3rd 2011
Does warfare ever change over time?

Posted under: American history, Gender, unhappy endings, women's history

Outside of the machines and techologies that humans have invented to kill each other, I’m not convinced that warfare is a suitable historical subject, if the measure of a historical subject is demonstrable and meaningful change over time.  For example, check out this nationalist, masculinist rhetoric from the White House about the killing of Osama Bin Laden on Sunday.  (This Washington Post article was reprinted in my home-delivered copy of the Denver Post this morning:)

The Obama administration presented new details Monday about the death of Osama bin Laden, portraying the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda as a reclusive figure who had lived in relative luxury and whose final moments had finally exposed his cowardice.

As Americans solemnly remembered those killed at bin Laden’s command, senior administration officials sought to turn their tactical military victory into a moral one by undermining the heroic image he had long cultivated among his followers. They stressed that he had been discovered not in a remote cave, but in a mansion in a wealthy Pakistani city. They also sought to suggest that, as he tried to escape U.S. Special Operations forces, he may have used one of his wives as a shield.

“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” John O. Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, told reporters at the White House. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

Bin Laden’s narrative isn’t the only false or misleading narrative.  Brennan’s narrative is strikingly similar to colonial trash talk about military and political foes, which makes me automatically skeptical of it.  His words are guided by a nearly ancient script.  Accusations of unmanliness and [effeminate] luxury were two prominent rhetorical weapons wielded by Anglo-American men against both Indian and French men, and Indian men gave as good as they got on this score. 

I wrote a whole book about this kind of rhetoric in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I kept searching for change over time, extending the end date of my project, but I never found it.  Clearly, I could have extended it to the present, because Bin Laden was hardly a man, he was hiding behind a girl when they got’im!  And he lived a life of effeminacy and luxury, not manly self-sacrifice or military discipline.  I especially liked that touch that “he may have used one of his wives as a shield.”  It’s the same objectification of Muslim women’s misery and drudgery that’s always in play in wars with Western powers, with a bonus dig at the manhood of a Muslim man found cowering behind a woman’s skirts before his spectacularly violent death.  Behold the power of the narrative:  Anglo-American colonists were fond of tsk-tsking about the fate of “squaw drudges,” Indian women who were made to toil endlessly in the fields while their husbands played at sport like fishing and hunting. 

It’s strange that when history was professionalized in the nineteenth century, warfare (along with politics) was considered an appropriately manly historical subject.  To the contrary, the primitive rhetoric and role-playing in warfare is more impervious to change over time than any of the so-called “feminine” interests in the supposedly changeless realms of women’s lives, domesticity, family and community life, or sexuality.

On a related note:  is anyone else appalled by the non-stop, mostly information-free coverage of Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals?  Why is the U.S. hyping and celebrating this, when it should hang its head in shame that it took 9-1/2 years, untold numbers of human lives, and billions of dollars to find a 6-1/2 foot tall Saudi on dialysis who was living only 35 miles outside of Islamabad?  (And if that joint is “luxurious,” then David Koresh’s compound was “luxury” too.)  I could craft my own narrative about the profligacy, cowardice, and bloodthirstiness of the American Empire–but I’ll decline, for the moment.

Even more childish is the belief that somehow one man’s death makes everyone in the U.S. and around the world “safer.”  That’s another thing about warfare and our pleasing nationalist and masculinist narratives:  they makes us (like Harry and Lloyd) “dumb and dumber.”  All Hail the National Security State.  When the next terrorist attack happens in direct retaliation for American celebrations of the death of Bin Laden, it will be used as an excuse to deny us more liberty.

(For a better critique of the exploitation of women’s bodies in the “War on Terror,” see Tenured Radical.  For a more concise critique of the Osama-death-o-rama, see Comrade PhysioProf.  TalkLeft has been all over the holes in these narratives, too, and don’t miss Roxie’s “The Truth is in the Typo.”  Are you scarred or scared by 9/11/2001?))


61 Responses to “Does warfare ever change over time?”

  1. DickensReader on 03 May 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Much needed smack down. Good grief. Now, I am hearing the “hiding behind a woman” may have been a miscommunication. How could that be so, when the raid was witnessed via webcam by a whole room of people?

  2. loyal reader on 03 May 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Here’s the thing. We will never get a “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan. We will never have a ticker tape parade celebrating the end of these wars. So this is our “victory moment” for the conflicts of this generation. Americans needed something to feel good about, and this is one of those collective woo hoo moments when random strangers can go to Times Square and take cell phone photos of each other. It’s kind of ugly but it reflects who we are right now, and it also demonstrtes how some things about us never change.

  3. DickensReader on 03 May 2011 at 10:53 am #

    New spin: “You may have killed our leader, bin Laden, however, he is, without a doubt, the HIDE AND SEEK CHAMPION! Take that you American infidels!”

