Soldiers and Workers: Military Labor in the Age of Empire

AHA Session 81
Labor and Working Class History Association 2
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 3
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Concourse C (New York Hilton, Concourse Level)
Peter M. Beattie, Michigan State University
Julie Greene, University of Maryland at College Park

Session Abstract

Military power is a crucial ingredient in the success of imperial projects. Scholars, however, often overlook an essential aspect of military success: labor. The papers in this panel examine labor as a critical feature of the ways nineteenth- and twentieth- century armies operated in colonial settings. They look at both the labor of soldiers and how armies have harnessed the labor of colonial subjects. In doing so, they bring together two subfields of the profession – military and labor history – that are rarely in conversation.

Michelle Moyd’s paper explores the relationship between soldiering and work at the intersection of African, military, and labor history. Using the concept of the “life course” as an analytical lens, she investigates the life stories of soldiers in nineteenth-century Africa. Moyd’s paper highlights the centrality of labor at different registers by linking microhistories of individual soldiers to broader historical trends and by focusing on the experiences of colonial soldiers in different armies. Her paper suggests that as European states were constructing their empires in Africa, they were also relying on and reshaping the life histories of the soldiers whose work was necessary for the expansion of their imperial regimes.

Labor could mean many things in the colonial setting, and Justin Jackson shows how the U.S. army came to rely on colonial subjects to provide linguistic, geographical, and cultural knowledge as well as brute labor in Cuba and the Philippines in the early twentieth century. But Americans’ dependence on Cubans and Filipinos exacted steep costs from the army, granting exploited subjects a degree of power over U.S. military action. His paper demonstrates that the U.S.’s colonial wars and military administrations led to new types of civil and military law. Ultimately, Jackson argues, their efforts to manage and exploit the labor of indigenous people created dangerous conditions for both colonizers and colonized in Cuba and the Philippines.

Hope McGrath also looks at the U.S. army as an imperial force, but she focuses on empire-building closer to home. Her paper examines the labor enlisted men performed in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico in the decades after the Civil War. Soldiers built forts, roads, and irrigation systems; escorted railroad surveyors and mail coaches; and explored and mapped unknown territory. This communications and transportation infrastructure, made possible by soldiers’ labor, helped defeat Native resistance to the expanding American empire and created opportunities for white settlement and investment. Her paper links the development of capitalism to the story of western imperial expansion and argues that military labor was crucial to both processes in the nineteenth century.

The papers in this panel are geographically wide-ranging. By taking a global perspective on the work of colonial armies, they reveal similarities and differences in how armies around the world have exploited labor in the service of their imperial missions. Yet all three papers place labor at the center of their analyses. Taken together, these papers highlight the role of diverse working populations in the making of empires.

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