Annual Meeting Preview: “War and Society”
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State of the Field: War and Society
We decided to propose this session because we were interested in exploring the past and future of “war and society” studies, a field that grew out of, and merged, military history and social history, but now thrives as (perhaps) a stand-alone discipline. For the past several decades, specialists in the study of war and society have been scrutinizing the radiating impact of armed conflict and military service on individuals, communities, culture, politics, and the state. This scholarship has considered the relationship between military service and citizenship, the consequences of war for soldiers and their families, the representation and memorialization of violence in popular and literary culture, and the role of the military as a venue for America’s ever-changing politics of class, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. Historians of war and society have examined the lives of civilians in wartime, the mobilization of material and emotional support for conflict, and the politics of veterans’ affairs.
At the heart of such inquiry has been a central assumption: war and military service expose more fundamental dimensions of American life. For example, geographic separation generates letter-writing, and in letters people record their patriotism and cynicism, heartbreak and joy. Going to war elicits debates over duty and citizenship, over the relative power of the state and the individual, over who should serve and how they should serve, over what can justify the sacrifice of loved ones. Perhaps most deeply, experiences in the military or war zone have revealed the thoroughly blurred lines separating public affairs and private life. Grieving, caring for the wounded, honoring veterans, dying for one’s country—all play out in people’s homes as much as on the national landscape. Death may be the most intimate and lonely experience in human life, what William Faulkner called in A Fable the “most complete privacy of all,” becomes intensely public when affixed to the goals of the state, deployed as an argument for support or dissent, or mobilized as a symbol of national triumph or tragedy.
To address the contours and possibilities of such scholarship, we brought together four scholars of war and society, whose work has collectively explored the impact of war at the front and at home, from the Civil War to the present. Judith Giesberg has published widely on women, gender, and sex during the Civil War; Andrew J. Huebner on the history of wartime symbolism and experience during the world wars, Korea, and Vietnam; and Kara Dixon Vuic on gender and war across the twentieth century. Chairing the panel will be Jennifer Keene, eminent historian of America’s experience in the First World War and president of the Society for Military History.
Andrew Huebner, University of Alabama