  4. JJO on 03 May 2011 at 11:07 am #

    I can’t find an online source for the text, but last night’s NEH Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities picked up exactly this subject — why war has been so fascinating a subject for historians and other humanists, the paradoxes and problems with that, and the ways in which the stories we tell about war serve to shape and often enable it (I hope I don’t screw up the HTML):

    (CHE) Harvard’s Drew Faust — Why Humanity is Fascinated With War (sorry, I think that’s limited to subscribers… I’ll do a quick search for other accounts and post those if I find them.)

  5. JJO on 03 May 2011 at 11:10 am #

    Here’s a link to the text (warning, PDF):

    Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian

  6. JJO on 03 May 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Also (I haven’t followed the other links in the post yet, so apologies if this is old news), but as everyone must have guessed, the “wife as human shield” story turns out to be totally false.

  7. loyal reader on 03 May 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Also I thought trudging out the “9/11 widows” and weepy fire-fighters, for their reactions to bin Laden’s death, was totally tasteless.

  8. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 11:41 am #

    JJO–thanks for the links to Faust’s lecture. And you’re right–the wife-as-human-shield story turns out to be very dodgy. I hadn’t heard that yet–but it’s funny how I didn’t need to know the facts to guess the truth.

    As for the celebration/reaction stories about bin Laden’s death: the people who have made the most sense out of anyone are the armed servicemen and women and their families. They all have said basically “I’m glad he’s dead, but this doesn’t really change anything and in fact it may further endanger our lives for the time being.”

    And, loyal reader–I understand what you’re saying about the generational aspects of the celebrations. I just find all of the cheering and flag-waving unseemly, part of a big reality TV spectacle, especially because the vast majority of civilians have done nothing and sacrificed nothing for the sake of the imperial wars of the last decade.

    OTOH, the “Greatest Generation” deserved their kisses between WACS and sailors and nurses and servicemen and their fracking tickertape parades on V-J and V-E day, because you know what? They earned it. If they didn’t serve themselves, they mobilized for war at home in factories, they endured gas, butter, and sugar rationing, and they planted Victory Gardens and bought war bonds. Whereas I don’t think any of us out of uniform right now has earned a goddamn thing in these wars (however misbegotten. My point is mostly that sacrifice should be shared, and you have to be in the cast in order to attend the wrap party.)

  9. GayProf on 03 May 2011 at 11:55 am #

    I have long been concerned that this country confuses vengeance with justice.

  10. Comrade PhysioProf on 03 May 2011 at 11:58 am #

    Thankes for the fucken linke!

  11. Retrochef on 03 May 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    The day after the announcement, I was chaperoning a field trip. On the bus heading back to school, two teachers I sat near began chatting about it, saying how great it was and what a relief, etc. My daughter’s teacher said, “It’s as great as when they killed Hitler!”

    She almost immediately started backpedaling (“Well, no, ok, Hitler was worse,” etc.) which confused me briefly; however, I think it belatedly registered in her head that she had said that right in front of her Jewish student’s mother. (Because apparently Judaism is what you really need in order to fully disapprove of Hitler or something. I guess.) She and the other teacher sort of turned it into a “if he’d had more power and gotten his way more he WOULD have been as bad as Hitler, he WANTED to be like Hitler.” It was weird.

    I really don’t mind much that Bin Laden was killed instead of captured. But the rhetoric HAS been sounding weird, even without the background knowledge that it’s a historical norm to sneer at the cowardly woman-oppressing enemy.

  12. truffula on 03 May 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Our whole family, grade schoolers and all, watched the President’s announcement live. None of us really had words for it in the moment, other than to gag at the rah! rah! part at the end. The next morning, one of the boys wanted to talk with me about it. I asked if hitting his brother in retaliation ever really solves anything. He said no; it seems good at the time and he’s not sure he can keep from doing it sometimes but it doesn’t make anything better. This seemed a pretty good way to feel about the whole business.

  13. fratguy on 03 May 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    I have not seen much jubilation or chest thumping in the “meat world” over the last 24-48 hrs. The one exception was one of my Saudi families who went to great lengths to portray him as a son of Yemen, and were openly ecstatic about his death.

  14. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Because apparently Judaism is what you really need in order to fully disapprove of Hitler or something. I guess.

    Heh. I guess it’s more authentic that way, because we non-Jews are all like, “Hitler? Meh. He really turned the German economy around, though, didn’t he?”

    Truffula’s kids should be appointed National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, *if* they do their homework immediately after school and avoid annoying each other during dinner.

  15. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Can I just add: incredible asininity from both the left and the right about bin Laden, his death, and “history:”

    Jonathan Alter, “Bin Laden Death Marks a Turn in U.S. History”
    David Brooks, “I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, again!”

    All I can muster is my best Valley Girl imitation. Like, Omigod! Barf me out! Tooootally. Gag me! Gag me with a spoon.

  16. Tenured Radical on 03 May 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    What I particularly love is the college kids celebrating that “we” did it. No children, the ones who joined the military did it. The ones who can’t afford to go to college — ?

