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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Yuval Noah Harari

The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000

New York: Palgrave, 2008. 408pp. US$105.00 ISBN 978 023 053692 0.

It is easy to forget, despite the ubiquitous nature of warfare in history, that the genre ofveterans memoirs is comparatively recent. The cultural turn in military history has drawn scholarly attention to the personal accounts of martial experience. Yuval Harari, an Oxford-educated historian, has made the martial memoir the focus of The Ultimate Experience. [1] Harari's interest is in the presence or absence of revelatory experiences in martial memoirs, and the results are at once fascinating and controversial.

Harari observes that military experience as described in medieval memoirs is "an instrument to some greater end" or "an honorable way of life, worthy in and of itself." (299) Early in the eighteenth century, however, warfare became a special, privileged experience that granted the veteran special knowledge. Harari's goal is to trace the appearance of revelatory experience in military memoirs in Europe from the late fourteenth century to the modern period. Harari points out that this aspect of revelation is a standard genre trait in modern military memoirs. Writers may focus on experiences that resulted in disillusionment or enlightenment, but they all describe combat as a special event that grants witnesses privileged truths about themselves, about war, about the world. This is what Harari calls the "authority of flesh witnessing." (7) Harari tries to explain this change in the conceptualization of combat experiences as a result of shifting cultural and philosophical ideas about the self, mostly during the in the late eighteenth-century. This change represents a transition from the medieval separation of mind from body for to romantic ideas about personal experience and privileged knowledge, and the increasing value placed on sensory experience.

Harari begins this study by establishing the traits of both medieval and modern memoirs by means of abundant comparisons. Part One establishes the place of revelation in the medieval period, and it is certainly not in combat. Not onlyare personal reflection and contemplation rare in medieval and Renaissance military memoirs, revelatory experiences are only found in accounts of religious conversion or vision. Harari contrasts the military careers of St. Martin and Ignatius Loyola with their religious revelations. The experience of combat appears to be insignificant, or at any rate, these writers do not connect their religious enlightenment to their military experiences. Harari makes it clear that the medieval combatant was not expected to find truth in the experience of combat. Instead combat was the forum of brave deeds and demonstration of one's endurance over pain and hardship. In these early years of martial memoirs, authors followed the examples of well-known martyrologies where physical trauma and suffering are endured with stoic calm. In contrast, revelation—the life-altering events of religious or moral conversion—occurs in peaceful contemplation.

Part Two notes the incremental appearance of revelation in military memoirs during the later seventeenth-century. Harari links this change to new interests in physical experience and a greater trust in the senses. Memoirs began to make more of the physical nature of combat, which previously focused exclusively on deeds. Memoirists frequently began to discuss thoughts and feelings, with the intention that readers would experience it vicariously. This process is accelerated in the eighteenth century with the romantic reaction against rationalism and developments in the management, training and demographics of late eighteenth-century armies. The philosophical trends of the period, represented by Kant and Rousseau in Harari's study, demonstrate new ideas about rational thought and sensory experience. Memoirs became more rounded in their depiction of internal and external experiences, eventually granting martial experience its own special status.

The post-Napolionic period is filled with memoirs depicting warfare as a privileged experience. Part Three, the book's final section, focuses on these later developments and the investment of military experience with privileged knowledge. Combat became the primary place for revelatory experience, although there was no consensus amongst memorialists as to what that revelation could be: war could be ennobling, cleansing, disillusioning; it could elevate or degrade. For every Erich MariaRemarquethere was an Ernst Jünger (that is, the authors of All Quiet on the Western Front and Storm of Steel, two very different takes on WWI). Religion's monopoly on revelation, weakened by the Enlightenment, loses entirely to the democratization of modern armies and the familiar literary genre of today's martial memoir. Harari begins this final discourse with a qualification: he warns that he will not suggest "an exhaustive causal explanation" for the appearance of revelation but is "more interested in explaining what happened than why it happened." (128) Nevertheless this does not stop Harari from trying.

For Harari, the shift in martial memoirs from dispassionate descriptions of actions to flesh witnessing resides in the "culture of sensibility and romanticism." (299) This theory is drawn primarily from the memoirs of the post-Napoleonic period and Harari does appear to touch on something novel about personal identity, ideas about authenticity of experience, and a new interest in self-discovery and public disclosure. Harari's qualifications, both at the beginning of the book and in the later chapters, remind the reader that such conclusions are preliminary, and his project is more an exploration for the purposes of bringing this material to wider academic attention.

Harari's primary contribution to the cultural history of warfare lies in his careful and detailed discussion of literary elements in martial memoirs. The focus on revelation or its absence necessarily narrows interpretation, but the scope and variety of his sources is impressive. Harari's study is not strictly chronological, however, and this can cause some problems for his argument. Anachronisms creep in, particularly when the author contrasts medieval and modern accounts. Changes in military culture, including the organization management of armies or the social background of writers, are often undervalued for their influences on literary style. Harari also misses earlier changes in martial culture, particularly the shift of elite values from prowess to gentle valor, which occurs in the late sixteenth century, despite the fact that it is reflected in contemporary accounts that Harari samples. Even so, this is an ambitious project that will attract controversy and criticism but it is also an important and thought-provoking work.


1. Harari's first book, Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History, and Identity, 1450-1600 (based on his DPhil thesis) was reviewed for DRM by Donald J. Kagay.

M. R. Geldof

University of Saskatchewan <>

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