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War and the Cultural Turn by Jeremy Black (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 224-226 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0022

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The latest book by distinguished military historian Jeremy Black is an examination of a range of intersections between ‘culture’ and military and war studies. Black is certainly well qualified to engage with this topic, as the author of an extensive list of books and articles on military history over a very wide chronological range. For this reason, his thoughts and arguments on what he terms the ‘cultural turn’ in military history are important and will be widely read by military historians. It is indeed to military historians that he is primarily addressing his arguments in this book, where he stresses the validity of blurry terminology like ‘culture’. For many cultural or social historians his arguments on this aspect of his analysis will be preaching to the converted. However, there is much in this book to interest medieval and early modern social historians as well as historians of premodern warfare. The sheer range of Black’s knowledge of military history, from ancient wars to the use of drones by the US military in Afghanistan, means that his arguments have an impressive depth.

In his preface, Black states that his aim with the book is to make ‘a case for a culturally aware approach to military history’ while avoiding the ‘opposite dangers of dismissing and blindly accepting culture as an explanatory concept’ (p. vii). The book opens with a long and discursive Introduction where Black grapples with the many meanings of ‘culture’ within historical, security, and war studies. This is a useful overview of the very different ways that ‘culture’ has been invoked within scholarship on military strategy, civilian engagement, and memory of war, as well as historical aspects of war and society. He covers not only definitions and historiography, but also the limitations of some military studies that remain closely linked with current national military strategies especially in the USA. In all this, his examples range from ancient to modern.

The second substantive chapter will be the chapter of most interest to medieval and early modern scholars, as here he examines the culture of prestige and personal glory or gloire in premodern military societies. His chapter is one of synthesis, and he argues against teleological military histories that see the medieval period as one leading up to the great shifts in gun technology of the latter period. While many of his examples are from Western Europe, he deplores the general ignorance within much western historical scholarship towards the histories of the Islamic, Chinese, and Indian empires.

In this chapter and others, Black explicitly grapples with the murkiness of using ‘culture’ as an analytical tool, as on p. 53 where he agrees that articulating ‘the importance of a set of values does not demonstrate that they necessarily took the key part in particular decisions’. Instead he points out that such values are an important part of the context in which military decisions were made.

The next chapter addresses the histories of strategy and strategic culture, through a close analysis of the British between 1688 and 1815. The strategic awareness and culture of war administration were bound up with the political and diplomatic necessities of the coalition warfare in which the British were engaged. Black also argues for wider ranging understanding of military strategic culture, arguing that for the British war was also bound up with domestic politics and the management of political opposition to war expenditure.

The second half of Black’s book brings his analysis into the age of modern warfare, with chapters on Western warfare between 1815 and 1950, the Cold War, and contemporary military strategies and culture. He concludes with two chapters that bring his analysis together. In the first, ‘Culture and military analysis’, he examines military historiography itself as a form of cultural activity. His first focus is on popular histories, which, as he suggests, continue to be published prolifically and with considerable financial success by specialist military publishing houses. While he acknowledges the value of many of these avowedly popular histories, he emphasizes that such works continue to cover familiar ground – the Western Front of World War I for instance. Black then turns to more academic historiography, particularly of war and society and memory. He points out...



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