  17. Indyanna on 03 May 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    I kind of thought the NSA use of the code-name “Geronimo” for the presumed perp was a little weird for a regime that’s been trying (and having trouble) to separate its meta-strategy from the trope of “crusade.” Like, borrowing a metaphor for an expansionist state relentlessly driving the adverse possessors into the high hills. I guess they didn’t have any “Navaho Code Talkers” working on the intel side of this current op. Upper middle second-division generation, anybody?

  18. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Indyanna: Srsly? Geronimo? Someone whom many Americans consider a hero? Bad form, I’d say, from pretty much every political angle you can think of.

    Maybe they thought of calling him Adolph Hitler, but were afraid that Godwin’s Law would dictate that they would automatically lose the war if they went with Der Fuhrer.

    And TR: I haven’t seen any college students at Baa Ram U. celebrating or even talking about bin Laden today. That may be because so many of my students are vets, and they’re probably rightfully concerned for their friends who are still overseas. (Was it YOUR students who were all rah-rah?)

  19. JJO on 03 May 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Good God, that Brooks piece makes me want to punch him in the face. More than usual.

  20. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    JJO: not quite as mature as truffula’s little boy.

    No hit, JJO!

  21. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    More asininity, this time from Condoleeza Rice.

  22. Indyanna on 03 May 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    On a philosophy of history note, I think we have as much interest in knowing about the phenomenon of persistence-over-time as we do change-over-time, although I’m not necessarily agreeing that war making falls into the former category. It may. But we might be throwing patriarchal equilibrium out of the tent if we disconnect it from being a suitable historical subject.

    @TR: the undergraduate “we” covers a wide range of chronographic misconceptualization, extending to things like how “we” resisted and finally overthrew the tyranny of K. George III, even if “our” ancestors all came from the Baltic region just after WW I.

  23. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Finding the stupid this afternoon is like eating potato chips–I just can’t stop!!!

    For example: Peter Beinart on Obama banishing forevah the “Wimp Factor,” as though Obama himself led the Navy Seals into bin Laden’s lair, insulted him, and then executed him on live teevee. (This story helpfully links to a worshipful story about those he-man heroes, the Navy Seals.)

    I suppose I should just stop thinking and salute these manly gods of masculine manfulness from the Isle of Man.

  24. Paul on 03 May 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    I agree that it’s not the cause for as much celebration as some people are making it out to be, but I think it’s very understandable that people are happy about it.

    My guess is that the rhetoric about a cowardly, “effeminate” enemy doesn’t change much over time because it is so effective – why alter something that works so well?

  25. Ellie on 03 May 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    I’ve been puzzling over what seems to be a generational aspect to the “rah rah” response that loyal reader and Tenured Radical note above. In the CNN coverage Sunday night, it was clear that the party out behind the White House was made up of GWU students, and much of what I’ve seen subsequently from other places seems to show partying crowds similarly made up primarily of college-age young people. The less charitable explanation for this is the one TR points us toward: these are the privileged, non-serving young people claiming a victory they did not earn, and they draw the forms of educated privilege par excellence, i.e. modern athletics. If war to them has been a spectator sport for them, then it makes sense that they would fall back on the practices of athletic spectating–cheering, flag-waving, beer drinking, impromptu fireworks (on my campus)–to celebrate victory. This was my first thought on seeing these images: these people are acting like the US of A won the World Cup (or as they might act if they cared about football).

    But then I wonder if that’s also too easy. Is there another reading that includes the above, but also acknowledges that this generation has grown up in the context of a conflict that it doesn’t understand (too young at the time of the events, too distanced by privilege from the actual fighting) but does understand to have shaped its life and future in scary ways? In this respect, the response, even expressed ways that I find distasteful and sad, is something to take seriously.

  26. wrappedupinbooks on 03 May 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    The Onion did a really fantastic job of pointing out the trope of feminizing one’s enemy in this “report”:,20302/

    (Longtime reader, first time commenter!)

  27. Roxie on 03 May 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    @Ellie: Very well put. My first reaction to the scenes of college-age folks descending on the White House Sunday night was to get snarky and say it looked for all the world like the kind of street partying they do on my campus to celebrate a basketball victory over our nemesis, Duke. My second reaction was to step back a bit and think about the kind of shadow bin Laden has cast over this generation of students, mostly because of actions the adults running the country took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The celebrations still trouble me, but that made me feel a little less snarky about the whole thing by the time I got around to doing my post on the subject.

    @Historiann: Thanks for the link. We all look forward to watching your (s)heroic efforts to “just stop thinking and salute these manly gods of masculine manfulness from the Isle of Man.” That’ll be fun to see.

  28. LadyProf on 03 May 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Ever since the Pentagon spread triumphalist lies about how well the U.S. was doing in the 1991 Gulf War (including the childish nicknaming of Soviet-made SS-I missiles as Scuds), I have refused to believe any announcement of great news about a war from my national government. I’ll resume trusting when we get trustworthy leadership. It’s not that I think the latest we-have-always-been-at-war-against-Oceania reports are necessarily false; I just don’t think they’re necessarily true.

    And there’s a word for intentionally killing an unarmed person: murder. Even terrible people can be victims of that crime.

