Continuing #ReadingWomen

Kate Dahstrand

Greetings CCLKOW readers. My apologies for the hiatus in publication on this topic. A new job and a new home made more demands upon my time than I would have expected. And while things have not fully settled themselves, the time is ripe to return to this topic. Alas, it is with no small amount of personal and professional chagrin that we must renew the attack upon this particular hill. The publication of the Chief of Staff of the Army’s reading list, which contained only one woman author and no women as subjects, brings the issue to the fore with no small amount of urgency. Today we bring you a piece from Kate Dahlstrand, which I would best describe as a review essay offering a correction to the literature recommended in the list. Herself an Army veteran of 10 years, she is also a historian in her own right. In this way, she personifies, like Miranda Summers-Lowe and Andrea Goldsteing, two sides of the coin, in this case as a soldier and a scholar. And with this piece she reminds us that our goal here is not simply to increase the volume of women as authors and subjects, but as experts in the many fields related to national security. By normalizing the status of women as unquestioned voices on these subjects, not only will we increase the diversity of reading lists, but we will improve the broader quality of thought on them as well. So, read the piece, check out the others in the #ReadingWomen series, and look for a major update to the master reading list next week as well as more essays on the subject. — JSR

#ReadingWomen: Military Command Demands We Challenge a Moribund Canon

Let’s begin with the introduction of the 2017 edition of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List. Divided into six categories (Strategic Environment, Regional Studies, History and Military History, Leadership, Army Profession, and Fiction), the lists are provided “to steer readers to topics in which they are most interested,” and stand as the recommended books for “readers of any rank or position.” In my field, history, we call this written canon the historiography. It’s the foundation on which historians inform their understanding of their subjects, space, and time.

It’s not a terrible introduction to the subjects. I particularly appreciate the second to last paragraph that stresses the importance of critical engagement of many topics to be an effective leader. “Members of the Army profession” are reminded of their “essential responsibility” to understand the machinations of the world around them and the complexities that exist as they confront “new and emerging missions.” The problem exists in the latter part of this paragraph; when it argues that the reading list represents a “guide” for topics that deserve commissioned officers’ attention. The introduction suggests that the six topics represent the entirety of Army concerns. Were that the case, the list is still deficient and outdated. But it’s not the case, either. Beyond the tired and misguided conversations offered in this reading list, it is also incomplete and potentially insulting to the intelligence of military leaders. Those charged with command ought to be capable of nuance, but the section on Military History panders to the lowest common denominator. I expect more of the men and women who make life and death decisions.

The following alternatives are written by either historians of color or historians who identify as women. That’s not by accident, either.

Some specifically problematic recommendations and alternate choices:

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark.

This book has been largely dismissed by Great War scholars. Clark creates an interpretation of war causation that allows the denial of culpability. “Mutual misunderstandings” and “unintended signals” create a war without blame.

In its stead, Army officers and commanders should read John Morrow’s The Great War: An Imperial History. John Morrow prefaces his work by highlighting the absurdity of compartmentalization trends in World War I histories, suggesting that operational histories and their refusal to incorporate social and cultural influences “impedes a more complete understanding” of how and why the war took place.[i] Rejecting previous scholarship by historians like Niall Ferguson who reject the “culture of militarism” as the primary cause of war, Morrow demonstrates how culture, and society, walked deliberately into the Great War with eyes wide open. This was a world war in the truest and most literal translation of the words; Europe was not the center of the universe and Morrow’s synthesis reflects his understanding of this. The British had their colonial empire, which stretched into India, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The French had their African soldiers, as did the Germans. The First World War sought to settle forever who will rule the world unbridled, it was not mysterious and involved no sleepwalking.[ii]

