I've been reading lots of philosophy of mind, lots of neuroscience related stuff, a bit of stuff about physics, a bit of stuff about Buddhist mindfulness, a bit of this and that. I have been reading a wide variety of different things since I graduated. Most of them not pertaining to military history.
Then when I read Foucault's Discipline & Punish I was compelled to return to it. Foucault's interest in war and militaries during that period of his work was new to me. I wasn't aware that he was writing so explicitly about war. So when I read D&P I was really surprised to see all these references to war and militaries. I now feel that it is something I may need to pursue more seriously.
I find it interesting to think about how most people think of military history. Many people have told me that they assume I would 1. love to watch the history channel, 2. hold conservative political views, 3. generally be a meathead or a war lover.
But military history is such a dynamic field and has the potential to illuminate so many different aspects of the world. War is so central to everything that has happened in history. What is this bad rap that military history has? Why is it a marginalized field? Well, since the military is an exclusive institution, it seems that the study of war and military institutions also became an exclusive field. It was something that was written by military men for military men.
But in this writing I'm going to explore something different. I'm going to explore two different ways that military history can provide a more general perspective on social life. First I'm going to talk about the macro perspective that military history can provide, the way that it can give us greater insight into society at large. Then I'm going to talk about the micro perspective it can give us on individual lives, how it can help us understand the nature of life and decision making on the individual level. The macro and the micro perspectives of military history. In both instances military history allows us to see how both society and individuals respond to stress.
Often I read things about how extreme cases can provide insight into normal cases. How damaged brains provide us clues about normal brains. And in this case I want to talk about how the extremes of war and military institutions can provide us with insight into normal social life. Looking at war to understand peace. Looking at battle to understand normal decision making.
The Macro Perspective of Military History: War and Society Under Stress
So the basic idea in this section is that by studying war we can gain insight into how society functions in general. War is often followed by great periods of social change. When war breaks out commonly accepted social categories are shaken up, and in the aftermath people may have a greater perspective on their place within the nation. I am going to explore this in two parts. These two parts actually correspond to some of the experiences I had with the relationship between war and social change. First, I'm going to talk about my senior thesis project which was on this issue of the relationship between war and social change. Second, I'm going to talk about a sociology of war class I took that clarified this relationship between war and social change. The first part, my senior project was more about the how of war and social change, while this course made me understand the why of war and social change. In other words, my project looked at a historical example and the particular changes that resulted, while this course looked at the overarching causality of war and social change.
So, my senior thesis project was the first time that I pushed myself to think about the relationship between war and social change. My paper was called "Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the American Occupation of Germany After World War II." The general premise was that WWII and the occupation caused a great upheaval in these categories of race, gender, and sexuality. The war and the occupation caused these categories to transform and I was examining how individuals expressed this reconfiguration of these categories. I focused closely on the way that race served as a focal point for the categories of gender and sexuality. My thinking got a bit clumsy because I was treating German and Jewish identity as if it were a race. But I believe this is somewhat appropriate because in the wake of WWII the German people were used to thinking of themselves as a race of sorts. So, the notions of race and nationalism became a little bit tangled in my analysis.
But in any case, I handled the whole thing by looking at three different racial/national groups, and then two subsets within each group. I looked primarily at American soldiers, German civilians, and Jewish displaced person. In this categories I looked at black and white American soldiers, German men and women, and Jewish men and women. In each case I found that race/national identity almost always served as a focal point for conceptions of gender and sexuality. So that for American soldiers gender roles and sexual standards were different for black and white soldiers. For German civilians both men and women established their sense of gender and sexuality in relation to their German identity. And for Jewish displaced persons both men and women thought of their gender and sexuality in relation to their sense of Jewishness. I'm going to post this paper on this blog soon. But this is a very cursory summary of what I did.
The point of it all was to examine the way that war and trauma forced people to reconceptualize social classifications. This was something that I ended up doing on my own with very little real direction. My research was all over the place, totally scattered. All I knew was that I was doing a project on the occupation. But then I also happened to be taking sociology of sexuality at the same time. So, I ended up doing this project and managed to combine my interests in military history and social classifications.
I ended up stumbling on this idea that war is a major catalyst for social transformation. That by studying war we can gain certain insights into peacetime relations. If peace is relatively stable, and classifications change gradually, then how are we to understand that stability? Well, I'm proposing that war shows us ways that things have changed, ways that things have been violently changed and transformed. These violent transformations caused by war then gel in peacetime. So, this project led me to suspect that if we study war we can gain insight into the nature of peace. As my professor said, military history shows the system under stress. It shows how classifications and individual change when put to the test of war. It shows how peacetime conceptions were forged in war.