  29. anonymous on 03 May 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    [fratguy]: The one exception was one of my Saudi families

    Turns out Historiann doesn’t talk about whether she has children at home because there are so very MANY running around the compound!

  30. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    HAhahaha! Yeah, we’re a regular bunch of Saudi FLDS Mormons out here on the Platte.

    (Fratguy’s a pediatrician, which is why he’s “got” so many families.)

    LadyProf: The rapid revisons of the story of OBL’s death reminds me so much of the heroic (and completely false) narratives about Pvt. Jessica Lynch back in 2003, only the Obama admin is faster about walking those stories back than Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld were. Thank goodness the “smart people” are in charge again, eh?

  31. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    And wrappedupinbooks: thanks for that link. I think they pretty much summed it all up in one tasty paragraph of cultural criticism, right there.

    Roxie: I’ve stopped thinking already, because I’m going to a faculty meeting now! Ha. (Only this one is on Poop-Throwing Howler Monkey Island.)

  32. Feminist Avatar on 03 May 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    A Disney spectacular weekend for us in the UK: the princess married the prince and the villain was summarily executed and we all live happily ever after.

  33. notabattlechick on 03 May 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    I’ve really struggled with this today. By way of introduction and disclosure: I teach military history to senior cadets at the US military academy. I consider myself a military historian who is particularly interested in contemporary military history. So, I bristle a little at the first sentence of this post – but I read on, and actually agree with quite a bit of your analysis, Historiann.

    Two observations:

    1) On the lasting nature of war: Well, maybe. Clausewitz wrote about the “objective” and “subjective” nature of war (borrowed, probably, from Kant). The objective things he named as common – friction, chance,
    uncertainty, danger, exertion, etc. The subjective – the means by which a war is fought – vary according to circumstance. I’m fairly certain Clausewitz isn’t right all the time, but I think he may have something here. And, I think, your critique of the masculinist langauge suggests another factor that may be common in most–if not all–wars. Battlefields and military institutions, not to mention weapons and personnel–seem to be pretty firmly gendered as male.

    But, at the site of military conflict–Battle, as it were–the constants appear less so. Culture more important as habituated behaviors and ideas are put into practice. John Lynn in _Battle_ does an excellent job of dismantling the myth of the “Universal Soldier” and arguing persuasively for the importance of understanding culture and battles in military history. What happens in the middle – the stuff that seems to be the business of nearly everyone I know these days – matters a great deal.

    2) On Sunday night, cadets went wild. There are enough videos on youtube to give you a sense of the atmosphere. The corps was loud enough to be heard in housing areas more than a mile away. There were smoke grenades and fireworks and all manner of inappropriate activities. It’s also the last week of class, and the chain of command essentially gave them permission to stay up past Taps. (There’s lots of pent up . . . energy (?) around here.)

    Today, in class, my senior cadets, who are less than 20 days away from being commissioned as 2LTs in the Army, were thoughtful and analytical (a hard combination to come by this close to graduation). They are skeptical that the death of OBL changed much of anything; they’re quite glad he’s dead; they admitted they Navy might be useful in some instances; they think the US will be able to stick to it’s 2014 withdrawal date from Afghanistan, and maybe go a little earlier; they think there will be a crackdown on Americans leaving FOBs – in an effort to minimize casualties; what they felt quite certain of last week–that they’d deploy to Afghanistan in the foreseeable future–now doesn’t seem quite so clear cut; they wonder if they’ll have missed the war and what that will mean for their careers; they worry about retaliation; they worry about the potential challenge of facing off against a leaderless insurgency/terrorist organization; they (and my officer colleagues) grieve for the friends, classmates, and peers who have died in the wars; I do not begrudge their happy cheers. They are unconvinced that he could/should have seen taken a longer view of Vietnam.

    Does this end the war? No. Absolutely not. I suppose we shall see. There’s always a first draft of history.

  34. cgeye on 03 May 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    “Why is the U.S. hyping and celebrating this, when it should hang its head in shame that it took 9-1/2 years, untold numbers of human lives, and billions of dollars to find a 6-1/2 foot tall Saudi on dialysis who was living only 35 miles outside of Islamabad?”


    I should be happy that a military supposedly given free reign by a war-thrilled commander, *then* supposedly managed moderately (but no less generously) by a centrist, could not do the one thing, foreign-policy-wise, that was the simplest to foment political will?

    A military that could torture and imprison with free reign, took this long?

    A military that bribed a nuclear Islamic power to the point of larceny, took this long?

    It can’t be a victory when the war is irrelevant to it.

    This can’t even be a tonic for the troops, because with it comes the very real threat Pakistan brings, to the US as well as our industrial colonies in India and the PacRim.

    I don’t even want to read coverage of this, because with every soldier’s name in print, we’re giving al-Q the equivalent of the Mossad’s post-Munich hitlist. OBL was ready for his martyrdom long ago — ya think he was the head of al-Q with no electronic contact?

    We aren’t ready for a future without him. With him gone, the war truly becomes asymetrical.

