- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Paul Edgar
Guest Editor, Series on Remembering War
It is no surprise that readers have posted good comments to many of the articles in this series. (Yes, I have been paying attention, though unable to respond weekly.) I will address a couple of them and then introduce Part II of the series, which consists of case studies. Also, if you have a personal account or a case study that emphasizes the challenges inherent in remembering war well, or if you have a success story, send me a pitch for your idea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One fundamental difficulty noted by many readers but stated best by Kriegsakademie is that “war is really just another subset of the great challenge of memory and history.” Because we can never fully reconstruct the past, retelling it is always a creative exercise; it is always a metaphor, a point John Gaddis nicely established in The Landscape of History. He suggests that the right question to ask is whether a given account is appropriate for its purpose and context.
Initially, Gaddis’ insight seems to blur the distinction we often make between ‘proper history’ and ‘myth.’ If it is impossible to capture ‘pure history,’ why bother at all? Reader JPWREL made a related observation: “All history is in a sense a misrepresentation of the past or more simply myth.” Yet I disagree, and I think Gaddis would too, with one aspect of that statement. (Based on his insightful comments, I am sure JPWREL would qualify his statement if given the opportunity. But I will use it anyways to make my point.) History is not necessarily misrepresentation. Rather, it is, necessarily, selective representation. Selective representation can still be authentic, depending on its objective and context.
Overtly recognizing the purposes of our ‘war metaphors’ is vital. It enables us, and our audiences, to select and interrogate data and narratives judiciously. Are we writing a eulogy for a friend killed in combat? A patrol order for an Afghan valley we have patrolled many times before? The president elect’s national security strategy? Or an exhaustive history of French and American campaigns to protect Highway 1 in Vietnam? Each of these is a legitimate exercise in remembrance, but make different demands on the available data and different implications for those who listen.
In the next two months, scholars and veterans (and veteran-scholars!) will present case studies that illustrate the utility of our war metaphors and the problems that arise when data and purposes are at odds. First, Steele Brand, Assistant Professor of History at The King’s College, takes us back to antiquity — where we began — and contrasts the objectives of the historians Horace and Livy. Tarak Barkawi, Deputy Head of the Department of International Relations at London School of Economics, demonstrates that our purposes for remembering war can be at violent odds, especially if we do not clearly admit what those purposes are. Captain Ben Griffin, history instructor at West Point and PhD candidate at UT Austin, exposes an unexpected, fictive war metaphor that served the security strategy of the Regan Administration. Finally, Ian Hopper, Visiting Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College, describes his unique approach to war simulations that exposes student presumptions and gaps in memory.
I will respond to more reader comments near the end of the series. In the meantime, if you have a good idea for this series, send it along. Perhaps we will gather enough to run a Part III.
Paul Edgar is a Ph.D. student in Middle East Languages and Cultures at the University of Texas and a Clements Center Graduate Fellow. Recently retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry, from 2011-2013. He has lived and worked extensively in Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.
Photo credit: Paul Edgar