The History of White People at War

I originally posted this on October 6, 2004.  Still trying to figure out the degree to which it’s still applicable to the present state of our field. My sense is that we’ve come a pretty good ways toward conceptualizing military history in a global rather than western context. But I’m not sure we’ve yet discovered a world military history “master narrative” that’s as coherent as the familiar “Plato to NATO” master narrative.

Two weeks ago I promised to report on the first meeting of History 873 [a graduate research seminar] in “tomorrow’s entry.”  I should have known better.  In the great scheme of life, a good many things take precedence over this blog–sleep not least among them.

The seminar has now met three times.  The first was, indeed, just a get-acquainted session.  I have ten students:  two early Americanists, two “civilian” military historians, and six active-duty officers (three West Point Army officers, one Navy ensign, an Air Force major, and a Republic of Korea army captain).  Initially I had some worries that some of the students wouldn’t twig to the seminar’s organizing concept–race and racism in the American experience.  But as nearly as I can judge my fears were quite definitely misplaced.  Thus far people are engaging with the material as well as I could wish.

[By the way, I turned out to be dramatically wrong about this.  Within a few weeks I faced a full-scale revolt.  But then it was a graduate cohort unusually zealous in its preference for “traditional” military history.  The subsequent cohort dubbed their immediate predecessors, with some bemusement, “the Old Guard.”]

I’m also about five lectures into the [intermediate undergraduate] History of War course.  The first meeting was an extended, ninety-minute lecture-discussion on “The Nature of War.”  I showed the roughly 140 undergraduates in the class four film clips:  a Luftwaffe air raid over 1940 London (from The Battle of Britain), the 1943 liquidation of the Lodz ghetto by SS troops (from Schindler’s List), the planting of time bombs in the European quarter of Algiers in 1957 (from The Battle of Algiers), and the march of Gandhi’s followers on the Dharasana salt works in May 1930 (from Gandhi).  Afterward I asked the students to tell me what the film clips had in common.  A number recognized that in each, one of the contending groups was armed, the other wasn’t.  I then asked them to tell which clips were depictions of war.  Everyone considered the air raid an act of war, albeit perhaps regrettable or immoral.  Opinion was more divided concerning the scene from Schindler’s List, with a number of students wanting to call it an act of atrocity, genocide, or ethnic cleansing in contradistinction to war.  They seemed implicitly to reserve the term war to describe something that was, if not noble, then at least morally defensible.  The same division occurred, to a lesser extent, with regard to the time bombs, while the scene from Gandhi struck most as an act of civil disobedience, not war.  There wasn’t any correct answer, of course.  The point I wanted to make was that “war,” and many terms associated with it, are inherently politicized and that it’s important to think in terms of who is making the claim that a particular act is or isn’t war; also to think about what any definition encompasses or excludes.

I wonder if the term “war” is not also racialized.  At first blush this will seem a reach, but I think I can make the case in two easy stages.  The first stage is simply to note that people of European heritage tend to think of war in a particular way, really a Clausewitzian way:  the continuation of a political struggle–usually an interstate political struggle–by violent means, and also involving the employment of violence by both sides.  The second stage is equally straightforward:  to note that people of European heritage are white.

If this still sounds perverse–and frankly it does, even to me–it might be illuminating to consider the thinking of two popular historians of the nineteenth century.  The first is William O. Swinton, who published Outlines of the World’s History in 1874.  World historians consider Swinton’s book a founding work in their field, notwithstanding Swinton’s confident belief that “world history” was really the history of, well, white people:

Viewing history as confined to the series of leading civilized nations, we observe that it has to do with but one grand division of the human family, namely, with the Caucasian, or white race.  To this division belonged the people of all the elder nations–the Egyptians, Assyr’ians and Babylo’nians, the Hebrews and the Phoeni’cians, the Hin’doos, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  Of course, the modern European nations, as also the states founded by European colonists, all belong to this ethnological division.  Thus we see that history concerns itself with but one highly developed type of mankind; for though the great bulk of the population of the globe has, during the whole recorded period, belonged, and does still belong, to other types of mankind, yet the Caucasians form the only truly historical race.  Hence we may say that civilization is the product of the brain of this race. . . .

