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.

The New Cultural History is hardly new, after all. In the 1970s, as historians of warfare were grappling with how to use social methods to forge a History of War and Society, innovative anthropological and literary approaches were already challenging the then dominant Social History. Lynn Hunt’s highly successful edited volume The New Cultural History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989) solidified a new label for the historical studies that were emerging from the Literary Turn in the 1980s.

Competing versions of cultural history drove new research on rituals, representations, images, imaginaries, political culture, gender, masculinities, emotions, memory, and other dimensions of culture throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The massive scholarship generated around these issues and debates allowed cultural history approaches to become well established in historical writing in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and beyond. Arguably, the New Cultural History displaced Social History as the principal sub-field in the historical discipline, at least in the United States.

Even as the New Cultural History became dominant, many cultural historians were beginning to challenge its centrality to the discipline. Lynn Hunt, one of the key proponents and practitioners of cultural history, published another collective volume on Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). So, even as historians of War and Society were becoming historians of War, Culture, and Society, cultural history was rapidly transforming. Since the dawn of the new millennium, many historians have been exploring ways of weaving cultural and social history together to study environmental history, religious history, history of science. Oh, and violence.

In case you haven’t noticed, violence studies are in. There has been a steady flood of publications on warfare and violence over the past decade. Major works on warfare such as Peter H. Wilson’s The Thirty Years’ War: Europe’s Tragedy, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, have garnered attention from a wide audience of historians and general readers. Numerous new research centers on violence, peace, conflict resolution, civil conflict, and war studies have been launched at institutions such as Yale University, Arizona State University, University of Newcastle, and Université de Paris I. The shock of the September 2001 Attacks, the lengthy commitment of the Afghan War, and the polemics surrounding the Iraq War have all contributed to a massive growth in interest in the serious study of the history of violence and warfare. The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Humanities Forum has announced Violence as its theme for its 2013-2014 fellowship competition, a sign of how seriously all historians and humanities scholars are taking violence these days.

I hope that historians of War, Culture, and Society are taking note and moving quickly to dialogue with their other historical colleagues. We have something important to say to a broader audience of humanities scholars, social scientists, policy makers, and the public.

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