Media War

January 8, 2009, 8:32 pm

First off, let me thank the proprietors of this fine sea vessel for welcoming me aboard. Eric’s insistence that my turn at the tiller can only lead the ship straight onto the rocks of post-Cliopatria decline is heartwarming. And with that, I will drop the nautical metaphor before I really do go aground.

Though I’ve been something of a regular presence already, let me introduce myself further. I’m a military historian focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries, and the mass industrial warfare of the first half of the 20th century. I’ve taken a particular interest in World War I, and imperial insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. I’m currently working on a project on the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1900 in China (warning: wikipedia link) and the western intervention that destroyed it.

Military history as a specialty has evolved substantially over the last two generations. The traditional school (“drums and trumpets” as it is known) gained a rival and complement in the 1970s with the New Military History, which brought the insights of social history to warfare. Succeeding historians have started to integrate later methodological innovations, including the linguistic turn and cultural studies. A good recent analysis of the field is here (subscription required, sorry). If there is a guiding force behind my work, it is the attempt to tease out how societies and cultures create their militaries and their wars.* But I don’t think that there should be a divide between the traditional and cutting edge forms of military history. Strategy, operations, and tactics are just as important to understanding the history of war as are language, race, class, gender, and culture.

Which brings me back to my current project and my initial string of posts here at Edge. The outbreak in 1900 was one of the first media crises. By this, I mean it was one of the first to be reported by the newspapers almost immediately, as it developed. In that way, it resembles the modern world of CNN and the Internet rather more than we might think. I’m reading the newspaper coverage for the project anyway, and I thought it might be interesting to do it in chronological order and write about it as I read it: insert myself back into the flow of the crisis, as it were. I’ve chosen to use the New York Times for this as they have (kindly enough) opened their archives back to 1851. So, over the next few months, I’ll be trundling through the Boxer Rebellion*** day by day and trying to treat it as if it were an ongoing moment, details murky and end unknown. I have no idea how this will turn out, but I hope it will be both useful and interesting.

Update: Brett Holman’s work liveblogging the Sudeten Crisis is the inspiration and model for this.

*For example, should we be surprised that the one of the most industrialized and technologically advanced countries in the world is not particularly good at counterinsurgency, the least technological of strategies?**

**A strategy that was developed in the first place in its various forms (Spain, Mao, Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh) to prevent conquest or domination by superior military powers?

***There are arguments about its name. The traditional name has been Boxer Rebellion. Historians of Asia prefer Boxer Uprising, as the consensus has been that this was not a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty but an uprising in support of it against the foreigners. At the moment, I don’t really have a dog in the fight, though I’m coming to the sense that the Boxers were supporting the Chinese Dowager Empress in the sense of pushing her to live up to her responsibilities. They probably had–to steal a idea–bumper stickers announcing how disappointed they were in her.

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