Tag Archives: Historiography

Moral Relativism and War

If you are of liberal political leanings you will probably not like this piece as I am going to proceed to attempt to demolish several sacred cows of contemporary liberal thought.  I unreservedly admit that I am politically conservative and further admit that I am not trying to be unbiased in his piece.  I am essentially venting my spleen at the half-truths and outright lies I so often find in books that purport to be histories but that are in reality only thinly disguised attacks on historical actors.  I find it typically liberal that such attacks are often made on those that cannot defend themselves, such as historical figures long dead.  I personally find the practice repulsive and try very hard to avoid doing the same thing in my own historical writing.  Then again, if you are liberal and don’t like it, I do not particularly care either.

I am currently reading House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power by James Carroll.  The level of moral relativism within this book is unreal.  I figured it would be a leftist take on the Pentagon because there is a blurb of praise on the back cover from Howard Zinn, the ultimate leftist historian.  What I did not count on was the sheer level of Western hatred disguised as objectivity that I would find within the cover.  That being said, this is not a review of this book in particular but an examination of leftist historiography, particularly when it comes to military history, in General.

I have read many leftist histories over the years from Isabel Hull and Iris Chang to Thomas Fleming, Paul Fussell, Dave Grossman, and Howard Zinn.  One thing they all have in common from my perspective is a formless hatred of all things Western and a lack of a solid grasp on reality.  They don’t write history, so much as polemics designed to convince the reader that they know the big T truth and if you disagree with them then you are part of the problem. In short,  Leftist history is activist history.  It is the type of history that would have you believe that the best thing that could have ever happened to the world is if the population of Europe had been destroyed during the Black Death, if not even earlier, say perhaps before the Dorics moved into Greece during the second millennium B.C.

If you read leftist history everything not Western is great and everything that has the touch of the West on it is evil incarnate from the Greek settlement of southern Europe to the European colonization of the Americas and just about everything in between and since.  They would have you believe that Westerners deliberately introduced disease to the New World to decimate and subjugate the natives to deliberately keeping the peoples of Africa down since de-colonialization to economically exploit them some more.  That everything having to do with the Christian church is evil incarnate while Atheism is cool and Muslims are peaceful little sheepherders.  Every group out there with a grievance against the West is justified in not only having it but in doing whatever they can to attack the West and they are willing participants as they seek to undermine Western culture itself from the inside.

It is as if liberals truly believe that contemporary morals have a place in describing the actions of people in the past who ascribed to a wholly different moral code and that they are unable to make the distinction that while they personally find an action immoral, at the time it was made, the action may have been considered fully justified.  That is not moral relativism; that is reality.  Today we don’t think exposing unwanted children to die on a mountainside is morally justified but the ancient Spartans did and it is stupid in the extreme to condemn ancient practice on the basis of contemporary morality.

Let’s take just a few examples from popular Western history that have gained the currency of Truth in leftist circles.

1. Western Genocide against Indians – This one is so laughable I don’t even understand how the idea got so much currency.  Leftists would have us believe that Westerners deliberately introduced diseases such as smallpox into the New World during colonization to kill off the inhabitants and clam the land for themselves.  Of course that presuppose that 15 Century Spanish, Portuguese, and English explorers understand how diseases were transmitted.  That the Germ Theory of Disease did not gain wide scientific currency until the mid to late 19th century is conveniently ignored.  The most common invective hurled is that of the US Cavalry giving out smallpox covered blankets during the Indian Wars.  This claim was given credence by the now discredited Ward Churchill and has been pretty well destroyed by Thomas Brown in the Journal, Plagiary.Despite the subsequent disgrace of Churchill’s corpus of work the myth continues that the US Army deliberately triggered an epidemic of smallpox among native Americans to “get them out of the way.”  That claim is made elsewhere about Indians throughout the Americas.
While epidemics did occur, as Jared Diamond so persuasively argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel, it did not take deliberation for European diseases to decimate native populations.  All it took was one sick European infecting unknowing natives.  Widespread epidemics and subsequent population loss did occur in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans, that was the natural result of American populations being exposed to diseases for which they had absolutely no resistance, because heretofore these disease did not occur in the Americas.
The narrative that Europeans deliberately killed off huge populations of Indians suits the left though, so they will keep it alive and it is easy to do because so many people take the claim at face value and never bother to research it for themselves.

