Posts Tagged ‘military history’

Well, twelve questions really, but the if you have a classroom with sliding chalkboards, as I did, you can hide the last two until you’re ready to reveal them. Currently taking a break at #AHA2015, and decided to take advantage of some down time to get this post out.

This was probably my favorite and most successful lesson from HI301 this past semester. We devote eight lessons to Napoleon and the wars of the French Revolution, and despite what you might think, most students know little about Napoleon beyond the dubious facts that he was “a short French dude” (as any aficionado knows, he wasn’t short, and he wasn’t really French). Thus the sheer volume of battles and wars is like polar bear swimming, and even the best students can have difficulty navigating things. It is at this moment that the approach of the individual instructor becomes extremely important: either you structure classes such that students can work their way to the big picture and big ideas, or you fall back on minutiae such as where each corps commander was in a given battle. Well, except Davout. ALWAYS know where Davout was. Even in 1813…

But I digress. Anyway, this particular lesson came just over half way through the Napoleon block, and my goal was two-fold. First, guide my students through a Socratic chain of reasoning, building the next question on the preceding question, so that they can work through a complex, sweeping argument. Second, and this was the big “reveal” at the end of class, to help them understand, in some measure, why Clausewitz felt that he had to begin with that most basic question, “What is war?”

So, here are the questions that they had to work through:

1. What is the point?

2. What does victory look like?

3. Who is the enemy?

4. Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.

5. How *could* you defeat the enemy?

6. Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable?

7. Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?

8. Now, can you defeat the enemy?

9. If you can’t, then why are you using military force?

10. Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations?

And then, the two bonus questions:

11. Or, are they due to the nature of war?

12. What is war?

To break these down somewhat:


If you live in the New York City area this January, and are an historian, you’re in luck: the AHA is in our back yard this time around. Of course, we’ve also been thrown a curve ball in that New Year’s Day is a Thursday, so the conference goes all the way through Monday (ick…).  Now, from a medievalist’s perspective the AHA tends to be pretty grim. There are very, very few premodern sessions, and the ones that do exist aren’t always in one’s area of interest. That being said, here are the sessions that caught my eye in the program, complete with hyperlink to more detailed information. Maybe I’ll see you at some of them!

Friday, January 2

AHA Session 2  Teaching and Learning the Great War in the Digital Age

Time and Place: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM, Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton, Second Floor)

Society of Civil War Historians 2 Contested Loyalty: Debates over Patriotism in the Civil War North

Time and Place: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, Conference Room J (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)

AHA Session 42 Digital Tools: From the Archive to Publication

Time and Place: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton, Second Floor)

Co-sponsored by MapStory Reception for History Bloggers and Twitterstorians

Time and Place: 5:30 PM-6:30 PM, Central Park East (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)


Saturday, January 3

AHA Session 75 Imperial Policing and the Networks of Empire

Time and Place:8:30 AM-10:00 AM, Conference Room D (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)


It’s been a long time passing since I’ve posted on the poor blog. It’s been a busy spring and summer, the busiest that I can recall anyway. However, having gotten 80 hits the other day with a single post on my other blog, Quod Sumus, it occurs to me that I should start posting here again.

So, I’d like to start with a continuation of a theme I’ve touched on occasionally in this blog, what I’m calling, for now, the “Phantasm of War.” I’ve been trying to come up with an appropriate name for a while, I guess, making due in the mean time with phrases that don’t accurately reflect the nature of enterprise.  On reflection, “Face of War” doesn’t adequately address what I’m interested in. Besides, coining one’s own terminology is hip, and ensures at least a limited notoriety, right?   All joking aside, the etymology and different meanings of the word “phantasm” in the Oxford English Dictionary makes this choice of word a sensible one, I believe. What exactly do I mean by it? Well, to start I don’t use it in the sense that you find the phrase used in some 18th- and more 19th-century works, that is the spectral corporealization of abstract “war.” Nor in the sense some modern philosophers and cultural theorists use it, as a pseudonym for a mentally/ morally unbalancing total ideological paradigm, almost psychosis (Cristaudo’s Power, Love, and Evil specifically comes to mind). [I’ll be doing a post on this at some point]

Rather, I like the term because of its many shades of historical meaning that encompass appearance, illusion, the imagined form of the abstract, and the created likeness of that which is not present. All that, and the way the word therefore corresponds to one of my fascinations with warfare, and that is the juxtaposition of the physical reality of conflict (always the foundation of any study of war, I believe) with the way war is represented in and to society at large. Phantasm in this sense is not exactly paradigm, rather it is actualized imagination–the translation of our imaginings of war into image, word, and sound that mask the real by creating an image that we find comfortable. Even when the “real” occasionally penetrates this barrier, in all its horror, the eruption is contained somehow and becomes part of the comforting illusion of what war is. Most commercially successful war films, I would submit, fit this description to some degree or other. We eat our popcorn, absorbing the carnage because we’re not engaging with war as it is, but as we imagine it to be.  This all connects well with recent theories of how war is perceived, marketed, and used in political discourse, such as James Der Derian’s 2000 article “Virtuous war/virtual theory,”  Delmont’s “Visual Culture and the War on Terror” (2013), and especially Der Derian’s “The Desert of the Real and the Simulacrum of War” (2008). On second thought, “simulacrum” is an even better word than “phantasm” for cultural representations of war. The OED’s 2a definition is “Something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities.” Which precisely describes many depictions of war, and is good besides for suggesting that there IS a “there” somewhere, just not present at this moment.

So, whether using “phantasm” or “simulacrum,” I believe that, among many other functions of the military historian is the duty to dissipate this phantasm, to show the substance of war that is hidden under layers of simulacra. To remind people, whether policy figures, military commanders, the soldier, or the civilian world at large, that war is indeed Hell, as Sherman said. I believe it is essential for a healthy society to possess historians that carry out this function.

All of this being a LONG way of getting to the simple posting of a few links that deal with this phenomenon. I’ve already discussed Lalage Snow’s photo exhibit of the effects of war on the physiognomy of soldiers.  Today I was struck by an article tweeted by the Imperial War Museum on their new exhibit on contemporary artistic representations of war, and the utterly appropriate grotesque perverseness of the opening picture in the article. Linked to that is “What the Drone Saw” which is apparently the opening part of the exhibit. And then apparently there is a video making the rounds, which I have not yet seen, of a Syrian rebel commander eating the heart or lung of one of his enemies; Jonathan Jones’ column in The Guardian on war as horror, and invoking Goya’s art (which we just discussed today in our seminar on Napoleonic warfare) is well worth reading. There many links in this article, among them one to an article in The Telegraph about Leonardo da Vinci’s lost almost-masterpiece, “The Battle of Anghiari,” which is worth reading too.

Whether war can be necessary, justified, or excusable, makes no difference to Sherman’s simple proposition: war is hell. And dispelling the phantasm of war is one of the historian’s public duties.