Saturday 2 June 2018

Drums and Trumpets

One book, they say, (or at least, I do) leads to another. Now, I am quietly reading, as a further extension to my ‘Wars of the Counter-Reformation’ “project” (scare quotes are required, I think; at present, I am basing some ancient Spanish infantry)

O'Neill, J., The Nine Years War 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Dublin: Four Courts, 2017).

Now, this was not a cheap book (it was a gift; I don’t usually blow the book budget all at once) but it does raise some interesting questions, even though I have only read the introduction.

Firstly, O’Neill notes that one aspect of why there is no overall account of the Nine Year’s War (so named, even though it lasted rather longer) is that the works of Hays-McCoy and Falls, in particular, have said all that needs to be said on the martial aspect.  He notes that these accounts are mostly over sixty years old. The fact that they are recently republished  (1990 for my copy of Hays-McCoy’s ‘Irish Battles’, 1996 for Falls’ ‘Elizabeth’s Irish Wars’; this counts are ‘recent’ for most historical publication – I mean publication of history) suggests there is nothing much else available.

There is a fair bit of more specific stuff, but no overall revision of the military history or narrative of the war. Further, unless O’Neill had intervened, I am led to suppose (admittedly by the author himself) that no overall military narrative would have been prepared. Military history is only tenuously acceptable in the academy. Most military history is regarded as ‘old style’ drums and trumpets – accounts of campaigns and battles – which might sell large quantities but which skimp rather on the analysis and contextualisation of the war, battles, campaigns and so on.

O’Neill’s second point, therefore, is that military history needs to look beyond the wars and the outcomes of battles to that larger context. Drums and trumpets history tends to stop, at least, with the peace. It rarely puts the violence of a war into the context of the violence of a society. To choose a modern, unfortunate, issue, is the propensity of the United States in recent decades to go to war a reflection of the violence that appears to be inherent in that modern society? I am not intending to discuss or answer the question; it is one possibly to be tackled by examining attitudes to lethal weapons both within and outwith that particular state and its military system.

Certainly, some people who I have read suggest that society in the United States suffers from what Walter Wink called ‘the myth of redemptive violence’. He cited the Popeye cartoons as examples. The trajectory of the narrative is that Popeye is duffed up by Pluto, Olive Oyl is kidnapped, but Popeye saves the day by eating spinach and becoming super-powerful so that he can out-duff up Pluto, rescue Olive and win the day. Wink notes somewhere, I think, that the history of the two world wars could be summed up in a Popeye cartoon, at least from the US point of view.

As a second witness, I heard Stanley Hauerwas give a lecture in which he asserted that the US Civil War came to an end in 1917 when the US joined World War One. Confederate flags in Southern churches, he claimed, were replaced by the Stars and Stripes. As a Texan, he argued that this was because Texans like to kill people and had not had much chance since the end of the Civil War but now did as paid agents of government.

As I say, not being from the United States I am certainly not qualified to comment on wither assertion, except to suggest that they might, firstly, lend some credence to an affirmative answer to the original question and, secondly, they might also suggest reasons as to why military history is not popular in the academy, while being fairly popular outside it.

The problem is that so many drums and trumpets publications are of dubious quality anyway. O’Neill notes (p. 16) that circumspection is warranted. Popular publications do lionize particular leaders (Alexander III of Macedon springs to mind – someone commented here that he was certainly ‘great’ because he conquered the known world; his victims might disagree), and, in a comment I rather like, some popular literature ‘sought to hypnotize their readers with military hardware pornography’.

Academic history, therefore, quarantines the actual execution of war. Indeed, I did an Open University history course a few years ago (before they put the prices up to lunatic levels and scared off people like me) which stated that the Treaty of Troyes was more important than the battle of Agincourt. The implication was that Troyes merited serious historical study while Agincourt did not. But, I thought, without Agincourt, there would have been no Troyes. Who wins battles does actually matter to history, however much we might try to brush over campaigns, battles and violence.