2. The sanctity of civilians in wartime – There is a persistent assertion among both leftist historians and the media that throughout history the lives, property, and persons of civilians has been sacrosanct in war and the large scale killing of non-combatants is a new phenomenon.  Nothing could be further from the truth, the difference in modern times is that it is easier for a few men to kill lots of civilians, not that civilians have never been a legitimate target. You will not hear a liberal admit that anytime soon though.
You will never hear a liberal acknowledge the Mongol policy of massacring entire cities that refused to surrender.  That the rule in medieval Europe was that a city that had to be taken by force was sacked for 72 hours, that for hundreds of years Muslim slave traders preyed on European shipping in the Mediterranean, or that the ancient Goths and others who preyed on the edges of the Roman Empire routinely slaughtered entire villages as a way of solidifying their control of areas by spreading terror.  There has never been an absolute prohibition on killing civilians in warfare and what protections civilians have had, especially in modern times, comes out of the Western, specifically, Roman and Christian traditions.

3. Dropping the Atomic Bomb on Japan – The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II is a topic that has come in for considerable debate.  I have even read people that claim America should apologize and perhaps pay reparations for the bombing.  I am flabbergasted by this.  I simply cannot understand how America should in any way apologize for ending the war that Japan started or the manner in which they did so.  This argument even goes back and claims that Japan was goaded into war by American policy.  That is the “West is at fault argument” taken to its absurd extreme.  What is even more ironic and silly is that many of the folks who make this claim condemn America and then turn around and condemn Japanese wartime conduct out the other side of their mouth.  These people would have you believe that America is in the wrong for civilian deaths at Saipan and Okinawa during the war and that any place with civilians nearby was not a legitimate target.
I hate to disappoint people, but people die in wars, sometimes the dead are even civilians.  Civilians are not normally targeted but they are legitimate targets as civilians are the lifeblood of any society and nothing can convince a people that they have lost than seeing that their military cannot defend them.  Targeting civilians is a legitimate act of warfare.  Unsavory yes, but still legitimate.  The arrow, bullet, or bomb that can always miss a civilian has not been invented and probably never will be.  It would be imprudent in the extreme for a military force to hamstring itself out of fear of causing a single civilian death.  If they do that they might as well surrender because the military is then of no use to the society that sponsors it and it is to the sponsoring society that the military must answer, not that of the enemy.

 Rant over.  Feel free to comment, I am more than happy to debate on this.  (the usual comment rules apply)

1. Brown Thomas. Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians? Fabrication and Falsification in Ward Churchill’s Genocide RhetoricPlagiary:  CrossDisciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. Vol 1, 2006 pp. 100‐129

 

Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 24 Jun 2014

Updated 24 June 2014 – Below the fold is a list of historical sources on the internet, this includes both primary and secondary source collections.   I am constantly updating this list when I run across useful sites.   Please point me at sites I miss in the comments section. Continue reading

The route of Xenophons March Up Country

Book Review: The Anabasis by Xenophon

I read part of this work in High School over twenty years ago and decided a few weeks ago to finish reading it. Now that I am done, I wonder why I waited so long. The book was written by Xenophon, and ancient Greek soldier and general, in the late 4th Century BC.

Xenophon’s account in The Anabasis is one of the first true (in several senses of the word) adventure stories to be transmitted from antiquity. There is as much adventure here as will be found in any modern day work of fiction. One of the things that makes this book so great is that as I was reading the book it was constantly in the back of my mind that these events really happened. The book is part adventure and part autobiography told from the 3rd person.

The background is that in 402 B.C. Cyrus the Younger of Persia hired an army of Greek mercenaries to help him overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II, the legitimate ruler of the Persian Empire. Everything went swimmingly until Cyrus was killed in battle. The Greek army hired by Cyrus was in a tight position, Artaxerxes did not have the force to crush without taking unacceptable casualties but he equally did not want them to escape. The Persian answer was to feign letting the Greeks start on their way home providing them provisions, guides, and quarters along the way. The the Persians tricked the Greek generals into attending a dinner under flag of truce and had all the Greek generals executed.

It is at this point that Xenophon steps forward and is elected general and co-leader of the remaining Greeks. The rest of the story is a recounting of the many trials and tribulations the Greek army of Ten Thousand makes its way home fighting numerous battles, encountering hostile people, terrain, and weather.

The Route of Xenophons March Up Country

The only complaint, if complaint it can be called, is that the speeches ascribed to various characters are not 100% accurate. This is true of many ancient Greek and Roman writers. What they did was to invent a speech that in its essentials expressed the same message as the actual speech did, perhaps they dressed it up a little. The ancient historians did not have a problem with this practice at all and just considered it god history, that is not true of modern historical practice.

