Essay: Jeremy Black's Rethinking Military History

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Rethinking Military History

The goal of Jeremy Black's book Rethinking Military History is simultaneously modest and groundbreaking, in that he considers it "a short 'ideas book'" that nevertheless attempts "to re-position military history at the beginning of the twenty-first century" by identifying and challenging what he views as the central problems facing military history.

He recognizes the potentially hubristic quality of his approach by noting that this "is the sort of remark guaranteed to raise every reviewer's ire," but thankfully, for the most part Black does manage to succeed in succinctly outlining the practical issues facing military history without becoming overwhelmed by the task.

In particular, one must laud Black for the careful structuring of his argument, because like with the most successful theoretical texts, he begins by outlining the problem, describing and justifying his particular theoretical approach, and then concludes with an actual application of that approach to the subject at hand in order to clearly demonstrate its efficacy. However, while Black's analysis of military history goes a long way towards identifying its major problems and offering solutions, he seems to err somewhat by not considering the symbiotic relationship between the discipline and its object, in the sense that he regards military historiography as a field apart from the military itself, such that he fails to recognize that some of the major issues facing military historiography stem not solely from the practice of historians, but rather from their reliance on distinctions and definitions provided by the very military apparatus they discuss. This issue will become clear when considering Black's consideration of the historical distinction between land and sea operations and capabilities, although it pops up elsewhere.

In the preface, Black outlines what he sees as the most pressing issues facing military history, and he is careful to note that these issues stem not so much from the larger practice of military historiography, but rather the particular topics and concepts that historiography focuses on. Black argues that the practice of military history suffers from:

a) Eurocentricity, more specifically, a focus on Europe, especially Western Europe and North America, or rather, the U.S.A.

b) a technological bias in explaining military capability, and a fascination with technology in accounting for military developments, more specifically a 'machinization' of war.

c) a focus on leading powers and dominant military systems, leading to a paradigm/diffusion model of military capability and change.

d) a separation of land from sea conflict in most of the analysis.

e) a focus on state-to-state conflict, rather than on the use of force within states. […]

f) a lack of focus on political 'tasking' in the setting of force structures, doctrines and goals, and in the judging of military success.

Some of these problems can be viewed as specific examples of more general problems that have faced historiography, such as a focus on Europe and the United States at the expense of the rest of the world, or the fetishizing tendency to view technology as the primary (and sometimes, singular) driver of historical development. In these instances, Black is not proposing something new as much as attempting to bring military history up to the standards of other fields; for example, while literary and cultural studies have confronted their own colonial myopia since at least the 1970s thanks to the work of Edward Said and others, military history has remained largely concerned with the "great" exploits of the Western world, or, when it has considered the larger world, it has done so via extremely problematic, Eurocentric lenses, such as Samuel Huntington's notion of the "clash of civilizations," lenses that ultimately serve to misinform the public not only about the Western development of war, but also the complexities of military history as such.

As such, military history has largely consisted of "thought about the place of war in Western societies," rather than the function and development of war in general.

Other issues are simply matters of arbitrary distinctions, and their problematic nature can be understood with little argument. For example, the largely unnecessary distinction between land and sea conflicts that Black points out appears problematic with even a cursory consideration of military history, because although "the unnatural character of fighting at sea, and the need for specialized facilities in the form of ships, provide a very different context from that of conflict at land […] it is not helpful to study it without the comparative context provided by conflict on land and in the air.."

This is as unhelpful as, for example, discussing rural, agrarian communities without bothering to mention how they differ from urban, industrialized ones.

Black notes that "a distinct institutional context, in the shape of naval academies, has helped to underline the difference, as has the practice of naval history," but he does not bother to examine the relationship between the two, something that would have greatly contributed to his larger argument.

That is to say, it seems reasonable to presume that the distinction made in military history between land and sea conflict is not due solely to "the sense among publishers that there is a distinctive and important market" in regards to these two areas of conflict, but rather to the fact that in some ways, military historiography has merely adopted the distinctions held by militaries themselves. In other words, the fact that most major national militaries continue to maintain official divisions between their land, air, and sea forces, even as modern conflict usually involves a highly coordinated effort between them, almost certainly contributes to the academic tendency to consider these forces and conflicts as distinct phenomenon. This omission stands out precisely because Black is so careful to point out that "it is necessary to appreciate the pluralistic nature of warfare and then to build this into theoretical discussions about the process of military development."

While Black recognizes the importance of challenging received wisdom regarding the supposedly clear-cut nature of warfare, he seemingly ignores one of the most common means by which military historians have failed to challenge this wisdom. While this should not be taken as a questioning of Black's motives, the fact that he seems reluctant or unable to recognize the influence militaries themselves have on the practice of military historiography seems indicative of a tendency in the field to treat the object of study with a kind of reverence, such that the detrimental influence of military standards on the critical rigor of military historiography is not adequately considered. Again, this failure is made all the more evident due to the fact that one element of Black's project is to bring military history in line with the critical and academic standards of other fields, and this kind of reluctance to note the ideological aura of militaries themselves is one factor that seems have kept military history from exhibiting the same critical rigor as other fields.

Part of the blame for this may placed on the way military history constructs itself as "the study of military institutions and practices and of the conduct of war in the past," because this construction implicitly imagines military historiography as independent of actual military organization and practice, when in fact the latter plays a substantial role in providing the divisions, definitions, and focus of the former.

By viewing itself as "the study of conflict, the management of conflict, and the possibilities left by that conflict," military history cripples itself because it fails to acknowledge the role it plays in that conflict; in other words, by regarding itself as apart from the military itself, military history has failed to sufficiently account for the ideological structures which inform its particular conception of history.

Again, one may view this issue as an example of military historiography lagging behind other fields, because, for example, literary criticism has long acknowledged the reciprocal relationship between criticism and its object. This same problem appears implicitly in Black's discussion of "the problem with sources," because while he is careful to note that military history has frequently relied on incomplete or contradictory sources, he never considers that historical and contemporary military organization and practice serves as an implicit source in and of itself, whether or not military historians realize it.

This problematic facet of Black's approach is so frustrating precisely because at times he seems so close to acknowledging it; for example, in one of his essays, Black begins by noting that "the kind of scholar who works in the field generally seeks a more 'hands on' approach," and that this approach frequently blinds the scholar to the influence of the object itself on the researcher.

Recognizing that Black's move away from Eurocentricity is merely a movement towards the contemporary standards of other historical disciplines, and that his discussion of land and sea conflict suffers from a seeming inability to recognize the influence actual militaries have on military history, leads one to what is perhaps the most important element of his argument, which is the challenging of technology as the primary driver of historical development and the historical disinclination towards considering… [END OF PREVIEW]

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