New History, Old History

“History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction set by liberty and the Author of Liberty,” President Bush remarked in his second inauguration speech. There is a reference to God here, but also, perhaps, a reference to Hegel. For Bush, the “visible direction” is, indeed, very visible: “We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe and liberated death camps and helped raise up democracies and faced down an evil empire,” he told the American people in his 2006 State of the Union Address. “Once again, we accept the call of history.”

For all that the President invoked a glorious American past, however, he also spoke of a profound rupture in history. “On September 11,” the President declared, “night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself was under attack.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, talked of “unknown unknowns” and a “war like none other our nation has faced.” In a 2001 op-ed article entitled “A New Kind of War,” Rumsfeld wrote, “Even the vocabulary of this war will be different. When we ‘invade the enemy’s territory,’ we may well be invading his cyberspace … Forget about ‘exit strategies’; we’re looking at a sustained engagement that carries no deadlines … ‘Battles’ will be fought by customs officers.” Suddenly, it seemed sustained military engagement and expanded state surveillance were as new to America as cyberspace (forget Vietnam and J. Edgar Hoover). Indeed, it appeared the war was so new that it defied Rumsfeld’s descriptive powers: “It is easier to describe what lies ahead by talking about what it is not rather than what it is,” he wrote. Whatever the “new kind of war” was, it was not something citizens could judge against historical standards.

Rhetoric that invokes “the call of history” as it declares a “new kind of war” is by no means the unique invention of the Bush Administration. “A New Kind of War” was, for instance, the title given to a 1965 article in Time magazine that declared, “Not only Vietnamese nationhood but all of free Asia stands to be ultimately strengthened by the extraordinary—and still burgeoning—commitment of the lives and talent and treasure of America in Viet Nam.” It would seem that Americans have been speaking of a “new kind of war” for the better part of the last century, and Bush’s account of American diplomatic history is, in many ways, reminiscent of those narratives that dominated Cold War rhetoric. This kind of political discourse raises important questions, both about how we remember past US conflicts and how we then do (or do not) historicize the present. If it is true that history is commonly invoked in war rhetoric, it is also true that wars themselves act back on the writing of history, and the example of the Vietnam War reminds us that the discipline is more contested than it was fifty years ago. At the university in particular, the experience of the Vietnam War transformed talk of an American past. Indeed, the very Cold War narratives that Bush echoes are the same ones that, forty years ago, made many historians reevaluate the way they approached their discipline. Bush may repeat old paradigms, but he also repeats paradigms that have fallen out of fashion, at least in academic historical discourse. Today, it seems appropriate to consider this shift and look again at how the history of foreign conflict is taught.

The schools of social and radical history that attained prominence in the 1960s had been especially marginalized in the decade before. This fact is not insignificant: disillusionment with Cold War “consensus history” had a profound impact on the development of oppositional history in the decades to come. Deeply troubled by the Vietnam War, historians in the 1960s and 1970s were often similarly disturbed by the extent to which their own discipline had produced an account of history that seemed to justify aggressive American foreign policy. In 1950s textbooks, they found a single narrative of American triumphalism. Such accounts conflated Nazi and Soviet regimes, analyzing both exclusively through the lens of totalitarian theory. Moreover, such politicized narratives were written in a voice that was authoritative and ostensibly objective. Meanwhile, the freedom movements of the 1960s and 70s also generated new historical fields such as black history and women’s history. These disciplines informed revisionist history and also rejected the idea of a unitary American people joined together in a common past.

In a country where foreign wars are fought on foreign shores, and where victory has often freed leaders from having to account for less than honorable conduct, oppositional accounts of war history are perhaps especially important. As historians have developed more critical accounts of American diplomacy, they have, for instance, complicated the idea of the “good war” and brought new attention to conduct never tried before any international court. Likewise, women’s history, with its transnational focus and identification, has helped bring the topic of wartime rape into public consciousness in a country that has dispatched occupying soldiers without ever receiving them.

Yet, as these fields expose some of the darker instances in American history, they by no means guarantee that the student will be able to recognize where he himself might have been complicit. While many history students may denounce the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fewer of them actively engage with what it means to be a passive civilian in a country engaged in unethical warfare. Columbia History Professor Carol Gluck reflects on the challenges of teaching a seminar on World War II: “It’s not enough to study war and understand it, if you still that think it’s happening over there somewhere, and it’s not connected to you as a human being—what you might or might not do in a given situation.” She asks, “How do you get people to understand that we may be in someway contributing to a situation now that we are easily able to judge when people let it happen, so to speak, in the 1930s? … It’s not only that we don’t connect the present to the past. It’s also that we don’t connect the present to ourselves.”