While I had these more general ideas about war and social change, I was only grounded in a particular instance. I was looking at how it happened in post-war Germany. I didn't have much of a sense of causation, I had very little sense of why war was doing this to social classifications.
Then I took a class called sociology of war and I met an interesting professor who gave me some insights into why war would cause such great social upheaval. His work was centered around the relationship between war, citizenship, and social inequality. He was trying answer questions like, Why does war cause individuals to fight for more equality? Why does war often serve as a catalyst for greater awareness of social inequality?
The answer revolves around the relationship between national equality and forms of inequality that are lesser than the nation. When war breaks out almost every member of society is told that they must make the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. Men must fight, women must contribute, so on. Individuals, however, are still segregated by classifications that are secondary to nationhood. Black soldiers in WWII, for example, were told they had to fight for freedom and democracy, but were still placed in segregated units and given unequal pay. The same can be said for women, they were told to sacrifice for the nation, but still received worse treatment than men.
So when you call people to war on the basis of nationhood and then treat people unequally based on other classifications (such as race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) you make these other forms of inequality pretty apparent. When you tell people that they are nationally equal they are going to notice inequality in these other areas. Fascinating stuff. Makes me think state service might be a good thing because it would give people more knowledge of inequality and thus might lead to greater equality.
In any case, my senior project and this course convinced me of at least one thing: If you want to figure out why the current social order exists in the current way that it does, take a look at the last major war and see how it upset and reconfigured the social order. If we look at war we can a very meaningful macro perspective on social process, and why they are the way they are.
I've also had this stuff confirmed by Foucault's work on military history that I have been reading. He talks about 'politics as the continuation of war by other means'. The basic idea being that politics, peacetime politics, is nothing more than a way of maintaining the social order that was established by the last major war. Same conclusion: if you want to understand the current social order check out the last major war and see what it established, and if that is indeed why things are in their current state. A friend pointed out that Germany and Japan are not on the UN security council due to WWII. So much of what is happening now is because of the fall out of WWII. Our political climate is perhaps just the continuation of what was established by WWII. But I shouldn't be too careless making big statements like that.
So much for the macro perspective of military history. The point is that by looking at the history of war we see society under stress and we can gain some insight into why it is the way it is.
Let me now turn to the micro perspective.
The Micro Perspective of Military History: War and the Individual Under Stress
In this section I'm exploring the same basic idea: That studying the history of war and military institutions can provide insights into normal life. By observing society and the individual under the stress of war we can learn some things about how life works in general. In particular, I am curious about how studying the process of decision making in war can prompt insights about decision making in daily life. This is something that my favorite professor turned me onto with his work on philosophy of war.
My professor was doing work on a very well known book by Carl von Clausewitz called On War. The book is essentially an attempt to teach individuals how to use history to teach themselves how to exercise better judgment during wartime. Clausewitz is someone I have written and thought quite a lot about. But I'll briefly rehash some major points.
Clausewitz wanted to find a way to make a general theory of war that would be pedagogically useful for officers and high-commanders. Clausewitz also believed, however, that war was too complex of a process for theory to function in the positivist sense of prescription and prediction. That is to say that war is far too complex for theory to fulfill the role that it typically has in the natural sciences. It must, rather, service as an aid to judgment and creative problem solving.
And this is where we can gain some insight into individual decision making by looking at decision making in war. Clausewitz believed that the complex nature of war meant that rationality and language could not be the primary means of reaching a decision in war. War was just far too large, too complex, too full of incomplete information and contingencies to be handled by logical thought. Clausewitz agreed with Napoleon when he said that Newton himself would cower in front of the equations that military decision making would demand. Moreover, it has been argued that Clausewitz actually predicted non-linearity, and believed that war could simply not be broken down into straight forward mathematical or logical propositions. I wonder if that has anything to do with quantum physics.
Anyways, because war cannot be handled by language and reason, the question becomes: How do these great commanders do it, then? Clearly military geniuses are capable of arriving at brilliant and decisive decisions about these complex situations, so how is it done?
The short answer is intuition. Clausewitz called it 'genius' and described it with a french phrase Coup d'oeil which means 'stroke of the eye' In any case, the bottom line is that complex decisions have to be made by a sort of unconscious decision making process. Clausewitz believed you had to rely on the deeper parts of the mind that were capable of making sense of these enormously complex situations. Most importantly, a commander has to be able to make a clear articulable decision, and to be able to maintain his faith in himself. He cannot falter in his decision. He just has to give the order and trust himself.
Once we identify intuition as the central method of decision making in war, the question becomes: How do we train intuition? The short answer is experience. Experience can give you the comfort that you need to be able to act intuitively and creatively in spite of danger and uncertainty.