  35. HistoryMaven on 03 May 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Thanks for this. I’ve been writing in my journal about the unthinking resort to military traditions in commemorating the American Civil War–all those cannons being used on 12 April at state capitols throughout the US, all those re-enactors who will never suffer wounds or death, the requisite demonization of the enemy, and the like. When I raised the issue at a Civil War symposium several weeks back, I was met with that sort of “tut, tut, don’t you know, of course you use guns and ammo” response. No one could imagine another set of (nonviolent) symbols and rituals with which, as civilians/citizens, to engage critically and to commemorate the historical event. Perhaps critical engagement and commemoration are incompatible. David Blight answered my question by pointing out that the technology used was (safely) antique (referring to the cannon). Yet he later said he was disappointed that the President hadn’t created a national Civil War commemoration commission so that there may be a more dedicated national discussion of (the) war and meaning. Perhaps that wouldn’t have served some political purposes.

    My ROTC students were just as rah-rah excited about Gulf War I, to the point that they shouted down our teach-in about it.

  36. Susan on 03 May 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    I wasn’t on campus on Sunday night, but none of my students in my historiography class raised this on Monday; given the profile of my students, the odds are pretty good that all of them know people in the military. I don’t get the jumping up and down. This strikes me as a symbolic event rather than one with practical consequences.

    As for history, I think there is a history here, it’s just not a simple one. I like the way that notabattlechick put it: there are aspects to war that don’t change, but there are things that do — how we fight, which particular justifications resonate, what kind of opposition is possible: those change. Enemies may almost always be defined as effeminate, but what they do that renders them effeminate changes. So too does the process by which soldiers are recruited, who is recruited etc. Medieval warfare was decidedly different from 20th century industrial warfare, which is in turn different from asymmetrical warfare. It has certainly changed Americans’ relationship to the war that we don’t have a draft, after all.

    When I’m in my preaching moments, I say that everything has a history, it’s just figuring out what the questions are. Back in the day, people wondered whether there was a history to the family, after all…

  37. Comrade PhysioProf on 03 May 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    I am in regular contact with a number of people in the military, and not a single one of them was the slightest bit celebratory about this. Although one of them who has been on this kind of mission himself told me that the special forces d00ds who actually implemented the attack were surely absolutely ecstatic afterwards, partially because they accomplished their mission and partially because they survived.

  38. Ethel Louise on 03 May 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    Apposite of what Comrade PhysioProf wrote: my younger brother is in the military and took serious issue with something I posted on FB last night about solemnity and sobriety being more becoming responses than this carnivalesque nationalism of the past few days. His take is something to the effect of the military gets to be boastful and celebratory about this; the “general public” does not. Part of what’s going on in the exchange (in addition to the sibling dynamic) has to do, I think, with a problem of terminology/vocabulary. So maybe it has more to do with dissidence than what he actually thinks. Most of my other military friends have been silent on this one, too.

  39. koshem Bos on 03 May 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    This became a really big issue everywhere and in this blog as well. We both were waiting for the weather, instead we were deluged by the biggest city dump. Journalist, politicians and others were all spewing crap.

    Killing Osama had nothing to do with war. It was a police action.

    Whether war went through demonstrable and meaningful change over time is a really interesting question. My feeling is that it did, but I have no proof yet.

  40. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    The title of my post, and the first paragraph, were intentionally provocative given that I have written a book about 17th & 18th C warfare (I should add, both in terms of how it was experienced AND how people talked about it. It wasn’t just a study of rhetoric.) Of course I think warfare is an appropriate subject for historical study–my comments had more to do with the stupid sameness that infects the language of warfare and the vocabulary Americans use when talking about it. (And I was also directing snark at typical he-man history, when the practicioners of that brand of scholarship frequently direct disdain or disgust at paying attention to women’s/gender issues in history.)

    I’m just really, really sick of living inside the smelly nutsack of the American bellicose unconscious for the past two days. Blecchhhhh. Enough!

  41. Historiann on 03 May 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    And, p.s.–you must read Jeralyn’s comments on John Brennan’s pleasing narratives, and questions as to why he was sent out to do all of the talking when clearly he’s been talking out of his a$$. (She is a defense attorney whose immediate reaction to claims that “justice was served” by killing OSB was that execution is not justice.)

  42. Indyanna on 03 May 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    I haven’t heard a word about it in this town or campus today and Flight 93 (or whatever it was) virtually flew over us on the way to crashing about thirty miles away. To me it has been the New Yorkers (and I say this with sadness, as a native and birthright Gothamite) who have for almost a decade claimed the right to be histrionic rather than historical–and certainly not Historiannacal–about the entire mawkish industry of “post-9/11ness.” From the whole sacralization of “Ground Zero” to claiming to be uniquely traumatized to insisting on not just rebuilding but building “Freedom Tower” to the whole package of it. I think the country did what it inevitably was going to do, and probably needed to do, yesterday, but nothing is more unbecoming in situations like this than mindless, self-promotional emo. As for whether it changes anything, I reflect that the Virginians hunted down Opechancanough in the 1640s, their own particular bugbear, but that didn’t change much about security issues up on the Blue Ridge in the next century. That’s the analogy I generally use in my classes.

