My post entitled “The History of White People at War” has so far received four responses. Once upon a time it was possible for readers to leave comments only on the blog itself. Nowadays, because it’s possible for blog posts to be placed on Facebook (and probably most social media), comments can appear elsewhere–in the case of the SMH blog, on the SMH Facebook group. Thus, in order to maximize dialog it seems best to address all comments in a follow-up post. So here goes…
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. [On the blog]
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. [On the blog]