Sunday, July 25, 2010

New Tools for Military History (Part 3)

Posted by Chris at 1/10/2007 7:29 PM ...
After a prolonged lay-off, I've been thinking about the suggestion that transmodernism is a better theoretical tool for us to adopt as military historians than the postmodernist ideas of feminist, marxist, or other "ist" theories. It goes without saying that the postmodernist idea what we have are "socially-constructed interpretations of events"* and that the historians job is to deconstruct that just doesn't work for me (or working military historians).

The issue, of course, is trying to define what transmodernism is, and how it applies to the study of military history. As my previous discussion of this issue illustrated, theory is not a tool that comes readily to my hand - that may just be the way I think, or it may be a lack of training in using theoretical constructs to do formal historical analysis. We spent a fair amount of time on theoretical models back in my Mass Communication days, but I've not attempted to applies those models to history - possibly because it doesn't seem to make sense (to me) to apply Marxist constructs to military history. I'm sure that there are people who can approach military history completely from the frame of class struggle, but that person is definitely not me.

What I'm having a problem getting my mind around how transmodernism is truly different from the ideals that I've always been taught that historians should strive for - objectivity, not judging the past based on modern sensibilities, and basing arguments based on the available facts.

This is obviously only part of the idea behind transmodernism and its potential use in military history. As I mention in Part 2 back in October, a key to the transmodernist method is understanding the cultural milieu of the event, institution, or person we are studying. In his SMH paper, Torkelsen is careful to make sure that we understand that this does not mean that we are doing cultural or social history instead of military history, but that we are striving to gain a more complete understanding of the context the event, institution, or person that we are studying is a part of. So here's my problem: shouldn't that have already been part of the equation? Who cares about the Thermopylae, Cannae, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Okinawa, or Khe San if you don't have the context they occurred in? Why study Gustavus Adolphus without understanding Sweden, the Thirty Years War, the Protestant Reformation, and Early Modern Europe in as many ways as possible? Part of the idea of the transmodernist approach to history is to understand things as they were understood in the time and place in which they occurred.

That really doesn't do much for us in terms of understanding events and what their impact was, though. Understanding how an event or person was interpreted at the time can tell us a lot, but it doesn't tell us everything - after all, my understanding of the war in Iraq does not necessarily inform an later generation's understanding of the full impact of the war on the development of the Middle East or the United States. Torkelsen argues that by using transmoderism and its combination of modernist objectivity and postmodernist understanding of multiple perspectives will allow military historians to synthesize a compelling and informative narrative describing past events.

This is a lot to absorb, and there's more, both in Torkelsen's paper and in the ideas of other transmodernists, so stay tuned...

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