Zenpundit had a recent post critiquing the academic jihad against military history, and I responded, citing to an article by the excellent military historian Robert M. Citino. (I strongly suggest you read all his books, no kidding, especially this and <a href=”this and this and this. They are all superb.)
Looked at from the perspective of what the academics are doing, it sure looks bleak. But that is only part of the picture. I believe it is an increasingly irrelevant part of the picture. In fact, I don’t know how much good it would do to have the current population of academia teaching this history. They may well do more harm than good. I got a kick out of the story of the history professor who knew only two things about the American role in World War II: The internment of the Japanese and the atomic bombings, both of course presented as American crimes. That would be funny if it were not nausea-inducing, and if my tax money weren’t paying for it. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Of course, academics are supposed to be a very superior breed of person, capable of appreciating subtlety and nuance and complexity and the tangled ambiguity of the world that poor stupid conservatives like me cannot grasp, yadda yadda — unless it is an opportunity to make the USA the villain of the drama. Then a boneheaded bit of simplistic propaganda will do the trick. Cutting a few factual corners to make sure the students get the proper indoctrination is all to the good in that universe.
But let us turn our backs on this sorry scene, and look to two specific areas that seem far more hopeful.
First, as Prof. Citino noted, military history is very popular with the public. The late Stephen Ambrose’s books fall into this category, to pick one obvious example. While not necessarily saturated profound new insights, his books are decent and may lead readers to more challenging works. Moreover, there are a huge number of high quality books of military history being published all the time. Clearly, someone is reading this stuff.
To get an idea of the volume and quality of this river of reading material, check out just the books the military itself reviews.
I always look at the book review sections of the various military publications, such as Parameters, Military Review, Joint Forces Quarterly , Air and Space Power Journal, Naval War College Review, Pointer: Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, Canadian Military Journal, Australian Defense Journal, and various others.
There is a deluge of high-quality military history being produced, and the professional journal reviewers are only scratching the surface. The “books received” sections are always far, far longer than the books reviewed.
The reviewers in these journals are selecting books that will have relevance and value for a demanding, professional audience. A good review in one of these sources is a solid sign that the book is worth reading.
So, despite the academic opposition, these books are being produced, in quantity, and are at least reaching a military audience.
Similarly, if you look at any issue of The Journal of Military History there is a huge number of book reviews in each issue. (It is worth joining the Society of Military History just to get the four journals published annually, primarily for the book reviews.)
Several publishers specialize in producing very good works of military history. I will mention only one here, since I have so many books from them: The University Press of Kansas. which publishes, inter alia books by Col. David M. Glantz, the foremost expert on the Soviet war effort in World War II..
There is nothing wrong with the supply side.
Furthermore, the military has recommended reading lists composed of high quality books. The U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List, The U.S. Marine Corps Professional Reading Program, U.S. Air force Professional Reading Program, U.S. Navy Professional Reading Program. The Australian Chief of the Army has a very interesting list (the official link is not working). There is also the unofficial list on the
Small Wars Journal site.
The point here is that the real, warfighting military takes professional reading seriously, and most of it is composed of military history. The current academic pose may be that “lessons from history” are illusory. People who have to go in harms way know better. Sometimes the only way to see through the fog of war is to know what happened in the past under similar circumstances. It is a Hell of a lot better than nothing.
Furthermore, the web is saturated with military history sites for interested non-professionals, i.e. neither soldiers nor academics. One example of this is the excellent World War One site of the Western Front Association, which has a very good book review section. There are many more like this, covering all possible areas of military history. Many of them are very well done.
The state of military history, thankfully, does not rest exclusively or even primarily on the academic community. The demand for high-quality military history from the professional military community, and interested civilians, is so great that it can survive with only the grudging interest that the academic community currently gives it. Given the state of the academy in this year of grace 2008, this area of study is probably better off keeping some distance from the intellectual corruption which is unfortunately so pervasive. Military history is too important to be wholly taken over entirely by the current crop of academics.
The downside is that students don’t get exposed to it in a classroom setting.
But anyone with any interest in these issues whatsoever has a treasure trove of material easily available.
In other words, things aren’t so bad, really.
UPDATE: this is the working link for the Australian Army reading list. It is a long document, with commentary. Very interesting list, as well as comments.
UPDATE II: Further thoughts here.