The first meeting of the Writing War Seminar was held on the evening of Wednesday 5 October. As John Stone remarked to me on the way in, running a seminar is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of an academic life, because of the difficulty of predicting who will turn up week to week. Let’s say that Catherine and I were pleased to convene a small but select group, whose expertise covered a wide range of different areas, from colonial campaigning, via the Russian steppes (1812 and 1942) to the pages of Vogue.
We kicked things off by chatting about what motivated us to initiate the seminar. To draw out three things:
1) the academic difficulty about writing about an extremity of human experience which one has not experienced oneself – and the particular dissonance between writing about combat and sitting on one’s backside pontificating about it.
2) the necessity, nonetheless, to confront and analyse war and the experience of war, given its place in history. Catherine pointed out the need to avoid being diverted into writing about the memory of war just because that was easier than writing about war itself. As someone who’s done just that, I have a slightly different take – I’d emphasise that memory/cultural/literary/theoretical studies which touch on war need to be based in an understanding of the event itself (as opposed to a set of assumptions about it which can go unchallenged because they are so widely held)
3) the difficulties of integrating the wide range of sources and styles of history into writing about war, and the particular problem of applying a narrative/analytical/coherent mode of expression to events and experiences which defy such modes by their nature.
Something which emerged from this discussion, and which would continue to exercise us over the course of the evening, was the distinction between war and combat and the blurry lines which could exist between the two.
Julian Jackson, our esteemed Head of Department, responded with a perceptive question: is there actually any difference between writing about war and writing about any other historically distant experience? Isn’t it just as hard to write about the experience of the medieval peasant as about the Second World War soldier? To an extent, of course, he’s absolutely right – and I think that’s the rationale underpinning what allows us to write about war and combat at all. We don’t have to have been there to try to understand it. But I think there are some crucial – largely cultural – differences between the two. People care, deeply and passionately, about war. They make use of beliefs about it, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. Its centrality to popular culture in particular puts an onus on us to get it right – this is something which feeds into the thread Mark Grimsley has been running on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age about military history’s tendency to promote ‘Shadow Warriors’ – subjects of fantasy rather than ‘useful’ models for historical understanding or civil society.
Veterans, of course, care more than most. And as anyone who has tried to write or talk about war in the presence of those who have seen the elephant knows, it can be difficult for an academic to respond to the criticism that we ‘are fascinated by war but don’t know much about it’. Medieval peasants being few on the ground these days, this isn’t the sort of heckling that some of our other colleague’s experience.
A second question, and one which I think we are going to have to address over the next few months, is whether we are actually talking about a historical constant at all. Although we’re talking about ‘war’, we’re really discussing a very specific subset of wars – those fought in the last 150 years between western states. Can we point to elements in war/combat and its representation which are constant across place and time?
A third issue, and one that I think Cathy is particularly eager to discuss, is what’s in it for us? What leads historians of war onto the subject? Where does their fascination come from? Why do people read what we write? Are we feeding an unhealthy obsession (in ourselves and in our audience)? What is our moral position? (I think I need more time to ponder this)
The group discussed some possible future sessions. These will largely depend on who’s available and keen. We’ve got some offers for next term, but I’d welcome more expressions of interest – mailed to my qmul address.
Topics we will definitely cover in coming months
- Literature and writing
- Material culture of war and the mediation of experience
- The Home Front – minds/materials/participation in fighting
- Journalism and the media
We’d like to make a particular effort to broaden our horizons by including as many different scholars as possible. We are actively looking to recruit those who work on non-European war, early modern and medieval war, religion and war – from whatever disciplinary background.
I was tremendously pleased with the way the evening went. The best bits about it, as far as I was concerned, were the informal but academically rigorous atmosphere that was established, the fact that everyone said something (the advantages of a smaller group) and the feeling of positive encouragement – that this is a project people are interested in and willing to support.