In summation, if anyone would like to read the ancients and does not know where to start, The Anabasisis a good place to start. It is a great story and Xenophon’s prose is concise enough to not bore the casual reader.

.

Bias in Academic History?

I got my latest copy of the SMH Journal of Military History a few weeks ago and am working my way through the articles.  The Journal always provides grist for at least one post, most of the time it is a thought provoking article that prompts me to post.  This time it is different.  There is a phrase in one of the articles that caused me to raise my eyebrows.  The article is:  Candice Shy Hooper, “The War That Made Hollywood: How the Spanish-American War Saved the U.S. Film Industry,” The Journal of Military History76 #1 (January 2012): 69-97.  The phrase is:

“The newest form of mass entertainment in the United States was, virtually from the outset, held hostage by a very small, primarily mechanically minded monopoly of urban white males.” Emphasis mine

The sentence is at the end of a paragraph discussing the stagnation of film as an industry after it’s introduction.  What got me thinking was what the point of the sentence, especially the last three words was.  I cannot figure out the implication of the whole urban white male piece except that the author is somehow implying that any other group of people would have done a much better job of developing the nascent film industry.  I good go into an orgy of being offended but I will not, instead I will simply point out that the author does not expand on why this was a bad thing other than to claim lack of imagination.

I cite this as an example of why current academia is losing it’s popular appeal.  Knowledge is no longer for the masses, it is restricted to an elite group of people who let their own prejudices guide them as they delude themselves into thinking ow open-minded they are.  I guarantee that if she had made the same remark but substituted black males or females, the comment would not have made it past the peer-review process.  In many ways, those that claim to be open-minded or objective are just as much, if not more prejudiced tha thse they are writing about.

Mostly, I am just shocked that this comment and its tone made it into the Journal. Apparently the reviewers agree with her implication that urban white males are somehow bad.  Never mind the fact that most of the scientific advances of the last 400-500 years have come from that group.  They have bought the white man is an oppressor meme hook, line, and sinker.  How sad.

 

Comments please, I would love to get a discussion going on this.

Book Review: The Age of Total War: 1860-1945 by Jeremy Black

The notion that a book is “thought-provoking” is often thrown out there for works of non-fiction, and of those that are described as such that I have read most very seldom are.  This book is different, Dr. Black has written not so much a history as a treatise challenging historians, particularly military historians, to reexamine the history of conflict in the examined period with the idea of total war uppermost in their minds.  It seems a counter-intuitive thing to do at first, but he provides plenty of examples of why the wars under consideration were not total or were only partially total at best.  This includes World War II, which was total in some aspects but limited in others.

The biggest distinction the Dr. Black makes in discussing totality in warfare is the difference between war aims/victory conditions and the methods used to wage war.  He posits that while war aims are sometimes total, such as seeking the destruction of the enemy or the dissolution of their state, the methods of war making have often been far from total.  Even the most brutal of wars between nation states are often not total as the combatants do not actually seek the physical destruction of their enemies.  He actually points out that it is most often revolutionary or sectarian conflicts where the physical destruction of opponents is a goal and uses the examples of Rwanda in 1994, 1990′s Bosnia, the German suppression of the Herero in the early 1900s, and many of the wars of decolonization in Africa and East Asia as examples, many of which fall outside of the period examined.

This is a global history of the period to an extent, but there is an emphasis on wars that occurred within Europe simply because so much more is known about them.  He examines the conditions in these wars and discusses the ways in which they were and were not total.  On of his most interesting discussions in the book is a wide-ranging discussion of fighting quality in his chapter on WWII and the way in which that aspect of the war has been under served in the literature.

He closes the book with a discussion of totality in the Cold War period and looking forward and the way in which the entire concept of total war needs to be reexamined and that military history needs to get away from just examining the wars of Europe but also look at the rest of the world.  It is a telling observation that in English language history’s the rest of the world is virtually ignored unless a western nation was engaged in the conflict with Israel being the exception.

In closing, Dr. Black has produced a book that should inspire even the most casual of students of military history to reevaluate the way in which they think of total war.  This book should be on the shelf of every student of military history but particularly that of those talking heads that go on news shows and fatuously offer their supposed wisdom about warfare for the masses.  An excellent and yes, thought provoking book, I highly recommend it.