Social war, now and then

[Cross-posted at Airminded.] The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that ‘Hamas’ goal is to kill civilians’; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming ‘In Children’s Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!’ This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that ‘German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked’ by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.
Continue reading

Armistice Day in France

This past Sunday was Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War in 1918. France celebrates 11 November each year with a series of ceremonies commemorating the dead of La Grande Guerre, as the First World War is often known. This commemoration is arguably much more important in France than it has ever been in the United States, where it is now celebrated as Veteran’s Day, since France suffered many more deaths, in addition to the occupation of parts of northern France and the devastation of the Western Front.

This year’s celebration of 11 November is different, however. Last year, the Nicolas Sarkozy government decided to expand the celebrations « en hommage à tous les morts pour la France ». So, the ceremonies will now commemorate all French veterans killed in any wars, not just the fallen of La Grand Guerre. The new François Hollande government has chosen to continue with this new model and celebrated 11 November with the expanded symbolic format more similar to the American Veteran’s Day.

Libération and Le Monde report on the 11 November ceremonies.  Some commentators and politicians have criticized the new ceremonies as obscuring the importance of the First World War and its horrifying legacy of trench combat and attrition warfare.

In addition to the controversy surrounding this year’s ceremonies, questions have been raised about amnesties for French soldiers who were executed during the war, especially during the army mutinies of 1917. Some individual soldiers’ cases have been reviewed, leading to rehabilitations, but some want a general amnesty for all French soldiers. Le Monde reports on one of the soldiers.

The French Armistice Day commemoration reminds us how important it is for historians of war and society to look beyond the history of American involvement in warfare. European and global perspectives often offer strikingly different understandings of the experience of war.

Armistice Day also highlights an important scholarly debate over the historical memory of the First World War has been raging for over a decade, since the publication of Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The current controversies over 11 November in France will certainly add to this expanding debate, which has been dominated by historians using cultural methods. Historians of war and society could be more active in contributing to our understanding of the historical memory of the First World War and other past wars that continue to be commemorated.

What’s This “Early Modern” of Which You Speak?

So where does someone who self-identifies as an “early modern European military historian” start? Ah yes, “early modern.” (Don’t you worry, Clausewitz and Trenchard, you’ll get yours eventually.)

How to define “early modern”? Not easy. Historians necessarily divide up the past into discrete-ish periods for convenience, and hopefully we have some reason behind our madness. But historians can’t agree on what’s the best kind of madness, which means there are competing interpretations of what ‘early modern’ means. Heck, historians have been arguing over periodization since at least the Renaissance and Petrarch’s “Dark Ages” As it turns out, in a recent ‘open peer-review’ online article Newton Key points out that the very term “early modern” really only caught on c. 1970, and then primarily among English-speaking historians. Despite its subsequent recognition in the U.S., few can agree on when exactly it was.

It doesn’t help that the sub-periods which “early modern” is supposedly composed of themselves overlap in confusing ways: Italy’s artistic Renaissance might have begun in the mid-14th century, England’s Renaissance is said to extend well into the 17th century, while women may not have had a Renaissance at all. Reformation historians, for their part, feel comfortable looking back into the 15th century and some argue the Counter-Reformation continued well into the 18th. The forlorn 17th century generally lacks any kind of modern designation whatsoever, other than the vague appellation of “Baroque,” or a generalized period of “crisis.”

How far back the Ancien Régime (or Old Regime) extends is up for debate; the extent to which it coincides with the Enlightenment is yet another question I’ll bring up only to ignore. Fortunately, there’s a bit more consensus as to when the early modern period ends, with the dawn of the French Revolution. But historians are an argumentative lot, which means that they frequently ignore these artificial boundaries: some scholars insist on the early modern parallels with the ‘modern’ era of revolutions, while other scholars talk about the long 18th century (c. 1688 to 1815/1830). With so many countries and so many subjects of study, feel free to draw your own boundaries. Somebody will undoubtedly disagree with you.

