Rethinking the Teaching of Wars

IM000809I am notorious for constructing from memory (as you can tell) a map of the world. The one above is a pretty rough rendition, but it suffice to say the least. In teaching my World History course, I stay away from Europe as a prime actor. Clearly due to European elements of nationalism, industrialism, and imperialism… the primary focus of this conflict is centered in Europe; however, I try to teach students that WWI’s impact is far more reaching than just the trenches of Western Europe.  Above is my map linking all of the various regions and actors that took part in this conflict. Most people do not realize that Panama, Brazil, Siam, China, Jamaica, and Cuba were involved. I try to shape this conflict as one driven by Europe’s concept of modernity born out of the 18th century enlightenment. Hence, the notion of communities and nationalism of the 18th and 19th century shaped much of the problems in the 20th century. The process of this conflict goes far beyond a discussion about tactics, battles, and munitions. In many ways, one can easily focus on WWI from the perspective of intellectual history.

I think Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities concludes my above point and why wars should  be taught from an intellectual perspective.

“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

“It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. Renan referred to this imagining in his suavely back-handed way when he wrote that ‘Or l’essence d’une nation est que tons les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.” With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. Javanese villagers have always known that they are connected to people they have never seen, but these ties were once imagined particularistically-as indefinitely stretchable nets of kinship and clientship. Until quite recently, the Javanese language had no word meaning the abstraction ‘society.’ We may today think of the French aristocracy of the ancien régime as a class; but surely it was imagined this way only very late. To the question ‘Who is the ‘Comte de X?’ the normal answer would have been, not ‘a member of the aristocracy,’ but ‘the lord of X, ‘the uncle of the Baronne de Y,’or ‘a client of the Duc de Z.’

“The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.

“It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destorying the legitamcy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

“Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

“These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism.”


10 thoughts on “Rethinking the Teaching of Wars

  1. wow! thought provoking…. great points 🙂 but the thing i noticed most is how much your artistic talents have grown and your handwriting is now actually legible- lol… watch out, you might actually be growing up!

    sorry, i couldn’t resist the chance to pick on you.

  2. Excuse me for asking, but are you the blond-haired lady who sat in on our APUSH class half way through the year?

  3. It is true that the micro (battles, personalities, tactics) side of wars tend to get more attention than the macro (politics, nationalism, economics, resources). Most people see the former as more accessible and engaging than the latter (surprise!).

    Imagine trying to teach a class about the 2008 NFL season —- without talking about the games or the players. Instead, the class would be about the owners, the general managers, the free agent market, the economy, the draft, the state of the franchises. Which class will garner more interest: Paul Tagliabue 101, or Joe Montana 101? This is not to say the management side should be ignored. On the contrary! However, a big part of the NFL is the actual games and participants.

    Personally, I find both the macro and the micro fascinating and of equal value.

  4. PS: While I hope your interest in the micro grows over time, I applaud your teaching the macro (which is not covered enough). 🙂

  5. MattS,

    Great analogy; I understand football. Much of this is to hide my lack of knowledge as it relates to military history. I often see an injustice being done to the rest of the world by western treatment of this particular conflict (WWI & II for example).

  6. Did you really draw that map? I don’t believe it….Quite amazing!

    Although I can see you left off one key island, which I personally find hugely offensive, even if it was not key in your discussion.


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