Front Matter - Editorial

Front Matter


War Museums and the fin de siècle

1 This issue of Material History Review, devoted to the material culture of war, is timed to coincide with the commemorative events marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The most destructive war in human history, this conflict is estimated to have caused the deaths of at least 15 million fighting personnel and more than twice that number of civilians. Out of the more than one million people who joined Canada's armed forces, 42 042 were killed and 54 414 wounded. Although Canada had had more casualties in the First World War (1914-18), the second of the two conflicts called forth a greater overall effort from Canadian society as a whole. As well, the activities of enemy submarines in the Gulf of St Lawrence and the intense naval campaign waged from our east coast brought it closer to home.1

2 This year's commemorative events come five years after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the USSR, and the disintegration of its military alliance system, the Warsaw Pact. These events have been seen by many observers as the final unravelling of a chain of events set in motion by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The impact of this conflict led to the triumph of communism in Russia, with the emergence of fascism in Italy and Germany as one of its consequences. The Second World War resulted largely from unresolved issues and tensions left over from the First, and that were fanned into flames by the two fascist parties. The emergence of the Soviet Union from the Second World War as a major world power resulted in the Cold War. This 45 year military stand-off was characterized by unprecedented military preoccupations and spending by both sides, and the underlying threat of nuclear annihilation. One suspects that the enthusiasm characterizing last year's 50th anniversary of the landings in Normandy, and anticipated for this year's events, was significantly enhanced by the widespread sense of relief at the cutting of this Gordian knot, a knot in which world affairs had been entangled for three quarters of a century, and of which the specific events being commemorated constituted significant strands.

3 We stand at the end of probably the most violent century in the history of humankind in terms of the scale of human suffering and the proportion of resources devoted to war or preparations for it. Have we now, as some have claimed, moved beyond the point where wars of such massive scale based on conflicting ideologies are likely? Are the types of extremely vicious and bloody, but small-scale and limited, conflicts we are witnessing today in eastern Europe and elsewhere, the origins of which seem to be as much cultural as anything else, the rule for the future? It is still probably too early to say.

4 John Keegan, possibly the most often read, and certainly one of the most stimulating military historians writing in English today, has gradually come round to this point of view. In A History of Warfare, first published in 1993, he examined the nature of warfare as waged by a number of societies through the ages. His conclusions are that the warring instinct is inherent in human nature (although not in all humans), that its fundamental origins are irrational and unknowable, and that the instinct has influenced and been expressed through social and cultural norms. The instinct for self-preservation has caused most societies to devise means of limiting war's effects, although the irrational element can always circumvent this. And some societies, most notably the "horse peoples" of the steppes, seem to have observed few limits at all. Keegan contrasts with this the views of the great early 19th century theorist of warfare, Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). The latter's studies of the "western way of war," and his first-hand experience of Napoleonic warfare convinced him that war always did, and indeed should, tend towards the absolute. At the same time, however, ignoring the cultural element, he preached that it was a comprehensible and manageable enterprise, or, "a continuation of politics by other means." This, according to Keegan, constituted a delusion, with catastrophic repercussions for most western societies, which increasingly bought into the Clausewitzian view over the course of the 19th century.2

5 More recently, in a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two books on the Indian army, Keegan has gone further. He notes that since the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 (which proved the error of doing otherwise) the Indian army has been exclusively made up of soldiers from communities within Indian society that have traditionally constituted "warrior" races, such as Rajputs, Dogras, Sikhs and Mahrattas. Members of traditionally non-military communities have been rigorously excluded as the price for retaining the loyalty of the serving "warrior" soldiers, and this has provided the Indian state with a dependable and effective army. A reliance for their military needs upon a warrior group within their midst has of course been the resort of most societies historically, as was the case in western Europe until the advent of Napoleon and his creed of "every man a soldier." Since then the cult of the nation in arms triumphed completely in Europe and elsewhere. Yet in the longer view, writes Keegan:

It is the Napoleon-Hitler era in Europe which...looks the anomaly, not what preceded it and, indeed, is clearly following it. The European effort to militarize whole populations was both fruitless and disastrous. It did not make war more decisive, it destroyed many states that attempted it, it had grave social and psychic consequences. The majority in civilized states have always evaded military service, for the good reason that they make bad soldiers. They are evading it again. Mass armies are collapsing all over the civilized world.... In the West the only armies that count are thoselike the British, the American, and increasingly the Frenchwhich settle for relatively small numbers and carefully nurture a warrior class.3

6 Keegan's views have been controversial within military history circles. He has been criticized for allowing Clausewitz to take on far too much blame for the ills that came after him. Also, his discussions of primitive peoples' warfare have been viewed as sometimes superficial and ill-developed.4 Nonetheless Keegan is a knowledgeable and shrewd observer of the military scene. Contemporary evidence suggests very strongly that we may well have reached some sort of climacteric, when one set of historical continuities that has governed the evolution of military affairs for as much as two centuries gives way to another, with unpredictable and worrisome implications for the future.

