Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How the Mighty European Military State has Fallen: Jeff Sheehan – Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe


Ohio State's eHistory website has just put up my review of Jeff Sheehan's Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe. This is the second review I have done for them. Previously I reviewed Aryan Jesus on the site. Once again I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Steven Conn for giving me the opportunity to review the book and for being such a helpful editor. This one went through a long process. I read this book and wrote the first draft of the review last spring. Dr. Conn, correctly, pointed out that my review veered too much toward being an editorial and asked me to do a rewrite. I did not get back to him with a second version until after the summer, setting a rotten example for any of my students who may be reading this, one that they should most certainly not follow. You can follow the link above for the final version or you can continue reading below for my unedited slightly longer version.



Historical questions are often dictated by present day concerns. For Jeff Sheehan of Stanford University and his two-hundred page tour of twentieth century European history that question is how did it come to pass that Europeans would differ so strongly from Americans in regards to the War in Iraq and the question of Islamic terrorism. Modern questions are often a trap that professional historians are rightfully wary of. So it is to Sheehan's credit that what starts off as a modern question is allowed to flower into a judicious and unpolemical account of modern European history. Sheehan describes the evolution of European attitudes toward standing armies and to warfare, without coming down on side or the other. After a pleasurable afternoon of reading this book, I honestly have no idea if Sheehan supported the Iraq War or not. Thus Sheehan has provided what should be an enjoyable and enlightening read for those on the left and on the right.

American liberals, who opposed the War in Iraq, will rightfully object to Sheehan's generalized categorization of Americans as being pro war and Europeans as anti war. President Bush's low approval ratings and Senator John McCain's defeat by Barack Obama should demonstrate to anyone that there is more to American public opinion than simple war enthusiasm. (That is unless one accepts conservative rhetoric about there being "real Americans" as opposed other people who just happen to live in the United State.) To be fair to Sheehan, I do not believe that he intended to make any categorical judgments about Americans. The question he is trying to come to terms with might be formulated as why was it that a neo-conservative movement flourished within American culture to such an extent that it could push publish policy into going to war but not in Europe.

It is against this backdrop that Sheehan offers this overview of modern European political history with a twist. Instead of focusing on World War I, World War II, the Cold War and how the political situations deteriorated in each case into these conflicts, Sheehan examines European attitudes toward the military and to warfare outside of the context of these conflicts. Thus the major conflicts of the twentieth century become the outliers, not what defines European society. From my perspective as a non military historian, this is just delightfully subversive. I particularly admired the chapter dealing with peace efforts, most notably one by Czar Nicholas II, in the years leading up to the First World War. It serves as a useful counter to the traditional portrayal of bumbling super powers with their ironclad systems of alliances crashing toward an unforeseen but inevitable war. I owe Sheehan a debt of thanks in that I will now have one good thing to say about Czar Nicholas II to tell my students to balance out the anti-Semitism and truly tragic incompetence.
Instead of a narrative of war, Sheehan offers a narrative of conflicting ideologies. On one side stands a proudly nationalist worldview, in which statehood was understood in terms of its military. Sheehan sees this worldview as a product of the desire by nineteenth century states to create national identities. The military and making people serve in a national draft was a means of bringing the state into the lives of people living in provincial areas, who beforehand may have been outside of the authority of the centralized state. This was simply was the logical continuation of state run school systems and other social services. In essence, for Sheehan, the liberal revolutionary tradition coming out of the French Revolution, with its secular state, led directly to European militarism. This militarist perspective comes to be increasingly challenged by a worldview skeptical of state power and the nationalist and militarist ideology needed to support it. In the end, according to Sheehan, World War II effectively eliminated the former view in the minds of the vast majority of Europeans, leaving the field to the later.

One point of Sheehan's that I think is particularly noteworthy is the idea that Americans and Europeans speak very different languages when it comes to the issue of terrorism. When Americans, i.e. the American right, speak about terrorism they use the language of World War II. Islamic terrorists are Nazis and September 11 was Pearl Harbor. (Yes it was the Japanese who attacked us at Pearl Harbor; analogies do not have to be perfect.) I would point to the popularity of the term "Islamo-Fascism" within right wing circles as a very good example of this. The implications of this should be fairly clear. If the task of the "greatest generation" that fought World War II was to stop a Nazi conquest of the world then the task of this present generation must be to do battle with the forces of radical Islam and stop them from taking over the world. In pursuit of the cause one becomes justified in all sorts of actions. A trillion dollars fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is not too high a cost to save the world. Four thousand dead in Iraq is nothing to lament when we lost more on Iwo Jima in one day. The dominant European culture views terrorism not as this Manichean struggle with the fate of the world at stake but as a simple policing problem, one that they have been facing for decades now. Such an attitude leads itself to a different set of conclusions. Rather than war the solution becomes better police protection and, at most, some international diplomacy through the European Union and the United Nations.

Sheehan does not discuss it, but this difference in thinking about terrorism also applies to Israel and its differences with the European community. If anything Israel, particularly the Israeli right, is even more entrenched in the language of World War II than even the United States. For Israel their Islamic opponents are Nazis determined to finish off what Hitler started. In this narrative, the Oslo accords of 1993 become the Munich agreement of 1938 with Israel's security being sold out for a worthless promise, broken before the ink was even dry. From this perspective statements like Nasser's "drive Israel into the sea" or Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" are not the blustering of politicians but literal plans of action to be carried out. I am not certain what Sheehan's views are in regards to the Mid-East conflict. He does refer to Yasser Arafat in passing as the "future leader of the Palestinian resistance to Israel" (pg. 169) and juxtaposes him with Nelson Mandela. This might be simple carelessness or a sign that Sheehan shares the European perspective on this, to look at this conflict through the lens of Colonialism.

If history means, in some sense, to apologize for the past, for those ideologies that have left the world stage, than Sheehan has offered an apology for late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalist ideologies and their implicit militarism. He connects them to the nineteenth liberal tradition and offers us an understanding as to why reasonable people believed that it would work. In the end Sheehan raises some very provocative questions about the role of warfare in the making of a state. If states have traditionally defined themselves in terms of their militaries than what does it mean to be a demilitarized state? Can the European Union ever hope to compete with the United States as a global power if it defines itself as the non military power?

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