Thursday, October 25, 2007

the end of history, the beginning of synthesis

It’s a rare week that The New Yorker doesn’t have an interesting article, and in the Oct 29 issue it’s a ‘review’ (TNY’s reviews often have little to do with the book in question) of What Hath God Wrought, in the course of which Jill Lapore ponders the great change that came over history writing in the 1990s:

‘During the nineteen-sixties and seventies, historians had produced longer and longer monographs on smaller and smaller subjects. A decade in the life of a town. A year in the life of a family. Dazzling studies, many of them, but pieces of a puzzle that no one had been able to put together.’
In reaction to this, Lepore explains, we got the great syntheses of more recent decades, in which the great goal has become to dump ‘all the pieces out of the box, and put them together, joining decades of meticulous empirical research about Western farmers, Eastern bankers, Southern slaves, artisans, immigrants, politicians, everyone’. She finds the prototype in Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, which was to have been a volume in the Oxford History of the United States. (Oxford rejected it for the series but published it as a separate volume.)

To judge by the readings assigned to us, this would seem to be the ruling ethos in War Studies. History no longer deals with what happened, but instead purports to find trends in the past that enable us to predict the future. (When I was a student at Manchester in 1954-55, I took a course titled Modern European History, which ended in 1895. In War in the Modern World, history begins in 1945.) This strikes me as a praiseworthy but essentially futile quest. While it may be possible—just barely possible!—to discern a Revolution in Military Affairs in the Napoleonic era, I doubt that it’s possible or even desirable to seek one in the present. Is there even one of the essayists for our first unit—Fukuyama, Huntington, Kaplan—whose predictive skills were such that you would hire the gentleman to choose your babysitter for Saturday night, never mind the weapons to be issued to your troops, or the tactics that they should employ?

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