Academia’s Jihad Against Military History

If American military historians had fur, fangs or feathers it is a safe bet that they would have a place of honor on the Endangered Species List:

Two of the last five Pulitzer Prizes in history were awarded to books about the American military. Four of the five Oscar nominees for best documentary this year were about warfare. Business, for military historians, is good.Except, strangely enough, in academia. On college campuses, historians who study military institutions and the practice of war are watching their classrooms overflow and their books climb bestseller lists — but many say they are still struggling, as they have been for years, to win the respect of their fellow scholars. John Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, first described this paradox in a 1997 essay called “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History.”
….”While military history dominates the airwaves…its academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities.”The field that inspired the work of writers from Thucydides to Winston Churchill is, today, only a shell of its former self. The number of high-profile military history experts in the Ivy League can be counted on one hand. Of the more than 150 colleges and universities that offer a Ph.D. in history, only a dozen offer full-fledged military history programs. Most military historians are scattered across a collection of Midwestern and southern schools, from Kansas State to Southern Mississippi.
“Each of us is pretty much a one-man shop,” says Carol Reardon, a professor of military history at Penn State University and the current president of the Society for Military History. The vast majority of colleges and universities do not have a trained military historian on staff.
….More than a decade ago, the University of Wisconsin received $250,000 to endow a military history chair from none other than Stephen Ambrose, the author of “Band of Brothers” and one of the field’s most popular figures. Ambrose donated another $250,000 before he died in 2002, but the school has yet to fill the position.
….And while some believe the profession is being purposefully purged by a generation of new-wave historians of gender, labor and ethnic studies, whose antiwar views blind them to the virtues of military history, most insist that nothing so insidious is happening.“I don’t think there’s been a deliberate policy of killing these positions,” says Wayne Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Instead, most of the historians interviewed by U.S. News believe the study of war, like several other, more traditional historical disciplines such as political and diplomatic history, has simply been de-emphasized as the field has expanded since the 1960s. ”

Read the rest here.

It’s true that military history is not being targeted per se, though the field gets caught up in leftist faculty attitudes toward ROTC, American foreign policy and dead white guys. Economic and diplomatic history programs are faring little better and with history departments being squeezed in general, even labor and social historians are finding tight job markets. No, it’s simply a herd mentality in action, responding to the PC fetishes of academic administrative culture. It’s more important for the key decision makers in universities, colleges and departments on campuses with active women’s and ethnic studies programs to make certain that the History department is redundantly stacked with tenure track positions in these same subdisciplinary areas two or three deep.

All is not lost. It is true that students at universities are being cheated out of the opportunity to receive educations that are less slanted in terms of discipline, methodology or politics but that is a problem far larger than just the field of history. It’s a systemic and generational issue that will be remediated when alumni donors, state legislatures and Federal agencies giving grants demand greater responsibility, accountability and service from universities for the money they are given; and when the tenured radical boomers thin out with retirement and death.

Specific to military historians, things are not as bleak as they seem. To an extent, the university is a legacy institution that while important, lacks the prestige or centrality in American intellectual life it once commanded. Military history should have a place at any decent sized college or university but if making a difference is what matters, as opposed to having a sinecure to pay the bills, academia is not the end all, be all anymore.

As the article makes clear, well written military history – and a lot of it is quite good compared to other subfields -is in demand everywhere else. The Department of Defense runs it’s own service academies and postgraduate institutions as well as having staff analyst positions ranging from OSD to DIA. Think Tanks, from premier outfits like RAND to smaller foundations, will need military historians and strategic studies people if they hope to be ” in the game” influencing policy or public opinion (the tanks are coasting now, often times with “experts” who have far less knowledge of military affairs than do I – and I’m not a military historian by any stretch of the imagination!). All of this is far more important work, with real world implications, than playing fantasy land academic games. Then there’s writing books that the normal, intelligent, reading public actually want to read and having an audience larger than, say, fifty people.

History that does not get disseminated, debated and understood is not history at all.

Cross-posted at Zenpundit

19 thoughts on “Academia’s Jihad Against Military History”

  1. Academia has made itself irrelevant in the Humanities-now maybe cutting gov’t subsidies would do something to concentrate their minds. It is remarkable how smart people become when when their survival or job depends on it.
    If their department budget depended on filling seats in classrooms you would see more Military History.

  2. I agree with Zen…with the service academies and post-grad schools being run by the DoD, there is a modest future for military historians. However, I fear the lack of military history will have other detrimental effects on Civil-Military Relations. The future political/”creative” classes will be as uneducated as Obama is on military affairs, perhaps worse. This lack of understanding will only lead to further reliance on Think Tanks, experts, and other types of echo-chambers to formulate policy.
    The system for training the political class in military affairs is broken. In the past, they served. They took military and diplomatic history courses in university. The cast of presidential characters: Truman was a field artilleryman. TR was XO of the Rough Riders. Eisenhower doesn’t need further mention. GHW Bush served. Vietnam changed that. Since the loss in Vietnam we have not trained the politicians in the arts and sciences of war. And we have been the worse for it.
    Politicians today do not serve. They do not take military history courses. Politicians today are uneducated.

