The Nature and Consequences of Modern War

The New Military History
The Making of the Modern World
Rob Johnson
The Face of Battle
1970s/80s growth of new military histories – social and
individual experience
… Challenged the orthodox military history: generals’
perspective, unit designations, weapons, and map
‘Since we appear to know a great deal more about
generalship than we do about how and why ordinary
soldiers fight, a diversion of historical effort from the
rear to the front of the battlefield would seem
considerably overdue. All the more does it seem
desirable in the light of what little reliable information
we do have about what goes on at the place soldiers
call “the sharp end”.’ John Keegan, The Face of
Battle, (London, 1976).
US Army Historical Teams
• Post-1945 advocacy of small group tactics as most
efficient fighting level; interest in unit cohesion
• Marshall, Men against Fire (1947):
‘In an average experienced infantry company in an
average day's action, the number engaging with any and
all weapons was approximately 15 per cent of the total
strength. In the most aggressive companies, under the
most intense local pressure, the figure rarely rose above
25 percent of the total strength from the opening to the
close of the action.’
• Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers (1997): thesis that US
conscript troops more democratic than totalitarian troops
(politicisation); inspiration for Spielberg’s ‘new realism’.
Popular Cultural Representations
This shift is mirrored in:
• Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg,
1998), with 20-minute Omaha
beach scene
• Band of Brothers (HBO, 2001)
Use of handheld cameras
for point-of-view shots; camera
shake for authenticity
Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998)
Heightened levels of gore
(cf more sanitised The Longest
Day, 1962)
• Medal of Honor (2002,
Electronic Arts): ‘first-person
shooter’ use virtual reality to
recreate a safe substitute
experience of battlefield.
Medal of Honor (2002)
Popular Representations of War
Militaria Collectors
War gamers
Portrayal: War Art
Napoleon at the St
Bernard Pass, 1801,
Jacques-Louis David
‘Stonewall’ Jackson Memorial, Manassas, Virginia
The Thin Red Line at Balaclava, by Caton Woodville
Menin Road, IWM, Paul Nash
Otto Dix
Otto Dix
C.R.W. Nevinson, Machine Gun
Soldiers as Natural Born Killers?
• Human nature versus environmental factors
• Brutalising effects of warfare; Bartov’s study of German
troops on eastern front
• ‘Numbness of killing’ (Lifton) aided by distancing from
killing by focus on weapons technology
• Male psychology of latent aggression manipulated by
training regimes (Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing,
Massacre in Warfare
• Irregular warfare & counter-insurgency:
large part of 20th-century wars
Examples: Ukraine, 1941-44; Algerian
War, 1954-62; Vietnam & Iraq)
Controversial: Nanking, Armenia
• Civilians as ‘soft’ targets for troops
seeking revenge; rural population
targeted for aiding guerrillas
Police Battalion 101 in
occupied Poland, 1941
• Capacity to kill increased by peer group
pressure, permissive hierarchy, hostile
• Countered by discipline, a strong legal
ethos, & affinity with the local
Victims of the My Lai massacre, south
Vietnam, March 1968
Casualties of War
• Disease: biggest killer of
18/19th-century troops
Crimean War:
25,600 Anglo-French battle
38,000 disease deaths
American Civil War:
Ratio 1:2
• Battlefield casualties, c. 1/3
killed: 2/3 wounded; -High
mortality rates after
• 1944+ Combat casualties
exceeded diseased in
Western theatres
• Aids: the new vector
American Civil War amputee
Casualties of War: Nuclear Potential
Military and Civilian Deaths in the
Two World Wars
Nuclear predicted casualties
(1958 estimates):
1st day of a nuclear exchange:
USA would have suffered 42
million dead,
16th day, would rise to 83
million dead
1960s, introduction of the
cobalt-coated ‘doomsday’
bombs and higher yield
the nuclear option threatened
mass extinction
Shell Shock and Battle Fatigue
• American Civil War:
diagnosed as ‘nostalgia’
• First World War:
prolonged shelling led to
nervous disorders …
• …initially diagnosed as
shell concussion, but later
as psychiatric breakdown
• Treatments ranged from
electrotherapy and ‘talking
• 1941-45, psychoactive
drugs prescribed
• ‘proximity’ treatment now
Social History and New Military History
Cultural History
• Soldiers’ beliefs and military
• Service life: songs, humour,
routine, women, training
• Impact of garrisons and ports
on civilians
• Civil-military relations –
vocabulary, fashion, ideas,
reforms, behaviour
• The military in idealised forms:
heroes, values, icons
• The media and war
• Identities: ‘place’, class
systems, gendering
• Loss, memorialisation.
Sources for Experiential History
• Written sources
• Conscription leads to
higher proportion of
educated, literate
• Diaries
• Letters home
• Unit histories
• Oral history
Oral History Skills: Memory
Lived memory versus historical memory
Lived memory evolves over time
Repression of painful memories
Life stories: culture of narration
Body language
Historical memory: influence of the state in creating
official memory
Pierre Nora, ‘lieux de mémoire’, focuses on official
Lynn Macdonald, Malcolm Brown, weave veterans’
remarks into a narrative history
• Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock
Memorialisation of War
War is used to reinforce existing
... or create new ones
The Ossuary of Verdun
New Military History
• Broader approach to the study of war (war in history, not
just military history)
• Utilises more material and techniques
• Is in danger of a lack of clarity and rigour
• Is still too Euro-centric, telological, and technologicallydeterminist or ‘emotional’.