Academia’s Jihad Against Military History: Further Thoughts

Our colleague Zenpundit had a good recent post on this topic. I have not lived in the academic world for a long time, but everything I read indicates that he is right about this problem: The academic study and teaching of military history has been purged out of most colleges and universities.

A good recent piece on this issue which Zen did not link to is Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction by the excellent military historian Robert M. Citino. Citino’s essay was published in the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the American Historical Association, which modestly describes itself as the major historical journal in the United States. Hence, Citino’s article is a case for the defense, made by a very qualified military historian, in the main forum of the profession.

Citino does not make a case for military history that Zen and his commenters made. He does not focus on the utility, in fact necessity, that policy-makers and even informed citizens possess a sound and accurate awareness of military history. That is the kind of argument no academic will be impressed by. Nor does he make the traditional case that military events, followed by major political events, are the key drivers of history. The major questions of our collective lives are and have always been determined by war, the ultimate extension of politics. Whether communities and individuals shall live at all, who shall live where, under what laws, in tyranny or freedom, in peace or in anarchy — war has decided these questions, and in many places it still does, and war, in whatever guise, will certainly continue to do so. But this is distasteful. To “privilege” military, or politico-military history in this way would be unacceptable to the tender souls in America’s history departments. But the founders of their profession, Herodotus and Thucydides, knew better.

Citino takes a somewhat apologetic tone. Instead of referring to the open hostility, or dismissive disdain that exists for his area of expertise, he downplays it: “Military history today is in the same curious position it has been in for decades: extremely popular with the American public at large, and relatively marginalized within professional academic circles.” If you are speaking to the people who have marginalized you, this is a nice way of starting out. Citino says that there are three schools of military history. The more traditional kind, that is history of military organizations and activities. particularly the wars and battles that militaries alone can wage and for which they exist in the first place. Second is the now-old “war and society” approach, where you talk the effect of war, war and economy, war and women, etc. but keeping arms-length from the blood and smoke and shouting, lest you be consider to “like” war. Third is the relatively recent elaboration of “war and memory”. about how these events are remembered, turned into stories or myths or used for political purposes. All of these areas no doubt have their value, at least in principle. I have read and benefited from books in all three categories. But military history without qualification or apology is a field with its own dignity and importance and it is currently out of favor.

Citino makes a ritual sacrifice of the allegedly bad, old-fashioned military history that no one likes any more, when talking about those military historians who actually write history of militaries: “The best of them do so in a fashion that goes well beyond the traditional ‘drum and trumpet’ or ‘good general–bad general’ approach.” I must say, I have read a lot of very old books and you rarely find anyone who was serious who wrote in this alleged fashion. It is a straw man. To pick one example, the Mid-Victorian classic The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World From Marathon to Waterloo by Edward Creasy was and is a serious work, it was cutting-edge for its day, and it is still an excellent read and mostly correct. Poorly written history is something that afflicts every era. The idea that today’s military historians are a terribly superior bunch is baseless self-congratulation. But I suppose Citino had to throw someone under the bus. I hope Creasy, Fortescue, Clowes, Anglesey, Oman and the rest are having a chuckle over all this in the military historians’ corner of Heaven.

Citino concludes his essay by virtually imploring the rest of the profession:

Despite these problems, which no doubt promise to be contentious, military historians today are doing enough good work, based on exciting and innovative approaches, to re-engage the attention of historians in any number of areas. My final advice to my professional colleagues and friends in the broader discipline? Try something genuinely daring, even countercultural, in terms of today’s academy. Read some military history.

There is something grotesquely wrong when the author of many numerous top-quality works feels he has to grovel before his peers. Unfortunately for him, he has to live and function in a shark-tank of political correctness and ideological hostility. I would not want to work in that environment, and I admire the man’s work. I wish him well.

Citino correctly notes that military history is “extremely popular with the American public at large”.. Amongst academics, this is a serious negative. Opacity is exclusivity is prestige is tenure and a feeling of superiority. If no on can understand your stuff, you can pretend that you are as smart as the physicists across the quad, whose stuff is impenetrable. too. The problem of course is that the physicists’ stuff is hard because it is real, demanding and requires highly trained intellects that most people cannot hope to possess. The other stuff is “hard” because it is jargon-laden groupspeak.

The popularity of military history has a very positive effect, which in part offsets the problem Zen identified expressly, and which Citino’s essay displays implicitly. The amount of very, very good military history which is being published, and reprinted, is staggering. Someone is reading all this stuff. In fact, our military personnel are (apparently) reading all this stuff.

I will have a follow-up post on this subject, soon I hope.

14 thoughts on “Academia’s Jihad Against Military History: Further Thoughts”

  1. Excellent, excellent post. A sequel that exceeds the original. Groveling is about right as a descriptor.

    Citino is taking entirely the wrong approach, psychologically speaking. The answer is to treat the psuedo-scholars with dismissive contempt when they loudly pronounce on military affairs on the occasions which they are ignorant – which is most of them, most of the time. What they need most are public spankings regarding the basic facts which they frequently get confused or are just simply flatly incorrect. Trust me, these profs would never dream of doing it with fields they respect and after being called out a few times, they will retreat and then look to hire at least left-wing military historians to hide behind.

