Irregular blogging at the moment due to the end of term. So it’s only now that I’ll get round to talking about Ben Shephard’s paper to the Writing War seminar on 23 November.
Ben provided exactly the sort of paper that I had hoped for in setting up this seminar – wide-ranging, entertaining and provocative of discussion. Ben began autobiographically, explaining how his career had developed from working for a military historical publisher, to researching and interviewing for The World at War, to writing on war and psychology in his brilliant A War of Nerves. Having studied extensively The Great War TV series, I was fascinated to hear Ben talk about the process of gathering eyewitnesses for its Second World War equivalent. I suspect that there was material here for a seminar in itself on war and television history – and what I forgot to ask Ben was how/if he thought television treatment of war had moved on since the 1970s, or if The World at War was the peak.
Ben then moved on to talk about the ideas he wrote about in A War of Nerves. Fortunately for this belated blogger, the two different narratives Ben discussed and analysed have been summarised by Esther at Break of Day in the Trenches. Simply put, A War of Nerves is a great book. Ben’s efforts to return to the empirical evidence, rather than to rely on contemporary discourse and assumption, made it a field-shifting work. A friend of mine who’s working on the treatment of ‘shell-shocked’ men in the First World War suggests that Ben is not completely right about the chronology of the topic – but then it’s a book about a century of war, and I think its overall analysis is persuasive.
Instead of rehashing the book, I’ll concentrate instead on the other controversial things Ben had to say. In no particular order:
1) ‘My Dad was tougher than your Dad’ – both in his paper and in subsequent discussion, Ben vigorously defended his view that the generation which fought the Second World War was tougher than his own, and that those who fought the First World War were tougher again. To a degree, I can see his point: famously, the army now has to allow recruits to wear trainers for the first couple of months of basic training, because their feet won’t cope with boots. Given the fairly poor standard of Edwardian health and safety, the lifestyle assumptions of many of the working-class men who fought the First World War were different from our own. With no real culture of compensation or trauma, neither of the two generations which fought the total wars of the 20th century launched a series of negligence suits against the government in their aftermath (although if you look at some of those who campaigned for pensions in the 1920s, you could see some examples, I suspect). On the other hand, it is a traditional complaint of middle-aged male military historians that the younger generation doesn’t know it’s born, is a bunch of weaklings and so on. And horrible though parts of industrial Britain were at the start of the century, they weren’t the same as finding yourself under the hurricane bombardments of 21 March 1918. Does ability to withstand one equate into ability to withstand the other? As Alex Watson pointed out, purely in terms of physical size, we’re much larger and better fed as a nation than we were before 1914 or 1939. Physically, we might have become more resilient. I don’t know how Ben would answer this – but I’ve met enough small guys with something to prove to recognise that toughness is a mixture of mind and body
2) Gender and culture. Ben was rightly scathing of those who apply an overly theoretical cultural or gender studies approach to the history of war without really taking the time to understand what they’re writing about. I couldn’t agree with him more: without quoting examples, anybody who works on the history of war is well aware of the issue of historians applying a set of modern concerns to the past whilst distorting it out of all recognition. I’m not sure if that means that all these approaches are invalid in themselves. Bad history – polemical, ill-informed, reliant on theory to the exclusion of the facts – is bad history. Good history – analytical, evidence-based, nuanced and balanced, readable – is good history. What we have to work towards is a moment where it becomes an assumption that those who work on war will want to think about all its aspects – so if you work on the British army, you’ll want to think about how its soldiers constructed their own identity, but if you work on British masculinity in the twentieth century, you’ll want to actually have an accurate picture of the army and how it worked.
3) Whippersnappers. Ben argued that there was a real problem with young historians taking on big topics, like war or memory at the start of their careers. The great historians of the past, he suggested, cut their teeth on micro-studies before moving on to the grand themes. For this young historian, at the start of his career, with a book just out on war and memory, this hit home as a criticism. I am highly conscious of the difficulty of taking on these big projects with such a small amount of experience. And I am all too aware of all the things I don’t know and all the research I haven’t done. On the other hand, my ideas aren’t clouded by being the same thing I’ve proclaimed for forty years without additional thought, my brain is still agile enough to cope with new information, and the sort of nuanced history I write means that I can leave room to allow for the fact I might be wrong. So I suspect that we’re going to disagree on this one. Fortunately for Ben, since he comes from an older and therefore tougher generation, when it comes to fisticuffs, he’ll have me, no problem.
4) War and sex. Ben had a lot of very sensible stuff to say about the ways war makes servicemen obsessed by women – mostly not as oppressors or as rapists, but in a host of ways, complex, connected but sometimes contradictory. To give a couple of examples, for many of these young men, the image of ‘woman’ is still bound up with being mothered. Married soldiers become obsessed with what is happening back at the home for which they’re fighting. Ben seemed to suggest that marital infidelity was a major issue – at least for Britain in the Second World War. I was unclear about the degree to which he was looking here at discourse as opposed to reality (dread cultural terms). Was it that there was loads of infidelity going on, or was it that soldiers talked about it all the time? Or both? Catherine Merridale pointed out that, from her research into the Red Army, what often happened was that one soldier would get a Dear John letter, and that everyone else would read it or hear about it and get anxious about what was happening at home. Ben has since been in touch with me to suggest that some of the questions surrounding this issue may be resolved by Pat Thane’s upcoming project on war and illegitimacy. This will indeed be an important addition to our knowledge – but perhaps we should be just as interested in the infidelities that could have happened but didn’t. War presents young people with a host of opportunities. But my suspicion is that for most British married couples in both world wars, the most common sexual experience was abstinence and separation rather than constant infidelity. Everyone knew about those who strayed and everyone talked about them. That doesn’t mean that they all followed suit. As I point out to my WW2 students, it’s no accident that ‘Cleaning my rifle and thinking of you’ was a wartime hit.
Just as with Stefan’s paper, I’ve probably done a terrible disservice to Ben in reporting his paper in this way. For all that I disagreed with some of the things he said, I still think he’s on the side of the angels and I was hugely grateful to him for coming to speak to us. Again, those interested should try to contact him direct.