So I hope I will be forgiven for not insisting on too strict of a time frame when describing early modern European military history. Anyone familiar with the standard narrative presented in History of War 101 (and the wars of the period 1450-1800 in particular) already knows the traditional time frame: from Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 to the eve of 1789 and the momentous changes ushered in by the French Revolution. Inevitably, recent historians have sought to breach the walls between the periods, insisting that neither Charles VIII nor Napoleon were all that revolutionary. We can leave that discussion for a later day – for now it’s just worth remembering that there are many different understandings of when ‘early modern’ was.

The result, as I see it, is a field of early modern European military history segmented into three broad eras, usually grouped around the constellation of wars at their center:
Continue reading

The Hydroairplane-Supersubmarine Threat to New York

[Cross-posted at Airminded.] Washington Post, 2 June 1918, SM1

New York waited for an air raid in June 1918. For thirteen nights from 4 June, much of the city was blacked out to avoid giving German pilots any assistance in locating targets to bomb. The New York Times reported the following day that:

Electric signs and all lights, except street lamps and lights in dwellings, were out in this city last night in compliance with orders issued by Police Commissioner Enright at the suggestion of the War Department, as a precaution against a possible attack by aircraft from a German submarine. A system for signalling by sirens in case the approach of aircraft should be detected was devised by the police and signal officers yesterday to warn persons to get under cover.1

While coastal and anti-aircraft batteries readied their guns, aviators went up to check the effectiveness of the blackout, resulting in its extension. After the third night, it was reported that

The lower part of the city was in almost complete darkness, the number of street lights being reduced and those that burned being dimmer. Every downtown skyscraper was almost entirely dark, the shades in the rooms which were lighted being drawn.2

City officials met to discuss other civil defence measures, including air raid sirens and shelters. A particular concern was the evacuation of skyscrapers during business hours:

It was pointed out that in case of such a raid in the daytime the danger of loss of life from panic in swarming down the stairs and into elevators would be greater than the danger of bomb explosions.3

It was decided that the best thing to do would be to designate certain floors as evacuation points. These plans were probably not put into effect, however, as the last night of blackout was 16 June; on 17 June all police precincts were ordered to ‘Resume normal lighting throughout the city until further orders’.4 There was evidently some embarrassment now, as the War Department and the New York Police Department each claimed that the blackout was the other’s idea. In any event, the exercise doesn’t seem to have been repeated.
Continue reading

On Counterfactual History

For many years now I’ve been fascinated by counterfactual history. I make no claim to coming up with anything original by way of approaching it conceptually, but I’ve written a couple of articles about it for general audiences and contribute a “what if” column to each issue of World War II magazine. (So far I’ve published close of forty of them.)  I’ve also done workshops and team taught graduate courses on the subject with my colleague Geoffrey Parker

The genesis of my interest tracks back to a 1997 conference at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, in which several scholars examined case studies concerning the rise of the West and key events that might have “unmade” it. The fruits of the study were published in 2006 as Unmaking the West:  “What If” Scenarios That Rewrite World History.  It’s the best and most accessibly written introduction to counterfactual history that I have yet seen.

Counterfactual history routinely gets a bum rap, mostly from people who haven’t taken time to explore it and reject “what if” scenarios out of hand.  One of the conference organizers, political psychologist Prof. Philip E. Tetlock of Berkeley, noted that many influential historians “have excoriated ‘might have been’ speculation,” adding, “The ferocity and stature of the critics are a bit unnerving.” Nevertheless, when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of “might have been” history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable–an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition–they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently. Moreover, as the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently expressed it: “To assume that what happened was bound to happen is to beg the question of why it happened and to deprive history, at one blow, both of its lessons and its life. . . . If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a colored pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must . . . leave some room for the imagination.”