7 What then could be the impact of this upon military museums? It is probably fair to say that most national museums of war were founded during what Keegan would term the Clausewitzian era of warfare. Les Invalides, in Paris, emerged after the Napoleonic Wars, and most others were founded following one of the apocalyptic events of this century. This was certainly the case with the three major war museums in Commonwealth countries — the United Kingdom's Imperial War Museum, the Australian War Memorial and the Canadian War Museum. These were inspired by the scale of commitment and suffering experienced by each of the three countries in the First World War, as well as by the deluge of war materiel that poured off the battiefields during the course of that conflict. Although the Canadian War Museum traces its origins back to a small museum opened in Ottawa by a group of militia officers in 1880, it was the collecting activities of Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty at the front during the First World War that really provided the collections base and the momentum that resulted in its being established as the country's national war museum in 1942.5

8 It is largely the artifacts of the two world wars of this century and the succeeding Cold War that dominate these institutions' collections. War and military enterprise tends to produce items in large numbers that are relevant only to its conduct and that become prime candidates for inclusion in museums once their utility has passed. It is a major problem for museum curators not to be overwhelmed by the vast quantities of material that are available (although inevitably there are prized items that seem to be missing). Still, much of the paraphernalia of modern war is acquired — numerous examples of uniforms, iconographie works, documentation, rifles, machine guns, artillery pieces, armoured cars, tanks, trucks, naval equipment, and (for the most part in aviation museums) aircraft. And it is entirely appropriate that it should be, for these artifacts represent the surviving material evidence of experiences that in many respects define the nature of this century. Moreover, they are the products of an era in which occurred, adopting Keegan's terminology, the culmination of the Napoleonic-Clausewitzian ideal of the nation in arms. A measure of the extent to which this ideal triumphed is the fact that even in such an "unmilitary" nation as Canada, with its relatively small population, close to three quarters of a million people enlisted during the First World War, and more than a million during the Second. It is probably fair to say that the successes such museums have enjoyed over the years lie in the fact that they are chiefly concerned not with the activities of an isolated "warrior class," but rather with endeavours that absorbed the energies and attentions of whole populations.

9 Out of this grows the memorialistic or honourific intent that is never far from the surface in these institutions; in the case of the Australian War Memorial this is an acknowledged part of its mandate. They commemorate the democratization of war and the fact that the conflicts of the past century have required the services and frequently the lives of ordinary citizens on a scale that has hitherto been unknown. Indeed, it could be argued that a subtext always present in these museums concerns the degree to which the symbols, methods and tools of "warriorhood" had to be grafted onto the raw material of an essentially unmilitary citizenry. The story is the heroic one of a fundamentally peaceful and amicably disposed people who, when the call came, for the most part did their duty and got on responsibly with a dirty but necessary job. This tends to limit what one can do with the available artifacts, however. Like all human undertakings, those of the military sometimes give rise to difficult and controversial questions, perhaps even more so than most.

10 The recent case of the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian in the United States demonstrates the potential perils to those who wish to break the mould. Although it did not involve museums specifically, the furor over the Valour and the Horror television series in Canada is a home-grown example. This was a shoddy production to be sure, replete with superficial characterizations, the selective use of quotations, and shallow historical analyses; but it did touch on issues — such as the effectiveness and moral authority of the strategic bombing campaign and the problems faced by the Canadian army in Normandy — that have been dealt with much more extensively and critically in print for years. The excitement that this series generated, and recent episodes of a similar nature involving museums, point to the special difficulties that public institutions catering to mass audiences face when venturing into contentious areas — especially when the scrutiny focusses on the activities of our fighting forces in a war that perhaps more than any other is seen as an expression of the democratic will. Why difficult issues can be dealt with more successfully in print is an issue that will not be explored here.6

11 The veterans claim that they responded to the call of democracy, put their lives on the line, and experienced the loss of numerous comrades. This they did for a cause that was seen at the time, and that they continue to see, as just and true. What right has any museum curator or television producer to use public money to preach to them that their cause was either morally suspect or misdirected, or both? It is a point that museum curators should contemplate; maybe we do not have that right. History after all is a complex business, and should not post-modern notions concerning the limits of curatorial authority apply in war museums as well as elsewhere? The ideal situation would, of course, be to have all the available evidence laid out and let the public decide, but anyone ever involved in putting together a museum exhibit knows the difficulties of doing that. Limitations of space and of appropriate artifacts make it impossible. In truth, war and military museums have always tread a delicate line between satisfying the requirements of historical balance in exhibits and not offending the sensibilities of those individuals — i.e. the veterans and all others affected by the war experience — that these institutions were for the most part established to memorialize. The bias that has been shown has usually been towards these groups. Certainly the majority of public support for war museums has come from veterans and related groups who do tend, for the most part, to see these institutions as putting forward their point of view.

