Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Changing Face of Military History

 1960s non-violent insurgents at a Woolworth's lunch counter.

I have been attending numerous sessions during Gettysburg College's annual Civil War Institute this week.  As usual, the lineup of historians and scholars presenting and sharing their research and knowledge has been extremely insightful.  On Friday evening, professor and military historian Mark Grimsley of the Ohio State University offered a lecture entitled Race and the American Military Tradition.  At the heart of his discussion was the notion of racial formation--an idea which situates race as a social construct and that race (and the divides therein) will perhaps always be present in society.  Naturally, this has often been the case in the history of the American military as well.  In the military hierarchy, the subjugation of African Americans and non-Caucasian races were frequently reinforced rather than discouraged.  This pattern can be seen in the unequal pay of United States Colored Troops in the Civil War and the segregation of black troops up through World War II.

Even the desegregation of the United State Military in 1948 did not fully reconcile old divides.  While white and black troops often shared great camaraderie in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, most found themselves socializing with fellow soldiers of their own race while they were on leave or R&R.  A racial divide remained even though the "official" divide was no longer enforced.

Close black and white relations on the field of battle did not always correlate to racial unity off the battlefield.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of professor Grimsley's talk was his analysis of insurgencies.  Violent insurgencies are often driven by a racial and/or religious component, as we can see with ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.  However, Grimsley believes that the study of non-violent insurgencies (such as those of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.) should be just as important to military historians as are engagements with massive armies on battlefields.  Having such a holistic approach toward history allows us to correlate the social and racial components of the past and how they connect with political and military milestones.  Wars are fought not solely with bullets.  To me, this outlook reveals the continued relevance and changing face of military history.  As Grimsley alludes to, we must always place military actions and policies within the broader contexts of the places and times in which they occur.  If we do not do this, the higher meanings of battlefield heroism can be lost amidst tactical terminology.  Comprehending the balance between the cultural and combative aspects of warfare is the key to understanding why and how wars happen.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! Great blog you've got here, and this is an interesting post :)

    I was just wondering if you knew when and where the photo was taken, as I think it would be perfect for me to use in a history project (I have to find a picture I think shows the turning point in the Civil Rights Movement) but I need to know when it was taken so I can write in detail about the context.

    No worries if you don't know, I thought it was worth a try :)