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.