Counterfactual history is a good corrective to the tendency to see developments as “overdetermined.” “Few predicted World War I,” writes Prof. Tetlock, “the rise of the East Asian tigers, or the collapse of the Soviet Union but virtually everyone today–who claims professional competence in such matters–stands ready to trot out half a dozen ‘fundamental’ or ‘structural’ causes why these outcomes had to happen roughly at the time and in the manner they did. Indeed, given the overwhelming array of causal forces often invoked, it is difficult for some contemporary observers to resist the inference that the original historical players were a tad dense not to appreciate where events were heading. Creeping determinism emerges as a key obstacle to the time-honored objective of historians to see the world as it appeared to the decision-makers of the day, not as it appears now with the benefits and curses of hindsight.” By contrast, the counterfactual approach can help sensitize scholars to the role of contingency in the problems they study.

It can also encourage scholars to think more carefully about the assumptions on which their theories and historical interpretations rest. For example, Prof. Richard Ned Lebow notes that “apologists for the Soviet system insist that communism would have evolved differently if Lenin had lived longer or had been succeeded by someone other than Stalin. Attempts to address this question have not resolved the controversy but have compelled historians to be more explicit about the underlying assumptions that guide and sustain contending interpretations of Stalin and the nature of the Communist party and the Soviet state. Those assumptions have now become the focus of controversy, and scholars have looked for evidence by which to evaluate them. This process has encouraged a more sophisticated historical debate.”

Continue reading

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Actually, not so much ‘different’, as ‘earlier’. Earlier modern that is. The SMH, possibly aware of my status as one of the world’s few self-identifying academic early modern European military historians, and probably unaware of my status as one of the few military historians who didn’t grow up reading about the Civil War and World War II, has chosen me to help Brian represent the early modern tribe on this blog. And represent I shall. Admittedly, I won’t be able to contribute much to debates over whether Trenchard wanted to bombard protesters into submission or whether Nigerian female activists believed that Clausewitz ever finished his magnum opus On War, though I may have one or two comments on early modern military culture. I do, however, plan to dedicate my contributions towards a discussion of early modern military history in the broader context of military history writ large. Sometimes this will take the form of me chiming in with “Us too! We have that in early modern Europe also!” and “But, but, early modern warfare wasn’t really like that at all!” Occasionally I’ll have something a bit more original to say.

As my contributions here will parallel my personal blog (to those uninitiated: Skulking in Holes and Corners, at, a division of labor will be necessary. Skulking will continue delving into the minutiae of early modern warfare, while my contributions here will tend more towards the contextual: discussing broader debates in early modern military historiography and their relevance to military history more generally, hinting at early modern precedents to modern military phenomena, distinguishing early modern practices and mentalities from more recent ones, and generally pestering military historians to remember that war existed before Napoleon and Clausewitz, and that it needs to be understood on its own terms.

But now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

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.
Continue reading


[Cross-posted at Airminded.] In the published version of his 2008 Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture, Richard Overy concluded that now

air power is projected for its potential political or moral impact. In Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan it is the political dividend that has been central to the exercise of air power, just as it was when Trenchard’s Independent Force flew against German cities in 1918 with the hope that a demoralised urban population might pressure the German government to make peace. In this sense it might be possible to argue, without stretching the history too far, that the RAF has begun to forge a new sense of identity in the past two decades more compatible with the traditions of Trenchardism.1

My interest here is in that last word, ‘Trenchardism’. Overy nowhere defines it — in fact, it’s the only time it occurs in his article — but as an airpower historian I have a pretty good idea what he means, despite the fact that it’s actually a relatively uncommon term. Marshal of the Royal Air Force (as he ended up) Lord Trenchard is well-known for his belief in strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, particularly through its effects on morale, and as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff from 1919 to 1930 he was in a position to promote it. This sense of Trenchardism, something like Douhetism, seems straightforward enough, and it’s the sense in which I’ve encountered it in the secondary literature.2 But here I’m interested in other uses of this word Trenchardism: specifically the way it is used in a a Wikipedia article of that name which was created recently by Jo Pugh of The National Archives, who invites additions and comments (as discussed on Twitter).3 There, Trenchardism is taken beyond simply an enthusiasm for bombing, indeed beyond the military sphere entirely. The dilemma is that in so doing it risks diluting Trenchardism past the point of usefulness. But equally, it highlights a contemporary understanding of Trenchardism which is very different to that we understand now. Are they reconcilable? And if not, which should we prefer?
Continue reading

