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. 
Harari's interest is in the presence or absence of revelatory
experiences in martial memoirs, and the results are at
once fascinating and controversial.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.