In recent decades, historians have, no doubt, done tremendously important work recovering the voices of previously marginalized groups. Still, as “outsiders’ history” now becomes widely popular, one is also left to wonder if the right students always recognize themselves in the right historical actors. The term “people’s history,” for instance, is itself dangerously nebulous. Nowhere is this tension felt more clearly than in the work of Howard Zinn, who has attained a celebrity status known to few historians. “It is good that we are getting more history from below,” he writes. “We have believed too long in our own helplessness.” It would seem almost all readers are equally “from below,” and, indeed, Zinn declares the “commonality of the 99%,” divided against one another by an American elite. The American elite, it should be noted, is a constantly shifting category within Zinn’s writing, almost super-human. The individuals who comprise it are racists and exploiters, and if some of “the people” are also racists and exploiters, it is because the elite has made them so.

The reductive thinking that characterizes Zinn’s writing is by no means representative of all people’s history—the field’s scholarship is greatly varied, of course, and it has also evolved in the past decades as historians have complicated one another’s arguments and moved towards more self-reflective, complex understandings. But historians with social commitments of all kinds often find themselves similarly caught between the desire to address their subject matter in all its ambiguity and the desire to find a “usable past,” something that can mobilize readers and create a constructive historical consciousness. The popularity of Zinn’s work, meanwhile, reminds us that the most complex accounts are not always the most well-liked. It suggests, further, that readers are not only eager to hear the voice of the oppressed, but eager also to identify themselves with the victim. And, finally, the selective way in which many of Zinn’s readers have approached his work shows that it is perhaps easier to disavow all of American history than to become an actively dissenting citizen.

People’s history and social history have also had a profound impact on military history. If, fifty years ago, social history and military history seemed to operate in entirely distinct planes, today we see evermore overlap between the two. The term “new military history” describes an already well-established field of scholarship that explores the social and institutional context of military conflict. Where traditional military history tends to focus on high commanders and battle tactics, “new military history” instead investigates the social composition of the army and the interrelations that define its place within the rest of society. Such recent scholarship tends to be less concerned with the battles themselves, and, certainly, less concerned with operational history. In part, this diference may exist because the accounts of battle that are so central to traditional military history are often stigmatized, associated with “drum and trumpet” narratives interested in only generals. Certainly, however, this needn’t be the case, and it is difficult to believe that one can understand much of a soldier’s war experience if one never engages with the battle itself.

Columbia Professor Kenneth T. Jackson, who specializes in military history as well as social and urban history, notes that professional academic circles are more receptive to social military history than they are to traditional, battle-centered and operational military history. Speaking more generally on military history within the university, he also notes, “Military history has never had a respected place in the American academy.” This fact, he points out, is striking given that there is a larger public interest in military history than in almost any other historical field. Amazon’s online list of most popular history books more than confirms this, and one is left to wonder about some of the larger implications of the disconnect between commercial and academic interest in military history. While certainly academic historical discourse should not be subject to the vectors of popular taste and the commercial market, perhaps military history should not be either.

Remembering how he had to turn off the television when watching a death scene in Saving Private Ryan, Professor Jackson reflects, “I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read about military history and battles. They know it’s important, but they also know that it’s horrible, and so they really don’t want to read about some Pal’s battalion from Birmingham, England getting wiped out on Serre Road at Somme on July 1, 1916. It’s just too painful. Just let me just know it was awful. Enough said.” He also notes that battle-centered accounts of military history rarely contain such gruesomeness: “There’s a kind of chess aspect too it, that’s slightly detached from the groans and the pain of people calling for their mothers. You don’t spend a lot of time talking about the ugliness of it, the ugliness of the wounded person.”

If Americans are largely insulated from the experience of actual warfare, and if there is something of a gap between the American civilian population and its professional army, then it may be especially important for war history to convey the particularities of the battle experience, the tactical thinking that shapes it, and the suffering of those who experience it. The commander’s order is significant to social history, and the ugliness of the wounded person is significant to operational military history. Indeed, historians critical of American wars should by no means abandon the study of American generals—it is difficult, after all, to offer any meaningful critique of war policy if one does not first have a sense of how military tactics are adapted and abandoned, and how one can gauge the magnitude of a given casualty number, both in relative and human terms. Perhaps the challenge of responsible scholarship is twofold: we must look at history with a sharp and critical eye, but we must also locate ourselves within it.