Clausewitz and “The Women’s War”

As a faculty member some years ago, I sat in on a graduate readings course known as “Studies in Military Thought.”  It was like visiting the an old friend, since I had taken the course as an undergraduate and audited it as a grad student.  The subject du jour was Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose unfinished magnum opus, On War, is widely admired as perhaps the most perceptive discussion of the subject ever written.  Around the table the sentiment, at least among those who voiced an opinion, was that Clausewitz’s analysis was so robust as to be universal.  Thus, when I asked whether On War was applicable to non-state as well as state societies, everyone agreed that it was indeed applicable.  That went for every group from Al-Qaeda to the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, a group that lives and makes war in a fashion little removed from neolithic times.  Why?  Because violent conflict always has a purpose, and that purpose can always be defined as “a continuation of policy by other means.”

I didn’t really buy that.  More precisely, I didn’t think this was an insight that deepened our understanding of non-state conflict.  But I didn’t argue because a) it was someone else’s class, I didn’t want to hijack it; and b) the question mattered far more than the answer.  As far as I’m concerned it remains an open question.  In any event the discussion moved on–centered thenceforth, quite quickly and perhaps tellingly, on modern nation-states.  I thought no more about it.  But late that evening, as I sat down to address the reading for a course I was then auditing on women and colonialism, I saw that the first article was entitled, “‘Aba Riots’ or Igbo ‘Women’s War’?  Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women,”  by Judith Van Allen. [Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, eds., Women in Africa : Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 1976)].

It describes an episode in southern Nigeria in 1929.  Thousands of Igbo women converged on Native Administration centers (established by the British and run by Nigerian “Warrant Chiefs” appointed by the British).  They chanted, danced, sang songs of ridicule.  In sixteen instances they attacked Native Courts and in most cases destroyed them.  In a handful of instances they broke into prisons and released inmates.  The “disturbed area” covered 6,000 square miles and contained two million people.  The number of women involved was estimated in the tens of thousands.  The threat posed to British authority was serious enough that British District Officers called in troops to deal with it.  The troops fired upon the women, killed more than fifty, wounded about as many more.

Afterward the British called the episode the “Aba Riots.”  Among the Igbo, however, the event was known, then and later, as the “Women’s War,” a name Van Allen invites us to take seriously.  I’m glad to do it, but would Clausewitz?  Does it fall within “war” as he would define it?  And if not, does that serve as confirmation that definitions of war are inherently politicized (as Van Allen argues), or does the term have some objective meaning?  Was the violence employed by the women “a continuation of politics by other means”?  How meaningful could a Clausewitzian analysis be in the context of a society in which, as one analyst explains, “the polity or political system [was] not . . . a concretely distinct part of the social system, but rather a functional aspect of the whole social system?”

My own view, then and since, is that it isn’t meaningful, that the Clausewitzian concept of war was created in the context of wars between nation-states.  It is, I concede, a durable concept that can also apply to many internal wars, but scarcely all wars.  This raises a second question that has also exercised me over the years:  What are the proper intellectual parameters of our field?  Are they essentially defined by conflicts that fit the Clausewitzian paradigm?  If not, do they extend widely enough to include an episode like the “Women’s War”  If so, why?  If not, why not?

Welcome–and Front & Center

Welcome to the official blog of the Society for Military History.  It will be devoted to all things related to academic military history, including historical perspective on current national security matters.

For our maiden post, we call attention to the blog maintained by SMH member Rob Citino.  Entitled Front & Center, it offers insights into numerous aspects of World War II history.

Recent topics include:

Just Right:  the B-17/P-51 Combination;and two posts on the October 1944 battle of Leyte Gulf: Playing the Odds:  The Battle of Leyte Gulf and Irrational Actors:  The Battle of Leyte Gulf

The posts are always pithy, insightful, and well worth taking time to read.