12 Yet, as the obituary columns of newspapers make clear almost everyday, these groups are disappearing. And the postulates governing the conduct of war and military affairs that they had taken for granted may be changing as well. What, we must ask ourselves, will be the place of war museums in this new age when their traditional core clientele has gone, when military forces have shrunk and their role altered, and when, although war in some form will probably always be with us, the all-consuming threat of total war is gone. We are moving into an era when the military, or people who have had some association with it, will represent a much smaller presence than today, and war, or the possibility thereof, a much smaller proportion of social and political preoccupation. How will this society regard museums that are a product of an era when such preoccupations were omnipresent? If the conduct of war is left to a smaller group of professional "warriors," as Keegan suggests it might, will the same degree of social and cultural impetus be there to maintain such museums as it was in the era of mass armies?

13 If war museums do survive, as they probably will, what approach should they take when presenting war and military history? In an age when the cultural and racial composition of Canadian (and indeed Western) society will be much more diverse than it is now, should the exhibits in war museums reflect this? Should the intercultural approach taken by Gerald Conaty and Barry Agnew in their Warriors exhibit at the Glenbow Museum, which is discussed in this issue, become a model for exhibitions in other institutions? What about indigenous peoples' warfare? What about devoting more attention to the cultural dynamics behind conflicts? Should there be greater emphasis on war's impact on civilian populations? Should more space be devoted to the larger questions of war and peace? (It is interesting to note that one of the most recently created military museums in Canada calls itself "The Swords and Ploughshares Museum.") These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed by war and military museums lest the hostility that these institutions faced in the 1960s and 70s as promoters of war and the military ethos (and which still thrives in some quarters today) is replaced by sometiiing much more dangerous to their continued viability — indifference.7 In the meantime it is hoped that the discussions contained in the following pages will provide some indication of the uses to which the artifacts contained in present-day war museums can be put as intellectual resources.

Cameron Pulsifer,
Canadian War Museum
1 The figures for the war as a whole are from K. Macksey and W. Woodhouse, The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Modem Warfare from 1850 to the Present Day, (London: Penguin Books, 1991) p. 350; for Canada, from D. Bercuson and J.L. Granatstein, Dictionary of Canadian Military History, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 233. For the activities of German U-Boats off Canada see M. Hadley, U-Boats against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Wafers, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977); for the naval campaign off the east coast, M. Milner, North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys, (Markham, Ontario: Penguin Books, 1990), and the same author's The U-Boat HuntersThe Royal Canadian Navy and the Offensive against Germany's Submarines, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).
2 John Keegan, A History of Warfare, (Toronto: Vintage Books, 1994).
3 John Keegan, "Better at Fighting: How the 'Martial Races' of the Raj Still Monopolize the Indian Army," The Times Literary Supplement, February 24 1995, No. 4795, p. 4.
4 See for example, Robert Vogel's review "War through the Ages" in Canadian Military History, 3, no. 1 (1994): 139-141.
5 See Bernard Pothier, "Hundred Years Canadian War Museum: The Road to What it is Now," Canadian Defence Quarterly, 10 (1980): 36-42; Edward Atkinson, "Colonel Doughty and the War Museum," The Archivist, 16, no. 4 (1989): 7-9.
6 For the critical response of the scholarly community to the series, see D. J. Bercuson, S. F. Wise, eds. The Valour and the Horror Revisited (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994). For the latest writing on the strategic bombing campaign, see B. Greenhous, S. J. Harris, W. C. Johnston and W. G. P. Rawling, The Crucible of War, 1939-45: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume III (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), Part Four: "The Bomber War," pp. 523-867; on the Canadian army in Normandy, John English, The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign: A Study of Failure of High Command (New York: Praeger, 1991).
7 For an eloquent rebuttal of the war-mongering charges, see Desmond Morton's "Foreword" to the report of the Task Force on Military History Collections in Canada, G. Hamilton Souuiam and Denis Vaugeois, co-chairmen (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services, Canada, 1991), pp. 2-4.