American Historians Talk About War, but Is Anyone Listening?

Roundup: Media's Take

Bob Thompson, writing for the Washington Post (Jan. 11, 2004)

The topics seemed grabby enough: mayhem, mass destruction and total annihilation; why humans have always banded together to kill each other; and how mutant concepts of"military necessity" can straitjacket whole societies.

"For once," as one of the five historians behind the microphones in the cavernous ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel cheerfully announced,"history's relevance is quite clear."

Why, then, did the audience at this opening session of the 118th annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington last Thursday night -- like Gen. Douglas MacArthur's old soldiers -- appear to be fading away?

"I can see we've conducted a war of attrition," joked Harvard's Charles Maier, as he watched his fellow association members quietly but steadily get up to leave. The scholarly papers presented under the rubric of"Thoughts on War in a Democratic Age" had been a classic academic combination of insight and obscurity, thoughtful analysis and mind-numbing delivery, and by the time the question period finally rolled around, even the AHA's president, James McPherson, was ready to head for the door.

Almost two years before, McPherson had been asked to suggest a 2004 conference theme."What about war and peace?" he'd said. Among his reasons were his own scholarly interests -- he is one of the best-known historians of the American Civil War -- and his desire to pick the kind of"big tent" topic that might attract the old-line political, diplomatic and military historians who feel that the profession has veered too far in the direction of social and cultural history. But there was an obvious third reason, he says, which was that"issues of war and peace are pretty dominant in the world today."

Yet despite being built around this unusually timely topic, the AHA conference, which will wrap up its business today, exemplifies a conundrum that faces all practitioners of history. In a world ever more dominated by rapid-fire, sound-bite-size units of information, how can they make their painstaking reconstructions of the past more relevant to the community at large?

To put it a bit more harshly: If they can't even hold the attention of their colleagues on such an innately compelling subject, how can they expect ordinary humans to absorb what they have to say?

"I was just astonished at the richness of this program," Harvard's Drew Faust was saying."War in every part of the world, in every possible century . . ."

Like McPherson, Faust is a historian of the Civil War. Sitting in the Marriott Starbucks on Thursday afternoon, she was marveling at the variety of relevant topics on the AHA menu. A brief tour of the meeting's program served to confirm her observation. Among the more than 50 war-related offerings were"Causes of War and Peace,""The Rhetoric of the Just War in Antiquity,""War and Peace in American Popular Culture,""Apocalyptic War in Medieval Christendom and Islam,""Women, War and Resistance," and, intriguingly,"The Horse at War."

The paper Faust herself was to deliver Friday morning took its title from Robert E. Lee's famous observation that if war were not so terrible,"we should grow too fond of it." In it, she used this"almost poetic expression of a too often unacknowledged truth" to ask why war so fascinates both historians and the public.

She traced the astonishing boom in Civil War history over the past 15 years or so, noting that Ken Burns's wildly successful PBS series was closely followed by our quick, dramatic victory in the Persian Gulf War, which"brought war back into fashion in America." She showed how the generation of social historians who started out in the profession, as she did, when Vietnam"was at the heart of American public life and discourse" soon found themselves drawn to the Civil War as well, and how they went on to highlight the wartime experiences of ordinary soldiers, women and African Americans.

One of the most attractive things about war, Faust observed, is its narrative power. Not only is it filled with intense human drama, but it is"defined and framed as a story, with a plot that imbues its actors with purpose and moves toward victory for one or another side." As such, it represents not"random, shapeless violence" but something that seems orderly and comprehensible to us.

Applying this point to the more recent war in Iraq, she argued that"The United States sought a war through which to respond to terrorism -- even a war against an enemy who had no relationship to September 11's terrorist acts would do -- because the nation required the sense of meaning, intention and goal-directedness, the lure of efficacy that war promises, the control that terrorism obliterates."

At the same time Faust was delivering her paper, a small cadre of military historians with a similarly small cadre of attentive listeners was dissecting a very different war in a much more specific way."Nothing but Trouble: The British Experience on the Afghan Frontier, 1849-1925" was the title of this session, which offered an abundance of contemporary relevance to chew on.

West Point's Jennie Kiesling, in her comments on the three papers delivered, noted that one obvious point of comparison was"what happens when you arm Afghan tribesmen and later want to disarm them" -- as the British did, to their chagrin, and as the United States would do more than half a century later. Ian Beckett of the U.S. Marine Corps Research Center discussed the vicious political infighting among the British statesmen and military men who were responsible for securing the Afghan frontier, and while Beckett himself drew no modern parallels, they sprang readily to mind. Melvin Charles Smith of Texas A&M International University talked about the psychological lessons to be drawn from the Tirah campaign of 1897-98.

One of the most important points to be made about conducting warfare in that part of the world, Smith reemphasized after the session, is the necessity of understanding what motivates the people you are fighting.

"What motivates you is not the same thing as what motivates your opponent," he said."You are in a different world."

In a way, history itself is a different world, at least when compared with the media-crammed, short-attention-span space we in America inhabit today. Yet to browse the presentations at the AHA conference over the past few days was to encounter again and again the kind of historical discussions with contemporary resonance that could greatly enrich the public debate -- if only one could somehow translate them into language people other than professional historians could grasp.

It was also to encounter historian after historian who was acutely aware of this translation problem.

John Lynn, who is president of the U.S. Commission on Military History, said that he had stayed to the bitter end of that soporific opening session. While he himself had found the papers extremely interesting, he said -- especially Cornell historian Isabel Hull's discussion of military necessity -- it had been"disturbing to see all those people evaporating." The temptation"to show off for the other historians" is strong, he said, but"we really have to talk to a bigger audience."

The relevance issue has"increasingly captured the attention of historians," said Richard Kohn, a former Air Force historian now at the University of North Carolina. A major stumbling block, he said, is the media, which too often go in for"the quick and the dirty and the superficial analogy." Kohn's own scheduled lecture could hardly have been more timely: His topic was the increasing extent to which U.S."institutions, policies, behaviors, thoughts and values are devoted to military power and shaped by war."

James Banner, who with former AHA president Joyce Appleby runs the History News Service, was one of the optimists in the crowd. HNS is a nonprofit syndicate that tries to improve public understanding of current events -- mainly by soliciting and distributing free op-ed pieces by historians -- and Banner believes it to be a small part of an emerging trend.

Discussing this on a panel yesterday morning, he mentioned the History News Network, a Web site that compiles and posts history-related material;"Talking History," a radio effort with similar aims; and a recent report on graduate education of historians that is"suffused with the sense" that graduate students must be prepared to reach out to audiences outside the profession. He also noted the increasing attention being paid to"public history," the presentation of the past in nonacademic settings such as museums and National Park Service sites.

James McPherson, meanwhile, who was about to step down after his year heading the AHA, gave a speech at the association's general meeting Friday night. His topic was the failed attempts to end the Civil War by negotiation before one side achieved total military victory. Leaders on both sides, McPherson said, had failed to foresee that"the war into which they plunged would last four years and cost more than 620,000 lives" -- or that, as with most wars, it would be far easier to start than to stop.

"Historians ever since have been trying," McPherson concluded,"to measure the fundamental and astounding results of that war and of others, a theme of many sessions at this 118th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which takes place in the midst of a war whose consequences, whether or not fundamental and astounding, we do not yet know, either."

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