    It is better to be feared than loved and right now military historians in academia are neither. Time to start applying strategic thinking in defense of their own field.

  2. How many courses at an undergraduate level should a History department offer? Most departments are hardly that specialized that they can truly offer but a minimum of such courses, and, in so doing, would more than likely focus upon , sayh The Civil War, or WWII etc. How many courses can be found in military history in the military academies? Many. that is where the emphasis is and ought to be. Anyone truly interested can read up on his favorite military areas. My former dentist had as a hobby the Napoleonic Wars and knew a lot; others read Herotodus, etc if interested in war and the classics.

  3. One thing I didn’t bring up in the previous MilHist thread is structural: History was invented by Thucydides, and his work was actually a political-military history. History as a discipline remained dedicated to political-military work through the early 20th century, but this definition was starting to fray when Max Weber started doing his work. Weber’s work understook political science as a branch of social science, along with sociology, etc.

    Weber’s work seems to have led to a great reorganization of knowledge: The hard/natural sciences remained unchanged. The Classics (music, history, Latin/Greek, mythology, pure mathematics, etc) were heavily shortchanged. Parts of the Classics were appropriated to the newly-born Social Sciences (Political Science, Sociology, Psychology, minority-studies, etc.) Yet military history, in the tradition of Thucydides, remained rightly in the Classics, where it has undergone whithering attacks from Social Scientists (Military History isn’t the only Classical study to suffer the same fate…today the public schools are teaching less and less Music in favor of “Social Studies”, Sex Ed, etc.) The Social Scientists may claim that the military is patrichical, harmful to the psyches, is racist, etc.

    To revitalize Military History, then would require us to go down one of two different paths: The first path would be to reinterpret military history as a branch of sociology. This would be extremely harmful, as this reinterpretation would invite all sorts social experimentation on the military. Can you imagine an Amanda Marcotte-type ( being the UnderSecDef for Policy? The horror would be too difficult to fathom.

    The second path would be an honest attempt to understand military history as a Classical study. Don’t grovel to political scientists. Keep the anthropologists and sociologists at arms-length. And don’t even bother with women’s studies. We need to attempt to redefine what a Liberal education means. It does NOT mean an education in the Social Sciences (although that is another kind of “liberal”.) A Liberal education means a Classically Liberal education, with emphasis on History, Music, Logic, Math, Philosophy, Architecture, Art, etc. It needs to be understood as intrinsically valuable (which should actually be easy to do when compared to the lack of intrinsic value of a degree in Queer & Transgender Studies.)

    A strategy to do this: focus on building a single, absolutely top-notch military history degree in a Classics Dept at a Liberal Arts college. This degree program would need to produce BAs, MAs, and PhDs, and as such, would allow Classical military historians to start to begin, or add depth to existing military history programs. Such a program would be taught by a Martin van Crevald, a David Petraeus, a John Nagl…a staff made up of both practitioners and theorists. It should make use of guest speakers with operational experience. And it should be rigorous, in order to further put the comparatively less rigorous social scientists to shame. We should also take up the cause of other downtrodden Classical studies (especially Art and Music), in order to strengthen our flanks from attack from the sociologists.

    There is plenty of rigor in military history. A single course on the campaigns of Alexander would be breathtaking. A course could be taught in the history of Blitzkrieg doctrine, which would be equally demanding, and interesting. Mil History is fertile ground for study, and is much more enticing than MORE arguments of structural discrimination, etc.

    Bottom line, we need to see military history as a Classic.

  4. I remember a speaker at the American Revolutionary War Roundtable (NY group) saying that one publisher told him his book was too well written.Academics(outside of “hard fields”) are not respected by the public for very good reasons; it knows when it is being condecended to. So the academy turns its back on the stupid public.Obviously if a book is opaque, it is profound. Many years back CS Lewis dissected this phenomenon.

    That Citino sees a need to grovel shows there is a party line that one defies at ones peril.

    I think the snobbery of the academic world is the result of its own insecurity;it has written off the public and its residents are ever more involved in impressing each other,since no one else pays attention. That is why most of them are worthless wankers.There is a wonderful memoir which touches on academic insecurity-“Vixi” by Richard Pipes.
    Ginny,I notice that you have done things outside the academy. Do you think maybe people in the humanities should work outside before teaching? Make them better rounded?

    Thanks for the post Lex and thank-you all for making this a very useful site; this ain’t no grovel.

  5. Fred wrote:

    “How many courses at an undergraduate level should a History department offer?”

    Fair question. Depends on the size of the student body.