  43. Jonathan Dresner on 03 May 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    Actually, I think the lack of change over time in particular phenomena is well worth studying, as historians. The assumption of change is as much an historical error as the assumption of stability: evidence, analysis, context all need to be examined in either event, to determine whether our instincts are any good.

  44. rustonite on 03 May 2011 at 9:13 pm #

    You can go much further back than the seventeenth century for examples of this. We’ve been feminizing Eastern enemies at least since Strabo wrote about the Persians in the first century. They wear long pretty robes like girls, and our brave legions will defeat them, etc.

    Westerners have two modes for enemies: feminine eastern potentates (whom we beat with our manliness) and wild barbarians (whom we beat with our intelligence). Osama is too intelligent to cast as a barbarian, and he fits so nicely in the potentate role. But I don’t think you’d find, for instance, the Soviets portrayed as feminine- they always seemed to be put in the barbarian mode, referred to as “Soviet hordes.”

  45. Comrade PhysioProf on 04 May 2011 at 3:12 am #

    To me it has been the New Yorkers (and I say this with sadness, as a native and birthright Gothamite) who have for almost a decade claimed the right to be histrionic rather than historical–and certainly not Historiannacal–about the entire mawkish industry of “post-9/11ness.”

    As a New Yorker and someone who has lived in Manhattan for over twenty years, I disagree with this vehemently. The mawkish histrionics have come not from New Yorkers, but from non-New Yorkers who have exploited 9/11 for their own sicke-fucke political and social ends. For example, the vast majority of the people screaming and yelling about the “ground-zero mosque” were *not* New York City residents.

  46. Matt_L on 04 May 2011 at 7:45 am #

    I am inspired by the original post and the comments in this thread. All of them.

    allow me to add one thing. In my world war one lectures for western civ, I tell my students that there are very few iron laws of history. But when it comes to war, historically speaking, there are only three ways to pay for it:

    Taxes, Loans and Plunder (or reparations in the nineteenth century)

    Pretty much every country, kingdom, or polity under the sun has used all three.

  47. Brilliant Mistake : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 04 May 2011 at 9:24 am #

    [...] May, so sorry about the glum. Here’s hoping more cheerful posting will resume tomorrow. As I said last night in the comments on the previous post, “I’m just really, really sick of living inside the smelly nutsack of the American [...]

  48. FrauTech on 04 May 2011 at 10:07 am #

    I agree with the machismo-oriented viewpoint that this whole thing was presented. But wanted to talk about some of the other points brought up, and maybe I can pipe up with an apparently different viewpoint here.

    -I don’t think the celebrations were inappropriate. As someone tweeted, this is America and we have the “freedom” to celebrate, to mourn, to worry and react however we want to. I personally did not feel like celebrating, but given all the bad news lately I can’t blame people for trying to find some happiness in this.

    -The idea that my generation didn’t “earn” the right to celebrate comes off as patronizing. Yes it is always the overindulged non-sacrificers who celebrate. Even at the WWII victory you can bet most of those home in the states were not the soldiers overseas still stuck in europe. Who still knew we were at war with Japan and that many soldiers were still risking their lives trying to route out many military elements. I find it even more humorous this comes from the mostly 30s and 40s blogosphere crowd when the soldiers are mostly in their 20s. Do college students “deserve” to celebrate? No more so than anyone else does, and the idea that everyone in WWII sacrificed is Greatest Generation piety taken a step too far. There were plenty of people isolated in small farming towns who did not have to sacrifice and were not personally involved with the war same as plenty of people today have not suffered or sacrificed for these wars.

    -Tired of saying that all of this would not have been necessary without the US’s “imperialistic foreign policy.” I agree that it’s shameful to be stuck in the aftermath of misguided, greedy, and violent actions that have us stuck in 2.5 overseas conflicts but the idea that if we just played nice or kept our heads down would somehow keep us safe is total BS. The right has it wrong with the “they hate us for our freedom” antics just as the left has it wrong with “this is all our own imperialistic fault”. Terrorists will always be there, the idea that we somehow goad them or could actually appease them is pretty ridiculous.

    -Also don’t like all the patronizing comments that young people “don’t understand” 9/11. I was in high school during a rash of school shootings and 9/11. I watched cameras get installed on campus as I went through school and parents become more protective over random acts of violence. Whether you were in sacred suburbia or the innercity this idea that the world was now a more dangerous place (whether true or not) was constantly perpetuated by the media. Many of my classmates joined the military and a few did not come back. It’s not our vietnam exactly but I think it’s important to recognize the impact that most of us have friends and family who served and our serving and are completely unrespected by politicians cutting their healthcare and mental healthcare benefits, a job market that can no longer accomodate hard working vets, and like in vietnam a liberal perspective failing to separate the heroic actions of soldiers and their families from the foolishness that is the men in suits.

