Phenomenology, History, War. 

I have never been in combat. The magnitude of that statement first became apparent to me when I opened John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, which itself opens with a similar confession. Keegan, one of the world’s foremost military historians and the one who most radically changed the nature of the study of battle, tries to recapture what it means to fight through meticulous analysis of the ground level experience of soldiers in three major historical battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, the Somme.  I am not a military historian, but as far as I can tell he does a bang up job.

I am not a military historian. That itself, while not a confession, might make it seem odd that I am obsessing over the fact that I haven’t been in battle. You might wonder whether I want to be in battle, whether I go to reenactments, whether I consider joining up or whether I feel like I’ve missed out on some fundamental part of being a man. Regardless of the answers, those questions are irrelevant. I recently read the Esquire essay “Why Men Love War” and yes, I thought a little bit about what it would be like to fight.  But I am not naïve. I do not want to be in a war, even I sometimes wonder whether (better: fear that) violence is the only cure we have left for the detachment of modern life.  But that’s not why, as a historian, I worry about not being in a battle.

I worry because I care about phenomenology. When I think of the people I study—Greeks, Romans, Goths—several features come to find. They are all religious (in a pre-Christian sense of the word). They are almost all farmers (or at least run their lives on an agricultural calendar). And war is an expected part of their lives.  I can vaguely relate to the phenomenology of ritual, I can experiment as much as possible with gardening and manual labor and I can go to my aunt’s farm to pick olives (I haven’t, though), but war is something that is so far out of my realm of knowledge and experience that it seems to present an unbridgeable phenomenological chasm between me and the people I am trying to understand. 

The closest I’ve ever been to being in a battle was when the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2009. I was in downtown Pittsburgh after the game in the middle of a mob, and a formation of a couple dozen mounted police officers came into the crowd to drive us away. It was terrifying, even if I knew there was really nothing to fear, and it gave me some little appreciation for the feeling of being on the receiving end of a cavalry charge. Horses are big. But it gave me no appreciation of what it is like to hold ranks, to see the man next to you fall, to shrink to the right to seek safety in your neighbor’s shield. It gave me no sense of what a soldier feels as he sees his standard plunge forward into the enemy, no sense of the press from behind pushing one forward or the unexpected loss of that press signaling retreat (armies, Keegan finds, break from the back first)

It also gives me no sense of what it feels like to know that this is an experience everyone has gone through. Take Socrates. Socrates is a vaguely mythical figure at best, but in trying to understand the process of philosophical inquiry that the real Socrates performed on his fellow Athenians we often forget that he had fought alongside many of them during the Peloponnesian War.  In the Apology, he reminds the jurors that he fought bravely at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades recalls the time that Socrates’ courage saved Laches in the retreat from Delium. What effect did the shared knowledge of these traumatic events have on Socrates and his interlocutors? What resonance did it give to his inquiries about virtue and courage? I don’t know, and I wonder if I ever can. My mother, hearing about this, thought immediately of the unity of the virtues: if all virtue is knowledge, courage is knowledge of what is truly dangerous. How does this relate to the experience of the phalanx, when every instinct in your body tells you to run from the spears but it is only in cohesion and discipline that one has any chance to survive? 

Speaking of courage, we shouldn’t forget the resonances of a few words. Virtus, in Latin, is not virtue: it is manliness. So is the Greek andreiaThe performance of combat was one of the defining features of masculine identity, and it for boys raised on Homer it must have been an all-encompassing focus of self worth. I wonder what the long years of peace under the Roman Empire did to the self-images of men who could no longer orient their lives around fighting for Corinth or Sparta or Capua or even Rome, and whether this led to the first great age of anxiety that gave us the so-called ‘Oriental mystery cults,’ e.g. the cults of Mithras, Isis, or Christ. 

I wonder so much more. I wonder about the effect of pervasive violence on group identity. I wonder about issues of PTSD and related psychological traumas. I wonder if I can ever appreciate metaphors of battle, from Seneca describing the virtuous life as a valiant defense against besieging time to the jokes about the comedic stock figure of the vainglorious soldier that appear in Athenian New Comedy. 

I reread Keegan’s Face of Battle this week. Reading about the Battle of Agincourt, I tried to imagine the thoughts of a hungry and tired British archer, cold and muddy from the rain the night before, as he looked out over the field at the massing French. He had heard Mass three times that morning, and whether from the communion wine or a little something else was probably just drunk enough to take the bite off a frosty morning. He was also a veteran, had seen French cavalry before, knew that the stake he had carved and planted in the ground in front of him should stop them, had seen what would happen if it didn’t, and that outnumbered four- or five-to-one he had to trust in his comrades as much as his arrows. I don’t think there can be any amount of phenomenological sympathy can take me from the pleasant LA garden where I’m writing this essay and put me in his place.

And so, finally, I wonder what of meaning I can ever say about him.

© Henry Gruber 2013