If we trace back the present civilization of the advanced nations of the world–our own civilization, and that of England, Germany, France, Italy, etc.,–we shall find that much of it is connected by a direct and unbroken line with the Roman.  The Romans, in turn, were the heirs of the Greeks.  Now, all this is Aryan; and when we go back to the primitive age of the undivided Aryans in Asia, we see that this race must even then have been placed far above the condition of mere savages, and that they made good beginnings in government, and social life, and religion, and the simple mechanical arts.  Thus we are fully authorized to say that the Aryans are peculiarly the race of progress; and a very large part of the history of the world must be taken up with an account of the contributions which the Aryan nations made to the common stock of civilization.


[from Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History:  A Teacher’s Companion (Boston and New York:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 16-17]

The second historian is Edward S. Creasy, whose Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851) involve without exception at least one European side and usually both, and whose selection of battles was determined almost entirely by which battles preserved European and (above all) Anglo Saxon civilization.

When I think about how the basic narrative of military history, as generally taught and understood, starts with the Greeks and faithfully pursues the same path as a textbook in Western Civ, it’s a more than a little disquieting to realize how well the narrative fits the Swinton/Creasy model. True, our choice of what to include and exclude isn’t explicitly dictated by race. We usually talk about how, for better or worse, Europe has managed to dominate so much of the world. But I wonder if that’s a distinction without a difference. And I wonder to what extent our concept of war is conditioned by the sort of armed conflicts that white people are used to, the sort of conflicts they like to fight and therefore regard as legitimate, as bearing the hallmarks of “real war.”

2 thoughts on “The History of White People at War

  1. The article looks at two things, really (how cultural baggage affects perceptions of war, and how eurocentric Western depictions/studies of war tend to be). I’ll focus on the latter, mostly.

    I think that looking at it in terms of ‘race’ is profoundly unhelpful, and slightly misses the point. We are really talking about culture and identity. The vast majority of individuals who teach/research military history in North America and Europe tend to hail from, well, North America and Europe! Their ancestry influences their identity, which in turn (very often) influences their research interests.

    For those of us who chose to focus on something which does not have any resonance with our ancestry or identity there is still the issue of language. Choosing to study a nation or group whose language is not you own, but is still European (Latin based or Germanic, we’ll leave out the more exotic linguistic traditions like Gaelic and Magyar), is one thing….choosing to study a nation or group or time which requires you to learn a language which has radically different linguistic roots to your own is something else altogether. The extra effort (which is substantial) combines with an individual’s lack of identification with the place or time or people studied to produce….well, nothing usually. Even if the language barrier is overcome that is merely the first step; a broad knowledge of the region’s geography, flora, fauna, food, culture and religious/ethnic make-up are all also essential, and likely to be (at least at first) completely and utterly foreign.

    The real answer to getting over eurocentrism, to my mind, is to do a better job of globalizing the history marketplace. American history students should be taught by a far broader range of international scholars. It would certainly be easier than hoping students (future historians!) will decide, at random, to begin taking more of an interest in the military history of, say, Nanyue/Nam Viet…and then have to set out trying to find a supervisor who knows anything about it. Of course, broadening history curricula to include the entire world will make it incredibly hard for students to get a good grasp on any longue duree evolution, but we can cross that bridge when (if!) we get to it.

    In short, crying out for a broader understanding of history, and pointing out how the cultural baggage of generations of ancestors influences our perceptions of war is important….but you have to maintain a realistic expectation for what you can expect ‘the West’ to do.

  2. This reminds me of a current controversy over whether it was a good idea to change The Fort Dearborn Massacre to The Battle of Ft. Dearborn. What did those in the past mean when they named an event a battle or a war, and what does it look like now from our perspective? I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a young member of the Military Book Club and the kids today play Civilization and other conflict games that seem to have very broad definitions of war. If by race we mean group differences, us vs. them is very important. But as in Bloody Kansas, group differences can be created without a racial component. Creasy didn’t seem very persuasive when I first read it in the 70’s, so I don’t think race helps me much think about the nature of war.

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