“The War of the Socks” may sound at first like a domestic drama. Yet to Daniel Bertrand Monk, professor of geography and Middle Eastern studies at Colgate, the true story of that war unravels an important set of historical threads.
Monk remembers reading more than 20 years ago a dramatic eyewitness account of the epochal 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The book Tanks of Tammuz by Shabtai Teveth, an Israeli journalist and historian, included much about “The Tank and the Jew” and how the victory was led by Israel’s tank corps, despite being greatly outnumbered by Egyptian forces. Teveth advanced a commonly accepted view that discipline in dress coincided with discipline in fighting — in this case about how members of the tank corps wore uniforms all the way down to black socks. He fostered the belief that when you look alike you act alike.
“That really caught my attention,” Monk says of the premise that Israeli’s victory was based on the uniformity and socks, “Wow, these people are making arguments about the survival of other people on the basic of aesthetic terminologies. They don’t realize that’s what they’re doing but they rely on aesthetic categories to make claims about their own survival and that struck me as worth talking about.”
It took time, but Monk, who is also the George R. and Myra T. Cooley Professor in peace and conflict studies, recently got back to those socks and their meaning. In his research, he brought together many aspects of his academic and professional experience and found that the flawed story of the socks embodies a certain type of magical thinking about mass warfare and a false relationship between people and war.
In his research, Monk examined the historical record through his unusual lens. For nearly his whole life, Monk has been fascinated by the Middle East, and particularly Israel, where he lived for many years starting as a teenager. “I have had a huge fascination with almost every aspect [of Israel],” he says, even when he disagrees with the country’s leadership and direction.
Also crucial to his work has been his background and experience as an architect. Prior to earning his PhD at Princeton University in the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Monk practiced actively as an architect for many years. He was a principal in an Israeli firm that built public housing and university buildings, and won the prestigious Israel Rokach Prize for Architecture for the design of a Tel Aviv University building.
It was that background in the study of architecture that led him to employ in his analysis of “The War of the Socks” an otherwise unlikely person from the early 20th century: Adolf Loos, an Austrian architect, cultural critic, and theorist of modern architecture. Monk knew well of Loos’ idea of bekleidungsprinzip, the principle of “cladding” and originally a fashion dictum. According to this idea, the renunciation of individual affect in dress, such as wearing a uniform, is believed to carry with it the qualitative advantages of being modern.
In the mainstream accounting of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that gives credit for military success to wearing uniforms in tanks, Monk found the idea of cladding had been applied without conscious intention, drawing from a source far from military strategy. He said that Teveth’s accounts and theories had been “uncritically picked up by every military historian and strategist” and have had a profound impact on consensus views.
Monk says the Israeli victory in 1967 was remarkable, “but there were many points in the three weeks leading up to this war and right at the start of it where the monumental gambles that were taken could have led to very different results.” He says the story of the victory was far more complex than is explained by the tank corps’ uniformity and its black socks.
“Yet the socks and the accounts of them are important,” Monk says, “because they are ‘doxa’ in the sense that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu relied on the term to describe the way that the apparent self-evidence of things is maintained and truth is determined.”
“A good chunk of my research has been about the commonplaces of conflict. In other words, the stuff people say and take for granted on the way to making other claims,” Monk says. “What I’ve tried to do in a lot of my prior work and what’s advanced in this project is looking at the kind of assumptions about the causes, conduct, and consequences of war that everyone has to agree upon on the way to blaming.” In analyzing historical events, Monk says people often take for granted in their analysis far more than they recognize. Then there is often a form of reverse engineering employed, where people start with an attractive conclusion and work backwards through a process of rationalization instead of reason.
Monk’s research paper, “The Jew and the tank: Habit and habitus towards a theodicy of war,” was published in a special issue of the journal Security Dialogue on “Becoming War.” Under the auspices of the International Studies Association, Monk was a part of a small group of American and European scholars contributing to the issue about how warfare is forged and shaped.
One of the unexpected byproducts of Monk’s “War of the Socks” research is that it has brought him back to making progress on a larger project he had set aside for many years. Because of the difficulty of access to key archives, he was long stalled on his history of what was called the “Era of Euphoria” for Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 war. But his “War of the Socks” research led to “an epiphany,” as a whole other route for researching and telling the larger story through a wide range of ephemera of the war became clear to him.
On the Colgate faculty since 2003, Monk is the author of several books, including in 2021 The Global Shelter Imaginary: IKEA Humanitarianism and Rightless Relief (co-authored with Andrew Herscher) and earlier An Aesthetic Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict, and The Post-Conflict Environment (co-edited with Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate), as well as numerous articles, including about Middle East wars, the geography of post-conflict environment, and refugees and humanitarianism. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in International Peace and Security, as well as a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.