Dr Isaac Land provides an important analysis of the “state-of-the-field” of maritime history, and discusses the relationship between gender history and traditional operational history.
In a new article, Richard Blakemore remarks that “Maritime history seems to be suffering an identity crisis.”[i] I am not sure that this statement would win universal assent. Joshua M. Smith draws attention to the success of maritime historians in engaging a wide nonacademic readership; Gelina Harlaftis points to the rising numbers of attendees at maritime history conferences as a sign of strength and cohesiveness; Richard Harding notes that The Mariner’s Mirror was “untroubled by the vitriolic debates between historians and philosophers of history of the 1980s and 1990s.” [ii] Of course, protestations that there is no identity crisis could themselves be a sign that something is afoot.
Reading these thought-pieces reminds me of some equivalent “state-of-the-field” articles from across the way in military history, in particular one by Wayne Lee and another by Robert Citino. [iii] (I will leave it to others to dissect the reasons why naval historians do not necessarily identify as military historians, and vice versa.) If historians of armies faced their identity crisis a little earlier, and claim to have emerged on the other side stronger than ever, it may be worth conducting an audit of sorts to see just where they have ended up, and what paths brought them there.
The process has not been an easy one for them. Discussing John Lynn’s book Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, Citino notes that Lynn has been ambivalent about change, and that his relationship to new methodologies remains “ambiguous.” [iv] Citino offers an interesting summary of Lynn’s compromise: Battle “offers a promising new cultural approach to the study of war, but it also demonstrates the limits to which most military historians feel they can go without breaking faith with their subject.” [v] [my italics] Thus, the problem becomes how to balance a frustration with “the estrangement of military history from the main lines of the discipline” [vi] with a loyalty to core values that have defined the subfield for some time.
I have a degree of empathy for Lynn’s dilemma, because I feel the same thing coming from the opposite direction. Gender history and cultural history also have core values, concerns, and priorities, and even in dialogue with other subfields they cannot surrender them lightly. I write today as one of those people from Citino’s “main lines of the discipline” (or, if you prefer, as one of Blakemore’s “other scholars”). [vii] If you would like to know more about me, I have sketched out my background here and here.
My goal in this short essay is not to get bogged down in definitions or theory; readers who want an orientation to gender history can look elsewhere. Rather, I have some questions about practice. When do we discuss gender now? Where do we locate it? Granted that it is no longer absent from the scholarship on armies, navies, and the conduct of warfare, why does gender turn up regularly in certain contexts, and not in others?
The Innocuous Supplement
The Cambridge History of War (volume IV: “War in the Modern World,” covering 1850 to 2005) came out in 2012. [viii] The remit of “war” here goes well beyond logistics, doctrine, and operational history. This volume includes chapters on prisoners of war, home fronts, and postwar military occupations; chapters on commemoration and memory; chapters on arms control conferences and peace movements. There is even a separate chapter just on everyday militarism (the culture of schoolrooms, the Boy Scouts, and so forth). The gender balance of the contributors to this volume is roughly equal, and one contributor—Jean Quataert—is an editor of the Journal of Women’s History.
What is striking, however, is that the volume divides neatly into two parallel tracks. On one track, there are chapters on the waging of war, and on the other, chapters on the aftereffects of violence, or efforts to mitigate violence. To put it bluntly, the planning and calculating, shooting and dying, winning and losing occur in one set of chapters; the healing, humanitarianism, and commemoration in a separate set. I cannot speak to any conscious design on the part of the editors, but the outcome was that people with a gender history or cultural history background were invited in to discuss what might be called the least military aspects in their own set of tidily separated chapters.
Then there is the subject matter that didn’t make it in, despite the putative “big tent” approach. For example, one interesting and controversial development over the course of the last 100 years has been the expanding role of women in the military, a complex phenomenon that has proceeded at different paces in different countries and that has met with some opposition. This might logically have merited a chapter of its own, but does not receive one. Another topic that surely deserves serious attention in a comprehensive treatment of modern violence is the use of rape as a weapon of war. Japan’s comfort women receive one sentence; the Serbian rape camps none.