    -Most of all, graduating high school after 9/11 and watching two terrible recessions and 1+ jobless recovery go by, watching our parents lose their jobs, being told a college degree is no longer the path to success, watching young teachers get laid off and have their careers in jeopardy, two wars mainly fought by young poor people, and being told that we are the most entitled, selfish, trophy-needing generation is incredibly frustrating.

    [also FYI Geronimo was the name of the operation not the code name for Osama, i'm sure they recognized the name of a hero and did not intend to disparage it, even though most mission code names are pretty lame and poorly thought out ]

  49. Historiann on 04 May 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Sorry, FrauTech–I still think that loud, public celebrations of Bin Laden’s death by college students whose lives have never been seriously interrupted by anything more than airport security screenings looks thuggish, superficial, and plain old tacky. We don’t see that kind of revelry on military bases or among military people. I’m not so sure of the foolish revelers on Sunday night.

    Besides, even for the people who did the deed, it seems hardly valorous to kill an unarmed person. All of the chest-thumping just strikes me as wildly disproportionate with the facts of the matter.

  50. Indyanna on 04 May 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I’m sort of centrist on this. I totally agree that the chest-thumping and all of the vacuous and self-congratulatory e-moting that surrounds it was disproportionate and silly. It would be interesting to have some sort of a census of how much of that actually went on and how much just got unrepresentatively televised. I still haven’t heard anyone around here–including some colleagues–even mention that the thing happened, almost 72 hours after the fact. I don’t have many problems that they killed him. He was heavily-bodyguarded close-in, and armed with a network of jihadists out there somewhere, and I don’t really think it was intended an arrest operation. I have no illusions that this “ends” anything, however, even at the penultimate V-E day level.

    On the “Geronimo” part, I looked it back up and this was the term applied by Leon Panetta, still the CIA chief about to move to Defense, on a real-time narration of events that he was giving on closed-circuit from his office in Virginia into the White House situation room, and he was definitely referring to Bin Laden.

  51. Historiann on 04 May 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Indyanna–you may well be right that the crowds who gathered Sunday night were just irresistable to the cameras. And yet, others have noticed that college students have played a major role in the large public celebrations. (FTR, I haven’t seen or heard anything like this at my uni or heard any discussion of it at all among my students.)

  52. Paul on 04 May 2011 at 11:21 am #

    I think that Frautech made a significant point in that, for many college-age young people, Osama Bin Laden and 9/11 are associated with larger developments have made their lives less secure. Things like increasing surveillance in society, economic hard times, and general feelings that “life in this country isn’t what it used to be” – I wouldn’t be surprised if all of these are vaguely connected with 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden in many peoples’ minds. This might help explain some of the emotion surrounding news of his death for some young people.

  53. Historiann on 04 May 2011 at 11:32 am #

    That is a good point–I understand that. And yet, if you read the link above to the story at Inside Higher Ed on the celebrations of Bin Laden’s death on college campuses, people who have surveyed college student attitudes for the past decade say that 9/11 is nowhere near the top of the list of their concerns & they don’t pick it as a major event that’s changed their lives.

    I thought many of the comments on that story were very sensible, such as the comment by a recent grad who pointed out that the news broke late on a Sunday night when 1) few other adults are awake and have the time or inclination to mass publicly, and 2) it’s the end of classes/finals on many campuses, so college students might have had even more time on their hands and would have been looking for something to celebrate. (And I might add–it’s May! The weather is generally pretty nice in North America.)

  54. FrauTech on 04 May 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    Okay but college students have been historically over-entitled douchebags for what, thousands of years? I’m just saying -people- in general have a -right- to celebrate the death of a mass murderer. I don’t think it’s distasteful (in the same way comparisons are made to those in the middle east who celebrated after 9/11, death of civilians /= death of murderer).

    Who cares if he was unarmed! He’s not an american citizen and doesn’t enjoy citizenship rights. If you think there’s no difference between a civilian who has rights and an enemy combatant than you’ve never had a conversation with a soldier who’s trying to do their job and protect their unit. Should we have captured him alive and brought him to America where he could have enjoyed being a mouthpiece for another 10 years? Enjoyed life that was denied to thousands of victims of his plots?

    Really I didn’t realize I had to enlist in order to “deserve” the right to take some small satisfaction in this moment. The reason there are no videos of military celebrating sunday night is because many were probably doing their jobs overseas and those here on base would have made difficult media spotlights since it’s extra hard to get on a base this week.

    I see this is an issue where it’s okay to say “for me, celebrating is not appropriate” versus saying “i will decide who can celebrate over this, and what emotional reactions are appropriate for others”.

  55. Western Dave on 04 May 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Like other folks, my FB blew up that night. My own status was something along the lines of “I would have preferred capture and trial, but I’ll take what I can get.” Most of my friends from HS were in a similar boat although exceptions both ways. That’s kind of relevant because I went to HS (indeed spent my whole life until age 22 or so) in Manhasset, NY, one of the hardest hit 9/11 towns (you can read about Manhasset in The Tender Bar, J.R. Moerhinger’s memoir of boyhood and manhood in the town’s premier watering hole). While none of my friends died, my brother’s classmate, two people on the street I grew up on, and the wife of the guy who bought the house next door after 9/11 who married his grief counselor (who was also a friend of his in high school). Most folks weren’t particularly happy or sad, but it was personal for us. The emotion that hit me was grim satisfaction. I’m not happy that I feel this way and intellectually I know they’re stupid and OBL’s death doesn’t change a whole lot, but those are my feelings and seemed to be echoed by the majority of my hs peers on my fb page.

