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  • Warring Societies of Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia: Local Cultures of Conflict within a Regional Context ed. by Michael W. Charney and Kathryn Wellen
  • J. Travis Shutz
michael w. charney and kathryn wellen, eds.
Warring Societies of Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia: Local Cultures of Conflict within a Regional Context
Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2018. 230 pages.

War! One would be hard pressed to find a topic that either historically or contemporaneously has received an equivalent amount of coverage. From the wars of the mythological past to the guerrilla conflicts of the twenty-first century, warfare seems to be a topic perpetually leading someone somewhere to put ink to paper. Ranging from the socioeconomics of warfare to the possibility of military revolutions, the study not just of warfare in general but of select individual wars could quite possibly carry their own academic departments. Under such circumstances, developing new perspectives from which to analyze the topic could appear to be a difficult task. Nevertheless, recent historiographical developments, provided by the “new military histories,” have shown areas, such as global comparisons of military technology or the role of the environment in warfare, that remain ripe for future examination. To these recent developments, Warring Societies of Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia provides an inventive avenue through which to simultaneously approach the local and regional dynamics of warfare.

The volume was edited by preeminent historians of warfare in early modern Southeast Asia, Michael W. Charney and Kathryn Wellen. As a historian of Burma and professor of Asian and Military History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Charney has taken a leading role in advancing the study of Southeast Asian warfare. Conducting pathbreaking work on pre-Islamic South Sulawesi, Kathryn Wellen is currently historian for the Royal (Netherlands) Academy of Arts and Sciences. As the editors themselves effectively describe, the volume contains several historiographical interventions. First, within the scholarship on the global history of warfare, the collected works provide valuable insights into a region underrepresented in the existing literature. Second, the editors situate the volume in response to three existing approaches to the history of warfare in Southeast Asia: the so-called old cultural, state formation, and military technology. While the latter two approaches are relatively self-explanatory and require little elaboration, the “old cultural approach” emphasizes borderline-essentialized regional Southeast Asian characteristics, such as the [End Page 538] role of bloodless conflict resolution and an emphasis on controlling people. By focusing on regional characteristics, each of these three approaches deemphasizes the diversity of local forms of warfare within the region (10). To these I would include an additional intervention: the volume also implicitly responds to questions about the interaction between exterior and interior influences on the history of warfare in Southeast Asia (e.g., Indianization, Sinicization, Islamicization, or Europeanization). In these studies, the flow of military technology plays an important role, but, as will be discussed later, it should not be understood as an exterior impact and local response; rather, the local context exerts significant influence.

Responding to a previous lack of explanation for local variations in warfare, the volume advocates a so-called new cultural approach. In contrast to the regional emphasis of the old cultural approach, the new cultural perspective focuses on “particular warfare cultures and politics, the latter shaped by both local and regional factors” (13). Throughout the individual chapters, a diverse set of local cultures of warfare appears while simultaneously being influenced by the regional flows of commerce, military technology, and people. The relationship between military technology and political control emerges as a common, yet varied, theme throughout the volume. Looking at Maguindanao, Ariel C. Lopez emphasizes the role of maritime raiding in and the importance of religion and kinship ties to state consolidation. While Kathryn Wellen shows the importance of weapons to political centralization in South Sulawesi, Hans Hägerdal argues modern weapons played a contrasting and destabilizing role in nineteenth-century Bali. In what is the most ambitious chapter in its geographical coverage, Gerrit Knaap brings together examples of weapons, strategies, and political implications stretching from Taiwan in the northeast through Luzon to the southern reaches of the Indonesian archipelago. Knaap’s...


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