Once Morrow established the war in its imperial context, he then goes on to demonstrate how themes of gender and race shaped both the war and the cultures that fed it. Prior to the outbreak of warfare in 1914, women throughout the world had been inching, steadfastly and with great determination, towards recognition of equality between the sexes. The 1918 Armistice provided “neither economic equality for women nor as much progress for woman as some observers initially perceived,” postwar treatment of women reflected the traumatizing effect four long years of war had and “unleashed fears of a destabilized society.” A recession into the “separate spheres” mentality amongst British citizens in particular, represented nothing short of a survival strategy against “the inherent aggression and violence of returning soldiers and men in general.” Simultaneously, British conservatives fueled conspiracy theories suggesting Jews within their country were too similar to Bolsheviks to be trusted, making anti-Semitism the standing order. And while other British colonies secured their independence from the crown as dominions, India and Turkey suffered the scorn of racially determined agendas. Morrow concludes his imperial history by suggesting that the war “fought to make the world safe for democracy,” only did so if the color of a nation’s skin warranted it. Otherwise, the war had only reinforced a protection of “global rule of whites over other races,” understanding this included the unspoken intention that this meant “men.”[iii]

By studying the long-term build up to war, the social and cultural motivations and acts of resistance to war, and the global impact with long-lasting consequences, the officer is forced to consider war outside the trenches and beyond the battlefields.

1776 by David McCullough

A simplistic revolutionary history that tacitly endorses American exceptionalism. McCullough encourages the Great Man narrative with this book and the recommendation even states outright that this book is meant to inspire overcoming severe supply deficits with more ephemeral traits like “endurance…dedication…and…singular leadership.” Lofty goals, indeed, but it also romanticizes want and insufficient access to necessary supply chains.

Instead, read Sarah Purcell’s Sealed With Blood. Purcell takes pension records and offers a surveyed study of veterans’ politics, arguing for political culture’s expansion through the “the democratization of memory,” which enabled “various people to draw attention to themselves on an important public and symbolic level.” She suggests that a message of sacrifice, when written into the Revolution narrative, allowed access for humble war veterans of meager means to demand recognition and recompense. “Commemorations of the Revolutionary War created abstract ideas of what the ideal American nation should be,” allowing social outliers to participate in shaping a nation. Furthermore, abstract patriotism blurred conceptual limitations, allowing veterans drawn from the “lower sorts” to penetrate the collective memory. Although the text suffers from a heavy focus on those killed in battle, pushing the living combat survivors to recede into the background, as passive recipients of kindness, honor, and charity, still, these Revolutionary veterans found their voice in demanding recognition. Shay’s Rebellion represented the collective actions of “disgruntled and debt-ridden veterans.” This outburst of political dissent led to a generation of war veterans who would exercise their rights as American citizens in a democratic nation where political discourse explored republican possibilities. [iv]

If we must study a military’s wants and needs, then let it be the longer perspective of the veterans’ post-war experience. A focus on how the middling veterans used their service to demand recognition and recompense will teach military leaders that part of war is making a commitment to the generation who fought it.

Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson

A hawkish history that stresses the tired trope of western superiority. And while even the title suggests that culture plays a role in the success of military achievements, it is the war-prone cultures that dominate the discussion.

Instead, read Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War and Women’s Identities at War by Susan Grayzel.

If war can claim a gender, it is decidedly male. Joanna Bourke explores the masculinity of the men who participated in the First World War and “the impact of the First World War on the male body” in Dismembering the Male: Man’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War. Bourke fills a gap in the historiography of masculinity and gender studies where “literature, the empire, liberalism, religion, sexuality, and domesticity” have all received consideration without ever examining the body itself. She argues that WWI created a break from gendered social progressions developed by the turn of the Twentieth Century. Still, even with a conflict that reverted “to a more traditional” language and outlook, those experiences “fundamentally affected not only the shape and texture of the male body, but also the values ascribed to the body and the disciplines applied to masculinity.” In her chapter on “mutilating,” Bourke asserts that Britain’s male population dealt with “the everyday experience of imperfection” that fell along class lines before the war. With an entire generation encountering the threat of disfigurement, the Great War also “altered the lives of people physically disabled from birth or by accident as well.” In the end, all disfigured men lost and by the late 1920s, any “respect that had been initially given to the fragmented bodies of war-mutilated men had ended.” Instead, the physically damaged survivors of war were placed among the other undesirable populations that required government assistance to survive.[v]