Easy enough, you may say, to fault a book that covers the whole planet and more than one and a half centuries on omissions. I agree that omissions are inevitable, and that the editors’ task was unenviable. The point is that there is a pattern to the omissions, and this has consequences for what sort of analysis can be attempted, or even contemplated. Is rape a lamentable exception, an occasional failure of discipline, or was there something systematic and intrinsic about the place of rape in some of these conflicts? One stark, simple, and memorably brief sentence stands out for me: “Young men with guns abused power.” [ix] (For some context about why this is missing the point, please see recent remarks by Elisabeth Wood and William Hague.) The laconic treatment of rape contrasts with the nuanced, up-to-date discussion of other topics in their full complexity, for example about where computers, satellites, and drones should fit into defense doctrine. [x]
According to some definitions of military history, this all makes perfect sense. Geoffrey Best, writing in History Today, put it this way:
“Did involvement in ‘war and society’ studies or research into the ethics and law of war make one a ‘military historian’? By now I feel sure it didn’t and doesn’t. Military history’s speciality, I conclude, is Battles and how to fight them, Campaigns and how to conduct them, and the ways armed forces gear themselves up for these special tasks. All the rest of the war-related work that has been going on since the 1960s… is, in its better bits and in its educational effects, magnificent—but it is not military history proper, and even the best of it may not include any proper military history at all.” [xi]
I found Best’s short essay online, and only belatedly discovered that it had first been published in 1984. The vision of military history that he outlines, however, would seem to be alive and well today.
Some time ago, Joan Scott warned against including gender history as the “innocuous supplement” to what historians were doing already, in effect checking off a box and treating inclusion as the same thing as a full and thoughtful integration. [xii] If gender studies and cultural history are included but never integrated, then the more traditional topics within military history carry on essentially unchanged, or at least uninformed by these approaches that have been successfully kept at arm’s length.
This—from my point of view, at least—is the worst-case scenario. Perhaps a more likely outcome is that the imbalances and discrepancies I have mentioned will be noticed by many others, and future historians will try to address them. Yet that process of adjustment cannot even begin if the prevailing mood is one of self-congratulation. Robert Citino writes: “… military historians continue to pursue a research agenda that in its breadth and sophistication takes a back seat to no other area in historical inquiry. In recent years, moreover, this research has taken the field into areas that should have a great deal of appeal to broader segments of the profession.” He adds, “The truth is that scholarly military history has developed over the past few decades into the very epitome of the big tent.” [xiii]
These are all testable propositions, and I hope it is not too offensive on my part to point out that the way to test them (do the new areas have appeal to the broader segments? is it a big tent?) is probably not for military historians to self-assess their progress, or raise a “mission accomplished” banner without checking to see how outsiders are reacting.
Paths to Integration
What would a more integrated approach look like? One of the more interesting developments in military history in recent years has been the appearance of Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power and the many responses and rebuttals that it provoked. In a much-quoted passage, Hanson declares:
“Students of war must never be content to learn merely how men fight a battle, but must always ask why soldiers fight as they do, and what ultimately their battle is for… The tragic paradox of warfare is that so often courage, audacity, and heroism on the battlefield—what brave warriors can do, see, hear, and feel in the heat of killing—are overshadowed by elements far larger, abstract, and often insidious… Hannibal… [was] pitted against the faceless and anonymous institutions of republicanism and civic militarism itself… Citizens, as it turns out, are history’s deadliest killers.” [xiv]
This holistic approach to military history has many possible applications, even if one is not especially convinced by Hanson’s particular implementation of it. Carnage and Culture has been met with many quibbles and critiques, but his insistence upon the importance of viewing cultures as a whole seems to have had staying power. For example, John Lynn’s book Battle, although it structures itself as a rebuttal of Hanson, retains the concept that culture is decisive, and battlefield behavior is not readily disentangled from the system of values that shaped those soldiers in the first place. By ranging across radically different types of soldiers and societies (Greek hoplites, Indian sepoys, Egyptian troops in the era of Anwar Sadat), Lynn demonstrates the potential strength and depth of the cultural approach.