    And now to more important stuff, anybody remember that article about Jeff Davis in a dress? Was it Nina Silber in Divided Houses?

  56. Historiann on 04 May 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Right, FrauTech: This blog is so all-powerful I can prevent people from doing whatever they damn well please. People are free to behave however they like–but I’m also free to share my opinion about that behavior.

    I haven’t seen or heard a lot for Americans to be proud of in the past 72 hours, but clearly, I am in the minority in the U.S., which was kind of the point of my post above.

  57. Janice on 04 May 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    On the flip side of unconsidered responses, the most searched-for question by teens on Yahoo after the announcement “Who is Osama Bin Laden?” – My eldest, who’s fifteen, explained his significance to some of her classmates!

  58. FrauTech on 04 May 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Not at all Historiann, I think you’re in the majority. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but clearly this is an event that pleases nobody. The left complains about unnecessary violence and the continued poor quality of US foreign policy and the right reminds us we are still in danger and freaks out a bit more while trying to use this as another opportunity to shape the world the way they want.

    I certainly didn’t mean you had that kind of influence. I recognize it’s just your opinion. But honestly it must be a lot of people’s opinions since how “inappropriate” celebrations were or how burial at sea is apparently not proper for a muslim were discussed virtually all day Monday on NPR, and I don’t consider them wholly leftist.

  59. Feminist Avatar on 04 May 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    To me the reason why people disaprove of celebrating and the way this went down is that it doesn’t exactly put the US on any sort of high ground, moral or otherwise.

    OBL was murdered, unarmed in his home, without trial. According to the West’s sense of justice, this isn’t justice. Where is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law by peers? (Especially given that there is considerable scepticism about whether OBL was responsible for 9/11.) And, how can the US now ever complain about justice human rights violations and poor criminal procedure across the world, when it ignores those same values in the prosecution of its enemies? Especially in the current context where it has used those same justifications to get involved in military actions.

    How can the US complain about the celebrations in Iraq or Afghanistan that sometimes accompany the death of American troops (who probably have killed some of the family members of those celebrants, rightly or wrongly), when the US does the same?

    And, possibly most agregiously, how can the US claim to respect national sovereignty, when it has no issue going over the head of a national government (of an ally no less) and executing a military engagement on their territory. If this had happened in the US, it would have caused an international crisis. This decision showed no respect for Pakistan and didn’t think about the consequences for the Pakistani government, who is now left trying to deal with the backlash in a nation that continues to have real problems with radical religious behaviour. Plus, Pakistani is a government that provides a whack of intelligence on terrorism- will that now be jeopardised?

    It just gives the US absolutely no creditability as a international actor- and the fall out from that might be problematic in the long-term.

  60. Historiann on 05 May 2011 at 5:44 am #

    Well said, Feminist Avatar.

    And it turns out–at least today, that is–that only one of the people in the Bin Laden compound was armed. Four out of the five people killed were unarmed. Like I said: this was hardly the valorous “firefight” that was originally reported. It was an assassination. “Bringing someone to justice” means putting him on trial, not assassinating him.

    Too bad this not-ready-for-primetime-White House can’t get its stories straight:

    President Barack Obama on Wednesday ruled out publicly releasing photographs of the deceased Osama bin Laden, and White House officials said they would give no new details about the raid on his compound in Pakistan, an information clampdown that followed fitful attempts to craft a riveting narrative about the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader.

    . . . . . .

    The conundrum mirrored problems that the Obama administration has had communicating its national-security approach in the past. From the immediate aftermath of an attempted airliner bombing on Dec. 25, 2009, to the early management of the H1N1 flu crisis, the White House has repeatedly labored to prove its command of inflammatory facts during fast-moving events.

    This time, officials backed away from several of the most provocative elements disclosed in the first 24 hours. Bin Laden was not “killed in a firefight,” and he did not use his wife as a “human shield,” as originally claimed. White House officials volunteered the corrections, saying the errors were caused by haste as investigators debriefed the Navy SEALs thousands of miles away and officials attempted to brief reporters in real time.

    Further questions about the original story surfaced as well. A White House claim that the compound was worth $1 million appeared to be contradicted by property records showing that the land was worth $48,000 when it was purchased in stages in 2004 and 2005, according to The Associated Press.

  61. Z on 09 May 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Yes I am flabbergasted by all the contradictory and information free stories, and by the assassination. 9/11 did not scare me although I was in DC for it basically, and the death of Osama does not make me “feel safer.” (Also, I do not agree with the whole “feeling safe” thing that seems to be so important and such a perceived inalienable American right now.)

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