A Response to Michael Sherry’s “War as a Way of Life”

The United States never experienced sustained conflict on its mainland during the twentieth century. From the War of 1898 to the current War on Terror, warfare has largely been something that Americans did overseas. This essential and often unnoticed feature of modern American history stands out in comparison with other countries. The United States was spared the kind of traumatic violence that, for example, Colombia went through during La Violencia, China during the civil war between Nationalists and Communists, or Germany during both world wars. For more than a century and a half, war has not destroyed most Americans’ livelihoods, it has not annihilated or displaced their families on a large scale, and it has not reduced entire cities and neighborhoods to ruins.

This is not to say that war had no impact on the course of modern American history, of course. To the contrary, it was one of its defining features. Historians have long recognized the deep impact of twentieth-century warfare on the economic, political, and cultural trajectory of the country. To cite only one example, the two world wars were essential in paving the way for its rise to global leadership. Yet the fact that war’s destruction happened elsewhere has made it far easier for scholars to overlook this phenomenon. This would certainly seem to explain why war is a much more central topic for Americanists focusing on the eighteenth or the nineteenth century, a time when warfare was a constant presence on American soil.

This remark is meant to complement Michael Sherry’s contribution in the inaugural forum of Modern American History, where he tackles the same paradox— the fact that war has been central to the history of the modern United States, but that it nevertheless enjoys no more than a peripheral status in its historiography. To explain why Americanists seem to have largely shied away from studying the topic since the 1970s, Sherry pointed to a different set of factors, among them the rise of new subjects of study, the decreasing number of Americans serving in the military, the fact that war’s boundaries have become so permeable as to be almost invisible, and, finally, the difficulty of explaining the causes of a phenomenon happening so frequently that it seems deeply embedded in the American “way of life.”

Sherry usefully draws the attention of modern Americanists to a subject that has generated far less debate than it deserves. As he argues, war is no longer “at the center of scholarship and teaching about modern American history, though at the periphery of much of it.” But there are other, more optimistic ways of assessing the current state of the field. War may have been somewhat neglected by modern Americanists, but they have certainly not ignored it. As is often the case, the problem here is not that such work does not exist, but rather that it is not getting the attention it deserves from the rest of the profession. Sherry already cited a few works that make a compelling case for the centrality of war to American history as a whole, such as Fred Anderson’s and Andrew Clayton’s remarkable The Dominion of War (2005). One might also point to Ira Katznelson’s and Martin Shefter’s edited volume Shaped By War and Trade (2002), in which scholars of American political development made the same point. More recently, Kathleen Belew, Christopher Capozzola, Kathleen Frydl, Brian McAllister Linn, Jennifer Mittelstadt, and James Sparrow (to cite only a few) have all made powerful arguments about the importance of war and the military to twentieth-century U.S. history. The relationship between war and society has also been explored by scholars working on numerous topics, such as the relationship between war and race, the military-industrial-academic complex, war veterans, U.S. military bases both overseas and at home, the memory and image of war, and the impact of war on gender identities. What modern Americanists still lack is a synthesis of these literatures that would bring their separate contributions together and explicitly formulate a common agenda—the equivalent of what The Democratic Experiment did for political history in 2003. The very recent publication of an excellent collection of essays edited by David Kieran and Edwin Martini is a step in that direction.

The launch of a new book series co-edited by Beth Bailey and Andrew Preston on “Military, War, and Society in Modern American History” at Cambridge University Press is also a sign that we may in fact be on the verge of witnessing the kind of renewal of interest in war that Sherry is calling for. Hopefully, the discussion sparked by his essay will encourage more scholars to dig into this fascinating topic.

Olivier Burtin is finishing a Lectureship at Princeton University, where he obtained his PhD in History in 2017. In September 2018, he will join the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich as an Incoming Research Fellow. His work has been published in the Journal of Policy History.

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