The Lincoln Brigade

FRED KAPLAN The insurgentsIn a previous post on what I called ‘the martial Arts‘ I commented on the teaching of humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point.  Now NBC has posted an extract from Slate columnist Fred Kaplan‘s new book, The insurgents: David Petraeus and the plot to change the American way of war (Simon & Schuster, 2013) that speaks directly to the role of the Department of Social Sciences (“Sosh”) in the reformulation of US counterinsurgency doctrine.

I’ve grown weary – and sceptical – of the constant placing of David Petraeus front and centre in these discussions, since I think that much of the effort was de-centred, emerging through pragmatic experiments by different commanders on the ground at different places in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, but Kaplan provides an interesting gloss on the history of the social sciences at West Point – and in particular the attempt to produce ‘a sense of separate space for critical inquiry’ – and the reach of its interpersonal network of alumni who called themselves ‘the Lincoln Brigade’.

SOSHThe social sciences program at West Point owed its power to General George ‘Abe’ Lincoln – who, astonishingly, insisted on a demotion to Colonel in order to take up a position at West Point – who, in the wake of the Second World War, envisaged a new kind of staff officer, one ‘with three heads’: one military, one political and one economic.  (The current course catalog is here: it emphasises American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations and Economics).

Over the years, a network of Lincoln’s acolytes—and the acolytes of those acolytes—emerged and expanded. They called themselves the “Lincoln Brigade” (an inside joke on their left-wing stereotype, referring to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group of American leftists who, in the 1930s, had gone off to fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War). Over the years, when these alumni-officers were appointed to high-level positions, they’d usually phone Colonel Lincoln—or, later on, his successors as department chairmen—and ask for the new crop of top Sosh cadets, or the most promising junior faculty members, to come work as their assistants.

I can imagine that Petraeus on the cover – or between the covers – is a strong selling-point (the revelation of Petraeus’s affair pushed up the book’s publication from February), but Kaplan has used e-mails, documents and interviews to bring into sharper focus the role of men like John Nagl, H.R. McMaster and Peter Chiarelli in reformulating ‘the American way of war’.

Janet Maslin‘s New York Times review here, and Eliot Spitzer’s interview with Kaplan here (where he emphasises Petraeus’s skill at building a myth about himself….).

Martial arts

If you’re tired of all the war-talk – I mean ‘war on the humanities’ talk – then try Anthony Galluzzo on teaching the humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point (yes): Sarah Lawrence, with guns, over at Jacobin.

“I agreed with a lot of what you said today, Professor Galluzzo,” he said. “But don’t you think there’s a difference between imaginary others and actual people you meet on the ground, in a place like Afghanistan? Can’t fantasies also reinforce stereotypes?” He articulated my own misgivings. I suggested he read Edward Said.

Although Greg didn’t know the book, his questions reminded me that Orientalism – a text and term often invoked by many of my West Point colleagues at the time as what “we” weren’t doing over there – is very much about the ideological misuse of imaginative literature in the service of nineteenth-century imperialism.

More (and older) thoughts from another instructor at a military academy, Lucretia Flammanghere: ‘We would not have a literature of modern war if warriors had not written it.’

And while we’re on the subject: last year US News and World Report named the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis as the best public liberal arts colleges in the United States…

I’m as sceptical of the rankings game as you are, but I’m left wondering about the rhetorical effect of reports like this on an American public.

And all this certainly reminds us that the history of the humanities has been intimately entwined with the history of war in ways that transcend any simple (and usually noble) vision of the humanities representing and reflecting on human conflict (see, for example, Harvard’s Drew Faust here).  We know from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others some of the ways in which violence has been written in to the very constitution of the humanities, but it’s surely time to return to those questions and think, more concretely, about these martial Arts of ours…

If you think so too, then (to start the conversation) see Homi Bhabha speaking on The Humanities and the Anxiety of Violence earlier this year here.