Integrating gender history into the history of armies and navies must, eventually, mean finding a way for it to speak about combat, or contribute to discussions about combat. One suspects that Victor Davis Hanson is no special friend of gender history (for his views on recent academic trends, see his web essay “Who Killed Homer?”), but he has inadvertently prepared the ground for a useful dialogue here. Both Carnage and Culture and Lynn’s Battle devote considerable attention to codes of warfare (what is the purpose of the violence; what is a legitimate weapon to use; what is an honorable tactic; what would victory look like); the history of the military, here, converges with the history of attitudes about honor, loyalty, and masculine pride. Honor is familiar territory for gender historians, and it also offers a bridge between operational history and some of the subject matter that the Cambridge History of War didn’t manage to address: qualms about woman warriors; the ways in which violence can be used deliberately to dishonor and humiliate; concerns about unmanly conduct; the history of reprisal and atrocity. [xv]
Another theme that Carnage and Culture put front and center was the problem of what motivates the warrior at the most difficult moments. Sentimentality and the management of emotion are, again, areas where gender historians can make a meaningful contribution, as Joanne Bailey’s article “Weeping Sailors and British Manliness” has recently reminded us. By focusing on the sailor’s tear (which could be at the moment of homecoming but also at the height of the battle or at the moment of death), Bailey offers a usefully open-ended approach encompassing not only “sailors ashore” but the emotional regime aboard the ship itself.
What this kind of work requires is not easy: historians that write with a foot in both historiographical camps. Quintin Colville’s article on “Royal Naval Officers and their Shipboard Homes,” encouragingly, begins with relevant work done on gender in non-military contexts and takes this as the springboard and reference point going forward. [xvi] I would predict that the most important interventions from gender history will, in fact, take the form of projects that blur the academic boundaries so thoroughly that reviewers will have difficulty saying where the naval history leaves off and the gender history begins, or vice versa.
If the process appears easy, that may be a sign that engagement remains incomplete. In 1995, Frank Broeze remarked with satisfaction and evident relief that in “contrast to other fields,” the entry of women into the maritime history community had not been “accompanied by ideological schism and unproductive conflict.” [xvii] If gender history is present, but it surprises no one, challenges no one, and asks no uncomfortable questions, is that a sign of progress, or does it suggest that there is something wrong?
[i] Richard J. Blakemore, “Thinking Outside the Gundeck: Maritime History, the Royal Navy and the Outbreak of British Civil War, 1625-42,” Historical Journal; “Early View” published online January 15, 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/%28ISSN%291468-2281/earlyview
[ii] Joshua M. Smith, “Far Beyond Jack Tar: Maritime Historians and the Problem of Audience,” Coriolis 2, no. 2 (2011), 1-11; Gelina Harlaftis, “Maritime History or the History of Thalassa,” in The New Ways of History: Developments in Historiography, ed. Harlaftis et al. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 211-237; Richard Harding, “The Society for Nautical Research: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going?” Mariner’s Mirror 97, no. 1 (Feb 2011), 10-21, quoted page 17.
[iii] Wayne E. Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” Journal of American History 93, no. 4 (March 2007), 1116-1142; Robert M. Citino, “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (October 2007), 1070-1090.
[iv] Citino, “Military Histories,” 1086; he is referring to John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America, revised and updated ed. (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2004).
[v] Citino, “Military Histories,” 1087.
[vi] Citino, “Military Histories,” 1089-1090.
[vii] Blakemore, “Thinking Outside the Gundeck,” 2.
[viii] Roger Chickering, Dennis Showalter, and Hans van de Ven, eds., The Cambridge History of War, volume IV: War and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
[ix] Cambridge History of War, vol. IV, 430.
[x] Cambridge History of War, vol. IV, 420-421; 572-573.
[xi] “What is Military History?” http://www.historytoday.com/michael-howard/what-military-history Accessed January 14, 2014. This piece appeared originally in History Today 34, no. 12.
[xii] Laura Lee Downs, Writing Gender History, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 3.
[xiii] Citino, “Military Histories,” 1070.
[xiv] Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 131.
[xv] For an interesting treatment of combat and culture as it relates to an all-female fighting force, see François Guillemot, “Death and Suffering at First Hand: Youth Shock Brigades during the Vietnam War, 1950-1975,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4, no. 3 (Fall 2009), 17-60.
[xvi] Quintin Colville, “Corporate Domesticity and Idealised Masculinity: Royal Naval Officers and their Shipboard Homes, 1918-39,” Gender and History 21, no. 3 (November 2009), 499-519.
[xvii] Frank Broeze, “Maritime History at the Crossroads: A Critical Review of Recent Historiography,” in Maritime History at the Crossroads: A Critical Review of Recent Historiography, ed. Frank Broeze (St. John’s, Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1995), ix-xxi, quoted page xvii.