But what if there is no experience to be had? What if there is a long peace? Well Clausewitz believed that historical study could provide an adequate substitute for experience if need be. He believed that if theory were used to expand conventional historical narratives that individuals could engage in a critical study of past command decision making experiences. By critically exploring and expanding historical narratives with the aid of theory, individuals could expose their mind to many of the intellectual and emotional difficulties that high command would offer.
I won't go much further into Clausewitz. My post of 4/30/10 offers a similar and more detailed treatment of Clausewitz, and all of this is essentially summarized from Jon Sumida's Decoding Clausewitz and my own experience with reading On War.
I more so want to reflect on the general lessons that this has to offer for us. How does this help us think about decision making in life in general? Four points. First, decision making is more often a function of intuition than anything else. Second, experience is the number one way that intuition can be improved. Third, history (and other humanities/social sciences) can provide something like a synthetic experience that can aid in the education of intuitive judgment. Fourth, the theoretical/experiential lessons gained from historical study (or from any social study) are not to be applied rigidly, but are to be used as an aid to creative judgment.
First point, intuition is the best way to make decisions both in war and daily life. In my daily life I really believe that I operate on the intuitive level. I think that I often am acting unreflectively and am going with my gut. There typically just isn't enough time to think about these things. You just have to react in most social situations. Whether it is conversation, customer service, or whatever, intuition has to be the driving force. In my recent essay called On Creativity I touched on some of this stuff, and only now am I seeing the clear connection to intuition and Clausewitz's discussion of it. To think that we are rational beings is a mistake, I think. I feel more intuitive, I feel less reflective, I feel less robotic than that makes it seems like we should be.
Second point, just like war, experience with life improves intuition. It doesn't seem like intuition gets improved in other ways except through experience. I became more creative at conversation and customer service once I got more experience with it. I didn't become more comfortable with a lot of things, and doing them intuitively, until I had experience with them. Experience is such a great teacher, and also such a treat to engage in. Experience is so much fun, and we learn so much from it. We can only become more intuitive if we gain lots of experience. We need to be intuitive, so we need to get lots of experiences.
Third point, just like with war, history and the humanities can provide synthetic experience. I really believe that fiction and the humanities can make people very good intuitive decision makers and generally very sensitive people. I think that this is because history, fiction, philosophy, etc., can all provide a taste of other people's experiences. I think we can gain a synthetic experience that can help us improve our intuition from these disciplines. We can read novels and feel all kinds of weird emotions and experiences, I think we can read history and feel for other people's troubles. And I think all of that is useful because it can improve our intuitive judgment in daily life. If you doubt the imagination's ability to provide something like experience then look into what Alvin Goldman calls the 'Enactment-imagination'. Or check out my essay of 4/30/10. It seems well documented that the imagination can have a substantial effect on the brain that would improve intuitive judgment by providing us with a synthetic experience.
Last point, that the insight of the application of theory to war is applicable to the rest of social life; we can't rigidly apply theoretical ideas to social life, we have to use them as aids to creative judgment. The social sciences, the humanities, it all is saturated with theory of sorts. But a loose theory. The best way to use this theory would be to use it 1. to help us study the humanities with greater efficacy, and 2. to instill it in our minds as a sort of unconscious tool kit that would aid in intuitive judgment. Theory becomes a guide to our education and also a guide to our decision making. Theory cannot be rigidly applied to any aspect of the social world, it can only help us be more creative, it can only help us exercise our intuitive judgment in new ways.
I like the way this essay turned out. I think I gave an interesting account of how military history offers general insights into the social world at large, both in war and peace. On the macro level we can use war to understand why the social order exists the way it does, why war changes things, and how politics works to keep those changes implemented. On the micro level we can use military history to understand that decision must be intuitive, that it must be improved by experience, that the humanities can improve judgment through synthetic experience, and that theory must be a loose set of principles that aid in creative judgment. I think that all of these insights are really helpful, and it shocks me how fruitful of a field military history seems to be. I believe that this micro perspective, these insights into the nature of decision making and education, are extremely important. I think we need to start integrating these kinds of insights into our daily thinking. We need to recognize that military history can teach us a lot about how social decisions are made and how we can learn to make more creative social decisions. I think that by checking out society and the individual under stress we can learn a lot about how the social world functions. Cause really, is war not human beings in their most intense social environment? Does military history not provide a perspective on society and individuals who have been pushed to the maximum degree? Can you imagine a more extreme social environment that offers insights into the general social environment? To me this seems like the best use of military history. To offer insights into the world at large. But I am an amateur and don't mean to make such bold statements. But I'm just so curious about this field these days. I'm really reconnecting with it intellectually.