    A small, private, liberal arts college cannot be all things to all people, they have to choose carefully to pick scholars with multifaceted research interests. A state mega-U. with 50,000 undergrads or a top tier university of any kind with a multi-billion endowment has less excuse for dropping military, economic, diplomatic and political history from their departments so as to focus on hiring historians of esoteric, rad-crit, subfields. That’s an ideological choice, not a budgetary one.

  6. Speaking of thinking strategically. Smitten Eagle wrote:

    “A strategy to do this: focus on building a single, absolutely top-notch military history degree in a Classics Dept at a Liberal Arts college. This degree program would need to produce BAs, MAs, and PhDs, and as such, would allow Classical military historians to start to begin, or add depth to existing military history programs. Such a program would be taught by a Martin van Crevald, a David Petraeus, a John Nagl…a staff made up of both practitioners and theorists. It should make use of guest speakers with operational experience. And it should be rigorous, in order to further put the comparatively less rigorous social scientists to shame. We should also take up the cause of other downtrodden Classical studies (especially Art and Music), in order to strengthen our flanks from attack from the sociologists”

    Well said. Wish I had thought of that. :)

    Redefining military history as part of the classics may be a much better route to go than trying to bang one’s head away at a wall or begging, like Citino was reduced to doing. It would also bring renewed energy and money (the DoD can start seeding this campaign with funds instead of just blindly handing over billions of dollars in grants) to the classics departments which could also use the help.

  7. I would think that for most undergraduate history courses, military history should be integrated with the general study of the time & place. If you want to understand the reasons for the fall of France in 1940, you need a good understanding of the military campaign–but you also need to know something about French politics and society at the time. If you want to understand the reasons for the Allied victory in WWII, you need to understand the military factors, but you also need to know something about mass production.

    The “jihad” against military history probably has its most direct effects in restricting the research interests of professors, and hence the subject matter of graduate courses. It is an indirect effect to reduce/eliminate the military content of undergrad courses….I would also suspect that many of these courses are weak on business history and on history of technology.

  8. If military history is so very popular I see no reason why it should be exclusively taught within the constraints of history departments dominated by lesbian eco-nazis. Obviously a well researched, well written book can reward both the reader and the author as Jared Diamond and Michael Yon demonstrate.

    Todays colleges and universities are too expensive to attend if all a person wants is an education. They ARE a very good source for job interviews and networking. And a degree does sometimes give proof that the holder has an ability to learn, although we can all name much better credentials that demonstrate learning ability.

  9. I agree with Sol. Those who want to raise the status of military history in academic circles are looking for love in all the wrong places. Academe is the next bubble waiting to burst as well as excessively capital intense for a service business. Instead, the military historians who have escaped academe should be pioneering alternatives with think tanks and organizations like NYMAS, thank you renminbi.

  10. Can we relate this topic to the difficulties faced by the US Army Human Terrain System project and the comdemnatory reaction to it by many academics?

  11. “US Army Human Terrain System”

    Eric, academics hate the Army. They don’t want it to exist. Or if does, they want it to lose. My father in law is typical. A retired philosophy professor. He has the added factor of being a Korean War vet who is militantly against US military action abroad, which he thinks is always a scam and a pointless waste of life to put money in the pockets of government contractors. Anyway, he has repetedly said that the best thing for the world would be for the USA to suffer a bloody defeat somewhere, so the public would give up on supporting the wars the Pentagon and Wall Street keep foisting on us. Then we cill cut “get rid of the Pentagon”, use all that money for health care. This will, in his view, lead to world peace, since the USA is the cause of war and conflict in the world.

    He also told me unapologetically that if he knew a candidate for a position in his department had ever voted for a Republican, that would be sufficient basis to reject that person, since it proved that the candidate lacked the intellectual and moral qualities necessary for university level research and teaching. He said that the only difference between him and the other people in his department is that some of them would not come out and say this, but they would all act the same way.

    I think these views are all pretty much retarded.

    Nonetheless, I value this insight into the mind of the American academic.

    It is also the view of damn near everyone with a teaching position at a college or university in the USA.

    Give this situation, a scholar who wants to work with the military has to burn a bridge back to the academic world as it currenty exists.

    So it appears to this outsider.

  12. “It is also the view of damn near everyone with a teaching position at a college or university in the USA. “

    Not quite. When I used to be the right-wing provocateur on H-diplo in pre-blogging days I used to get sort of fan mail from academics who agreed with me but had too much to lose from vindictive colleagues to say so in public. Ppl of moderate or conservative views in academia keep their head down, often even after they are tenured, but they do exist.

    I also received looney hate mail, but that’s another story.

  13. Well, if the folks of moderate and conservative views fear for their careers, there is precious little difference between unanimity due to belief or apparent unanimity due to professional fear.

    I had a somewhat similar experience in law school. I was the right wing provacateur. I started a branch of the Federalist society. I had a few stalwart colleagues. Then in the very last days before graduation all these other people came up and shook my hand and said they had always agreed with me, and they were glad I did what I did, but of course they could not do anything like that themselves, they didn’t have time, etc. Of course, I said, I understand. And I did.

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