Updates available!

August 31, 2005

My ACUME paper is available to read at Mark Grimsley’s site. Many thanks to Mark for hosting the paper. I’d be very grateful for any feedback.

My fellow member of the Jay Winter Supervisee’s Club, Jessica Meyer, is organising a conference on the representation of the First World War in Newcastle next year. The closing date is almost upon us (15th September). I promised a submission: time to put my thinking cap on again.

Upcoming – some thoughts on previous blogs/comments about ‘military cultural memory’, involving the useful concept of the military experience ratio.

Comparative Cultural History (2)

August 29, 2005

One topic of abiding interest to me has been how soldiers learn. Partly about how armies teach them, but much more what they learn informally, not least before they join the army, about what it is to be a soldier and what they should expect of war. This has particular importance for the writing of military history given the things I learned at Giessen about the importance of preformation of expectation in the shaping of experience (see ACUME (2) below).
One thing that forms soldiers’ expectations and experience of war is what they know about previous conflicts. In some cases, of course, they may have participated in these earlier wars, but otherwise they may have learned about them through a mixture of family participation, popular culture and more formal education.
As an example of this mix of expectation and experience, consider British soldiers in the Second World War. Most had grown up in an atmosphere where the First World War was both celebrated and mourned. As children they learned that the trenches had been terrible – but also that heroism and self-sacrifice were still possible, and that the defining experience of masculinity was soldiering. When the Second World War came, most Britons did not avoid military service. They did seek, where they could, to join ‘clean’ arms (the navy, the air force, anything but the PBI). Those who did end up in terrestrial combat arms continued to make use of their forefathers’ experiences as a sort of emotional talisman. There’s plentiful evidence of Second World War infantrymen – often those who experienced what were, by any definition, awful wars – saying to themselves “This is bad, but it’s not the worst. If my father could serve for three years in Flanders, then I can stick this. At least I’m not in that war.”
Sam Hynes has some useful stuff on this in The Soldiers’ Tale I think – primarily about Vietnam.
What about other wars? Using some of the comparators suggested below, what formed soldiers’ cultural expectations? Lots has been written about the literary basis for First World War soldiers’ world view. Much less about what they had learned from fathers/older brothers/uncles/their own involvement in the Boer War or the pre-war militia or TF. With the American Civil War, I recall that many of the men who held senior command had won their spurs in the Mexican War, but the forces engaged were small relative to the American population. What were the popular ‘memories’ of 1812 – or the Napoleonic Wars, given the mass of European immigration at the time?
Again, new comments always welcome: I’m finding the blogging inspirational to thought, as you can tell.

Comparative Cultural History

August 28, 2005

Right, away from the literature/history dichotomy that seems to have been dominating my writing here since it began, some actual WWI related thoughts. One of the problems of British history of the First World War – both that which examines the war itself and that which looks at its mythic aftermath – is that the war tends to viewed as unique.
Spurred on by the writings of John Terraine, British military historians have tried to place the Western Front in the context of other modern total wars, but often on a comparatively simple level. This usually takes the form of a statistical comparison of rates of recruitment, numbers of divisions and percentage losses. Useful to a degree (although a statistic is like a glove puppet – stick your hand far enough up its backside and it’ll say anything) – but often decontextualised.
This is much more, however, than analysts of the British mythology/cultural memory have done. Although there have been attempts to compare British remembrance with that of other participants in the First World War – see the work of Stefan Goebel and Jenny Macleod – there hasn’t so far as I know, been a proper comparison with other wars over the long term, in an effort to bring out the effects of anniversaries, generational change, cultural context and so on.

What might be our criteria for choosing other wars? Off the top of my head, some combination of:
1) scale and totality – level of popular involvement
2) media context – presence of myth-making and spreading structures
3) subsequent impact – how well have they been remembered?
4) ease of access to resources – including, for the moment, my lack of linguistic skills/background knowledge – although my French isn’t too bad, my French history is rubbish.

On these grounds, I wondered about comparisons with:
The English Civil War (huge popular involvement, very different media context)
The Napoleonic Wars (in Britain relatively much less popular involvement (depending on how we rate militia service), different media context)
The Indian Mutiny (following a suggestion from Astrid Erll) (tiny popular involvement but huge impact at the time, start of the modern media age – photographs)
The American Civil War – the most obvious source of comparison, I think
The Boer War
Second World War – obvious and probably already being written.

The idea would be to follow through the mythology of these wars in the century or so after they ended, examine how their myths developed and changed, and compare these processes to those which operated in Britain, 1918-2008ish.

Responses, anyone?


August 26, 2005

What was a war historian to make of all this?

The atmosphere between the youngest generation of history and literary studies academics is much friendlier than it used to be. There is a lot for us to learn: particularly on reading texts and using cognitive psychology. The boundary between the disciplines here is sometimes pretty blurred.
That having been said, there are some areas in which our academic paradigms are still very different. Military history (as distinct from war history) does, I think, encourage a pragmatic, empiricist approach. The result is that I can bristle at an overly theoretical – or an overly metaphysical/metaphorical – approach. There does seem to be a tendency amongst literary scholars to say ‘the well established fact that…’ where ‘well established seems to mean ‘asserted by lots of other eminent literary theorists’ rather than ‘proven by use of evidence’. I suspect I’ll get some flak for saying that, but I think plenty of literary scholars would acknowledge these faults – just as I would acknowledge the numerous problems in my own discipline. One of them is an unwillingness to theorise – so perhaps this is swings and roundabouts.
There is also a more general issue which I think relates to the place of war in popular culture. In this field in particular there is a tendency to regard strongly held beliefs as historical facts. By its nature, modern war attracts strong beliefs and assumptions. ‘War is bad’, ‘Armies (and generals) are stupid’, ‘All war is traumatic’. Lay readers, literary scholars – and many military historians – often end up inflicting these beliefs on the past, imposing ahistoric judgments because of what they ‘know’ to be the truth.

I was surprised that I was the only speaker at the conference to consider audience reaction. I think that reception studies is an area that some literary scholars are interested in, so I’m surprised that nobody working on this area spoke. Even if excellent work being done on the creation of these texts, without studying the whole process we are hardly looking at ‘cultural memory’. Many of those working in the field of literature are telling us how the roads are made, but they don’t seem to be paying much attention to the atlas.


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