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.