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Thinking War, Thinking History: A Short Review Essay

April 11, 2008, 6:07 pm

(Editor’s Note: every once in a while, someone who follows the Tenured Radical is Reading feature asks what I think about a book I have read. Mostly I don’t say, since it would be a great burden to review everything, and because there is a reason book review sections have editors. However, as I am formally inaugurating my relationship with Cliopatra today, I though this cross-posted essay might be a good start.)

Perhaps it is an effect of the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, or perhaps it is the impending retirement of my American Studies colleague Richard Slotkin, but I seem to be reading more about war and violence this year than I have in the last decade.

Following on William A. Williams’ Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), a book that sought to understand how the project of democracy could be simultaneously well intentioned and destructive, a few scholars of the United States – Slotkin among them — proposed that the history of violence was central to the formation of an “American” identity. Critical to this was a re-examination of the intellectual relationship between American democracy and the frontier, articulated originally by Frederick Jackson Turner (1893). Slotkin, for example, argued over the course of three volumes that it was not the frontier itself, but rather the naturalization of violence particular to the “frontier” — on the Great Plains, in southeast Asia, or wherever Euro-Americans encountered racial “others” — that shaped and re-shaped American culture and politics. His most recent book, The Lost Battalion: the Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality (2005) explores another, paradoxical, feature of this history of national violence: the exclusion of African Americans from democratic rights in 1919, despite black soldiers’ hopes that participation in World War I might result in full citizenship.

In the spirit of what I have cited above, I would like to take special note of four books I have read recently. Each pursues important questions about the history of violence, war and nationalism that are useful to us as historians and as critical thinkers about the contemporary United States.

The first volume I would recommend is Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). Blackhawk is part of a generation of Native scholars who are making radical interventions in American history. Violence Over the Land demonstrates the consequences of European imperial ambitions for Native North Americans from the sixteenth century onward. But it is the Indian empires of the Great Basin, primarily the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone nations, their strategies, economies and political cultures, which are central to this history of American borderlands. It is also significant to note that Blackhawk, following Richard White’s influential The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics In the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991), challenges the idea of an American “frontier” that moved in a linear way. Rather, Indians negotiated their survival on multiple, overlapping frontiers. Simultaneously, intermingled Americans, English, French and Spanish colonists and entrepreneurs created the political, economic and environmental conditions for the success of a United States imperial project in the Far West well before it was fully launched in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The second book on my list is a cultural and political history of death that has already received well-deserved attention, Drew Faust’s, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.) Faust asks a critical question that could usefully be asked about other wars and different forms of social violence: what is the impact of unimaginable death on a society? And how do people assimilate, and learn to cope with, a way of dying that is new to them? Of course, this is a particularly relevant question for the Civil War because, as Faust points out, neither the United States nor the Confederacy had any reason to imagine in 1861 that death might occur on such a scale. Furthermore, the idea that family members might die anonymously far away from the comfort loved ones normally provided, that soldiers might be dismembered and/or buried in haste, was unimaginable to antebellum bourgeois Americans who idealized a “good death.” Asking us to think about the everyday consequences of war to those who bear the brunt of it seems particularly relevant at a moment in time when the United States military works assiduously to keep the dead and wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan uncountable and hidden from view.

My third pick is historical fiction: Pat Barker’s Life Class (New York: Doubleday, 2008). Barker is a British novelist who won the Booker prize for The Ghost Road (1995), the third volume of her trilogy about World War I. This book views the Great War through the eyes of a group of friends whose studies at the Slade are interrupted in 1914. Similarly to Faust, the grisly descriptions of soldiers’ wounds point to the horrifying details of battlefield violence that individualize death through detail: for example, the slight – but consequential — fact that on the Western Front men died of injuries that might have healed, had dirt teeming with untreatable microbes not been blown into the wounds. One cannot help but think of the contemporary phenomenon of suicide bombers, or IED’s exploded next to groups of soldiers and civilians, during which microscopic bits of human flesh penetrate and infect the skins of those who survive the attack. But the intellectual questions the book asks also should compel historians: does war awaken sensibilities that give art depth and meaning it might not otherwise have? Under what conditions does an aesthetic approach to war trivialize its violence? And under what conditions might any of us – as one female artist in the novel does – decide not to “see” the violence of war at all, and choose to focus on art instead?

My final pick is Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), and I make this recommendation as someone who thinks virtually all memoirs from the radical anti-war movement are oddly annoying historical documents. Bill Ayer’s book, Fugitive Days, which had the bad luck to publish on September 11, 2001, romanticizes the violence and overestimates the political impact of Weatherman; Jane Alpert’s Growing Up Underground (1981) is simultaneously apologetic and too quick to pin responsibility on her co-conspirators. Furthermore, no former activist can write honestly about what happened, since there are people who might still be harmed by what is revealed. But what I love about the Wilkerson book is that it asks the question: how did someone who cared so deeply about peace and justice come to embrace violence as a political necessity? Wilkerson embeds the answer in autobiography, in an excellent social history of the New Left, and in reflections on the life-long burdens she has had to come to terms with for having chosen violence over peaceful opposition to a deeply immoral war.

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