When confronted with history too narrowly conceived or framed, I often think back to one graduate course I took, “Issues in British Literature,” which challenged me on a number of levels. To start with, the British historiography we learned seemed to have nothing in common with what I had encountered for German, French, and Russian history. Of course, different countries and different histories were involved, but not even the language or categories of analysis employed in the British historiography were as familiar as I expected them to be. This circumstance did not stop the authors from writing history and arguing with each other as if the assumptions that informed their language were self-explanatory. Their writings offered an odd mixture of history as common sense that rejected social theory combined with the expectation that readers should not dare question how they framed and wrote about history, because, well, readers with enough uncommon intelligence and specialized training would understand. The rest should not bother trying.
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These stereoptic cards offer a tale of war reduced to two basic elements: soldiers on parade at home followed by the unburied corpses of soldiers on the battlefield. How should we read this story? At first glance, it seems to be about the gap between dreams and reality in war: the transformation of men from objects of admiration in society to a meal for rats, bugs, worms, and microbes in a foreign wasteland. In other words, the pictures seem to tell a story about the utter senselessness of the First World War. But does that interpretation do justice to the lives of these men? Does it tell us why they wore the uniform and sacrificed their lives? Does it tell us about their experience of war? And what about the politicians and generals who sent millions to their deaths? Can we write them off as insane or incompetent fools? Or should we take them seriously and try to fathom their mental universe? Finally, what lasting effects did this violence and loss have on the societies that fought this war? These are some of the questions that inform my interest in military history.