O’Neill concedes that traditional military history, of the drum and trumpet kind, has probably had its day. There is only so much you can get from an account of troop movements, decisions by generals and detailing battles. Lack of higher level analysis reduces military history to historical voyeurism. Historical voyeurism of this nature is, of course, related to the pornography of violence rife in our societies and, also it seems to me, Wink’s myth of redemptive violence. Military history which concludes with victory misses out the most troublesome part of victory – winning the peace. The examples are too numerous for me to give any.

As wargamers, of course, this tends to leave us with a particular set of texts which we use for our military history background to wargames. While often the narratives are sound, the interpretations and, possibly worse, the unstated assumptions of the original authors give us, as readers, a level of bias which is appropriate to the age of writing, perhaps, but not so much for today.

The out of date material is, however, all that we have, except for endless rewriting of those original authors. Yet there are lessons which history can learn, about both itself and processes within history from military history. Warfare did (and does) transform societies. Winning and losing battles and wars matters to those societies engaged in them. Armies are cross-sections of the societies that produce them. As with many things, the devil is in the detail, and the details are the decisions, manoeuvers and battles that were engaged in.


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  2. Very interesting comments, and another book that I now need to pick up.
    It does remind me of the slight confusion (certainly in Irish circles) on which 'Nine Years War' is being referred to, as J.C.R. Childs 'rebranded' the 1688-1697 conflict as the 9YW in his 90s works, with the earlier conflict still bearing the name too.

    Fascinating views on 'drums & trumpets' history, and does remind me of Childs' views in the aforementioned works, where warfare is so inefficient in the period (matchlocks, pike, loss of knowledge and will, certainly by the end of the period) that a D&T approach is supplanted by sieges in anticipation of later reluctant treaties and agreement, and an understanding that the 'next' war will work things out. Perhaps this, and the lack of D&Ts, is why the period is less than popular with wargamers (or dare I say, overtly popular with gamers of a certain disposition who either want to prove a quasi religious point and rewrite history, or want a period that they can call their own).

    Also, you now have me attributing the 'Popeye' test to certain elements of Irish and English history. It seems to work.

    1. One of the early comments that O'Neill makes is that even dating the war is tricky. Given the degree of misdirection and obfuscation used by Tyrone in the earlier war years, perhaps this is hardly a surprise.

      As to the various wars, they have such a bad reputation for general viciousness that most respectable historians, let alone liberal wargamers, prefer to shy away from them. In the early modern period battles were rarely decisive, I think. Most sides just carried on fighting, hoping that the next battle, campaign or war would, as you say, sort things out.

      The Popeye test works in many scenarios, from the school playground upwards, really. As an explanation of much military history it is, of course, without peer :)

  3. Sorry about the price, hardbacks will do that but hope the rest of the book makes the investment worthwhile. Many thanks, Jim

    1. Aye, academic hardbacks in, say, theology, make it look positively cheap. But it is worth it, and I'll have more to say in a week or two.

  4. I think, at their best, "Drums and Trumpets" books have a very important place in history. Establishing the facts of who did what and where, who died and who ran away are the building blocks that everything else is built upon. that doesn't mean that contextualization isn't important, but one does risk implying that the origins of the TYW or WW2 were more important than what actually happened during them. I'd say it has a place almost analogous with the biography in other areas of history. And I don't think it is dead at all - I think the growth areas will come when speakers of one language have full access to the primary sources and secondary works in other languages - that could be most interesting for, say, the TYW or the Turkish Wars.

    1. The problem is, I think, that we start to get just rehashed or warmed over drums and trumpets. There is not usually much more to be said about a battle narrative unless something is found.

      I'd agree over the language thing, but I think it might be a long way ahead. After all, for the TYW you'd need English, Dutch, French, German, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Russian, Latin, Czech and probably a few more I can't bring to mind yet. Mind you, it would be impressive if someone could do it.