Saturday, April 15, 2006

Is the "face of warfare" in Razadarit Ayeidawpon the real face?

Wyatt, David K. (1997) “Southeast Asia ‘Inside Out’ 1300-1800: A Perspective from the Interior,” in Lieberman, Victor (ed) Connected Histories: Early Modern Eurasia, Modern Asian Studies 31, 3 (1997), pp. 689-709.

Some comments that Wyatt makes in this paper on warfare during the fourteenth century seem very pertinent to Razadarit Ayeidawpon:

“The outcomes of the large-scale wars of this period for the most part were determined by personal martial qualities, or by superior tactics (or by trickery), rather than by such considerations as the relative balance of forces on the two sides, or the economic strength of one side or another, or by considerations of morale and leadership save as these were exemplified in the personal qualities of rulers.” (David K. Wyatt (1997) “Southeast Asia ‘Inside-out,’ 1300-1800”, p. 696)

This assessment is based on chronicle narratives like the Chiangmai Chronicle and it also holds for Razadarit Ayeidawpon and the Burmese chronicles of the era. There is a problem here though.

The depiction of warfare has always suffered from strong ideological biases. Highly stylized “battle pieces” higher ends of state-sanctioned political ideology. The military historian John Keegan was the first to provide a thorough critique of this traditional depiction of battle in his groundbreaking work “The Face of Battle”. In traditional battle pieces historical events are pre-selected to support ideological ends. They are portrayed as deterministic, heroic and mythic with clear heroes and villains. The contingent nature of warfare that Clausewitz stresses is downplayed. The viewpoint and actions of lower level participants is ignored, their actions being lumped into collective images with a “highly oversimplified depiction of human behaviour on the battlefield.” (Also see Wikipedia:Battle_of_Agincourt)

In the anthropology of warfare, the fraction of the population that can be mobilized for battle is roughly a function of a society's ability to accumulate a food surplus. The level of military technology is also a function of this surplus either supporting craftsmen to forge weaponry or production for trade, the procedes of which can be used to support weapons purchases. Indians on the north coast of America and the Maoris of New Zealand providing two good examples of this. Perhaps societies studied by anthropologists, like these, are a better source for comparisons than traditional over-studied Europe.

Anyway, the point I want to make, is that there is an ideological layer to many ideological texts. If these ideologically laden texts are the only historical sources available, the historian might have to reach outside of even Southeast Asia to find societies in a similar environmental, cultural, and economic situation to make reasonable inferences about possible actual historical behaviours. Is it really sufficient to assume “everything is culture” and then rely solely on ideological laden indigenous historical texts?

In other parts of the paper, though, Wyatt clearly does point out the insular and ideologically-laden perspective of the ruling elite that composed early modern chronicle texts:

“…the CMC [Chiang Mai Chronicle] (and many related texts) does not say anything about Ayudhya, Siam, Lan Na, or China or the Chinese: the conflicts are described entirely in terms of the ambitions, greed, or personalities of the various rulers involved…One is left with the impression that this inland principality was essentially still very parochial; still concerned with its immediate neighborhood in the small mountain valleys of the interior of mainland Southeast Asia” (p. 698)

The same would judgement might also apply to Burmese Ava (c. 1364-1555) and Mon Pegu (c. 1369-1540) to the west. At times the narrative in Razadarit Ayeidawpon seems to imply a level of theoretical sophistication in warfare that is too high given its insular location. An additional layer of theoretical explication of warfare in the manner of a military manual might have been added at a subsequent period such the late Konbaung or early colonial period. One way at getting at this could be by comparing Razadarit Ayeidawpon with the rendition of these same events in U Kala's Burmese chronicle which may have used an earlier rendition of these events. That's what I'm doing now.