Bourke then takes on the concepts of “malingering” and “bonding” and how they further redefined what it meant to be a man living in wartime Britain. Malingering served as “another response to the public responsibilities of masculinity.” Off and on the frontlines, men paid for their “male citizenship” and all the benefits therein with physical acts that put their flesh in harm’s way. Any man who rejected this, a man who malingered to save his own body from deformity, “was not deemed worthy” of membership in the social and political sphere. War malingerers avoided their duty without ever questioning “the nature of the duty itself,” and Bourke points out how on the battlefield and in the trenches sometimes it “was a more sensible strategy to attempt to shorten their horizons and do their manly duty.” War emphasized, also, how the male body participated in romantic adventure. Bourke argues the importance in recognizing the multi-dimensional quality of masculinity: “fortitude and tenderness coexisted.” The military, as a space devoid of women, children and family replicated an internal “domestic sphere” where private and deeply intimate relations shaped the outward “public” man. Still, the intimacies experienced suffered under the strain of combat and “bonds snapped during the war.” When wartime stress proved too much, social customs ultimately reverted to “earlier forms of intimacy” that stressed traditional and reserved display.[vi]

In her final chapters, Bourke demonstrates the lasting effects of “inspecting” and “re-membering” male bodies during and after the Great War. Combat proved a catalyst for the collective social desire to “control men through manipulating their physical shape and fitness.” She acknowledges that physical appearance demands evolved outside of WWI, but war did create a world of “unsurpassed” inspection of the male physique. “Before the war,” Bourke argues, “the assertion [of masculinity] tended to take the form of competition over the healthy body; after the war, competition became increasingly concerned with aesthetics and included a repudiation of the mutilations of wartime.” The man who did not survive combat were scoured and sanitized in the death rituals and memorialization efforts created after war. Pageantry in memorializing the Unknown Warrior, like “the services at Westminster Abbey enabled the bereaved to visualize those they had lost not in the muddied fields of Flanders but in the purifying atmosphere of a place of worship.”[vii]

In Women’s Identities at War, Susan Grayzel argues what WWI offers an “important arena” for studying the “largest group of adult noncombatants’ efforts to make sense of their gender and national identities at a pivotal point in the modern era.” She provocatively suggests that, for women, any loyalties to themselves as a gender demanding equality found them positioned at odds with loyalty to their nation. Propaganda generated during the war inextricably linked women with ideas of motherhood and the raising of good soldiers. Wartime rhetoric “stressed the “naturalness” of these normative categories, thus eclipsing” any efforts to tie femininity to other positive traits that more easily entered the political sphere. In this comparison between Britain and France, Grayzel dismissed the idea that war divides itself neatly between homefront and battlefront. Men and women created a “shared national war experience” that eroded “the crucial divide between combatant and noncombatant.” Propaganda that reported violence against women aroused “national indignation” and fueled anger against Germans who “raped” the concept of motherhood. Women and their place in home and work illustrate wartime anxieties. Unwed mothers and sexually active but non-procreating women challenged both the social order and the extracurricular activities of soldiers. Grayzel analyzes women’s political activities in pacifist dissent and patriotic service of the war, exploring the limitations imposed on women when only service and sacrifice constituted legitimate politicized paths for women. Women also transformed into the official mourners of war and “the grieving mother became a potent vehicle for the expression of collective memory and sorrow.” Women did find “sufficient political and cultural gains” however they were still incredibly gendered and traditional. Post war society “encouraged them to continue to see their roles as mothers, particularly as producers of future soldiers, as central to their identities.”[viii]

Both of these books blur the line between battle and home front cultures. Military officers ought to understand the broader implications of deployments and military actions. Beyond might and battlefield prowess, wartime decisions affect political, social, and cultural diversity.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

A narrowly considered trade history that fails meaningful discussion of how the environment and indigenous peoples of the “New World” affected the conquering people. Tacit endorsement of western superiority.

