warfare,” since I’d guess it’s mostly military historians who care about multiple wars and the waging of war. More useful might be terms that traditional military historians actually impart substantive meaning to, that is to say, their disciplinary jargon: military, army/armies, navy/navies, battle, siege, strategy, tactics, campaign, etc. Check out my previous post if you need some additional examples. We might even rank such terms according to how ‘traditional’ they are. You could also search for specific battles, even the years of famous campaigns (1494, 1704, 1812, 1815…). Perhaps best of all would be some combination of “war” and these other terms used by traditional military historians. In short, I wonder how useful a frequency count of “war” really is.

Better software which lets us to see collocations and co-occurrences will allow us to analyze phrases and not just single words (“unigrams”) – Google Ngram Viewer even offers a little of this basic functionality now. As we improve our methodology, we will undoubtedly achieve a better understanding of our discipline and field.