  3. Military history and classes on strategy should round out political science degrees. If Sun Tsu is good enough for the fortune 500, it is good enough for those who aspire politics.

    It would also be nice to get the political class to understand the differnce between tactics and strategy. Everytime I hear someone elected use the word strategy and describe a tactical action, I’m reminded intelligence is not a requirement for political office.

  4. “It would also be nice to get the political class to understand the differnce between tactics and strategy. Everytime I hear someone elected use the word strategy and describe a tactical action, I’m reminded intelligence is not a requirement for political office.”

    That really bugs me too.

    One of the differences between a politician and a statesman is the comprehension of strategy. Henry Stimson did not try to micromanage Eisenhower and Marshall, much less Patton, Bradley or some LTC wading ashore at Normandy

  5. I would argue that this represents a decades long trend to progressively devalue the actions of anyone not an articulate intellectual. We don’t teach business history, military history, scientific history in any systematic way. People with advanced degrees in history today are really just historians of leftist intellectual history and in that only the parts they want to remember.

    When the liberal-arts in the 60’s decided they would be political activist first and academics second, they sealed their doom. They become progressively more irrelevant to day to day life and people see less and less a reason to fund them.

  6. I once downloaded an online US history class lecture from my alma mater. I choose the lecture on WWII which amazingly consisted of only two topics: Japanese internment and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was all that the lecturer cared to talk and was probably the only aspects of WWII that the lecturer knew about.

  7. Hi Shannon,

    “I would argue that this represents a decades long trend to progressively devalue the actions of anyone not an articulate intellectual”

    Very true. I think it might also be the results of a decades long trend to progressively degrade the definition of what we consider to be an “articulate intellectual”. we’ve ended up with a lot of imperious, jargon-users who are mentally closed to anything outside their micro-domains.

    Mace, you may be right.

  8. Hi Fred

    The Humanities are great, they are the bedrock of intellectual life. My problem isn’t with the humanities but with those professors who try to circumscribe them to fit political dogma.

    If I was advocating eliminating studies of race or gender, you might have a beef. I’m not. Where they’re relevant they add an important dimension but that dimension shouldn’t be the focus of higher education or of the staffing of history departments because doing so leaves out major fields of inquiry.

    Undergraduate students need the basics and not just the au courant, politically monochromatic, interdisciplinary studies of recent vintage. Students will get a hell of a lot more out of Plato or Machiavelli than Cornel West or Andrea Dworkin

  9. Part of the problem is this: the less objectively the results of a person in a given field can be measured, the more trendy and fad-following the people in that field will tend to be. You can see it in business–in general, HR departments are more susceptable to fads than are engineering departments or sales departments. (Not that the latter two are totally immune.)

  10. “Students will get a hell of a lot more out of Plato or Machiavelli than Cornel West or Andrea Dworkin.”

    Amen. I thank God for the U of C common core and Western Civ sequences, and several other courses.

    I would have said Thucydides and Tocquevile if I had to pick just two, but we also read Plato and Machiavelli, and those guys were pretty good as well.

  11. Hi Lex,

    Naturally, given my background I’d prefer Thucydides to Plato but Plato’s Republic is a book no undergrad should get through college without reading, IMHO.

    Machiavelli, I prefer to de Tocqueville because his application is broader but the latter is a key text for understanding America and a fantastic example of how an outsider can have greater insights at times than the native.

    I’ve read the Marquis de Custine too – his Empire of the Czar doesn’t rise to the intellectual level of Democracy in America but it was a solid work and the best available for half-century at least.

  12. I did not read the Republic until after I graduated. At U of C I read the Gorgias, the Apology, Symposium and Protagoras, in first year Hum Greek Thought and Literature. I would like to re-read them all. I have the Laws sitting on the shelf as grey knowledge. I think I will have to wait until I am about 70 to get to that one.

    Macchiavelli is a must, agreed. I have the Mansfield translation, which I should read. He put it well: “If you think my translation is bad, make your own. If you think it is good, learn Italian.”

    There is a lot to be said for reading the Iliad, now that I think about it. You can divide people into two groups: (1) Those who scratch their heads and say, why did they have us read that rambling, violent, pointless old thing? (a large majority), and (2) those who say, nothing ever really changes, does it?

  13. For Machiavelli,one must read must read The Discourses on Livy as well. Machiavelli was a republican,most likely, and it is too bad The Discourses are neglected.

  14. Renminbi is right. It has been years since I read them, but for my money The Prince is kind of like Cliff’s Notes compared to The Discourses.

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