Instead, read Jill LePore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity.

LePore traces the foundational practices of making the American Indian invisible. Once the “noble savage” becomes a part of mythmaking, once the Indians disappear into historic tales that gradually push westward, they no longer stand in the way of “Moral Authority” that pushes white Americans into lands that do not belong to them. Those who control the narrative, control the victories, a simple lesson, but one that would well serve American military leaders.

Some comments on the list, collectively:

We can do better.

I have not even broached the topic of war-making and its long-term creation of generational veterans. That’s a topic for another essay. But the lack of foresight in this list provides a warning. If military strategists and tacticians work under a perceived reality of perpetual war, then democracy will never spread and the promises of peace and unity are broken. I’d rather my military leaders study what’s possible when forces bring compassion to the negotiating table. If weapons are used to ensure food and services get to the right people, instead of blowing up city blocks while commanders cry alligator tears for collateral damage.

The lack of diversity in the authorship is devastating. Worse, it is more a reflection of a problematic administration than a true accountability of the sound scholarship that already exists in military history circles. A historiography of the first 150 years of American warfare (and the veterans they create) reveals three major points regarding both the development of the nation and scholarship. First, race and equality factored into every combat veteran’s concern. Soldiers returned from each war with very strong opinions about the future of American policies regarding race. Black soldiers participated in every war and, prior to the American Civil War, and its subsequent abolition, there was a strong belief that each war held the potential to break the bonds of slavery and simultaneously assert equality. With emancipation secured, subsequent combat found black volunteer soldiers fighting for a nation that did not recognize their humanity and when these veterans returned they became organized agents for civil rights.

Beyond race, the American veteran returned home from every war politicized. Often, they moved westward and created communities where they held positions that allowed them to shape the American landscape in their own vision. Never the passive recipients of government benefits and entitlements, the veteran forced the government they fought for to recognize culpability in creating both broken men and men who learned strength in numbers. There were failures in each generation and until The Great War, veterans reinvented the wheel with regards to pensions and government policy. The veterans of World War I ultimately crated a perpetuating program of entitlement in the Montgomery GI Bill that proved awesome in size and terrifying in its recognition that warfare would forever stand as an American agenda.

Finally, the recommended list created by the US Army Chief of Staff is a maddeningly outdated historiography and I’m embarrassed our military leadership thinks this should still represent our worldview. We will never create peace on earth with this hyper-masculine narrative that asks the wrong questions and draws skewed conclusions. If ones understanding of military strategy and geo-politics comes from The Sleepwalkers and Guns, Germs, & Steel, our nation is already lost. We ought to expect nuanced understanding in our military leadership.

. . .

Kate Dahlstrand is a combat veteran of the US Army and a PhD candidate in the history department of the University of Georgia. She explores how communities shape both an individual’s understanding of the past and their definition of loyalty. Her dissertation follows Civil War veterans, both Union and Confederate, in East Tennessee, which was widely recognized as a Unionist stronghold within a reluctant Confederate state. She’s also built an upper-level history course on The American Veteran: Revolution through the Bonus Army. You can find her on Twitter @KateDahls.

[i] John Morrow, The Great War: An Imperial History (London: Routledge, 2004), xi.

[ii] Ibid., 18.

[iii] Ibid., 298–9, 312–4.

[iv] Sarah Purcell, Sealed with Blood: War and Society in the American Revolution: Mobilization and Home Fronts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.) 2, 4,

[v] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Mans Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996), 11–12, 30–31, 75.

[vi] Ibid., 77, 122–123, 126, 170.

[vii] Ibid., 171, 209, 210, 250.

[viii] Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 2, 8, 9, 10, 246.

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