Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh: Why Military History Matters: Another Perspective

Roundup: Talking About History

[Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh teaches military history at the U.S. Naval Academy.]

Sometimes I think military historians fret too much about our relationship with academic colleagues uninterested and unsympathetic to the sorts of issues that exercise us (for some good meditations on the issue, I would direct readers to look at a recent issue of Historically Speaking), but more of us could follow Mark Grimsley’s lead in trying to engage with our colleagues in different sub-disciplines, who might sometimes be skeptical of the value of military historians carving out their own intellectual and professional space. Otherwise, there is a risk that military history becomes the exclusive domain of either scholars affiliated with the national security state (including myself) or those reliant on the financial support of the broader reading public. Academics too frequently sneer at these alternative means of support, but the university remains the most intellectually coherent arena for historical scholarship, and military historians should at least attempt to maintain a presence in the ivory tower.

Those unsympathetic to military history sometimes grumble that military historians simply posit the importance of military history as its own sub-discipline, with its own internal standards of scholarly value, depending in part on a mastery of distinct forms of military knowledge — defined around “operational” issues (i.e. historical topics that focus either directly on the fighting and violence that occurs in war, or issues closely related to that violence, as opposed to other topics such as the social composition of armies, gender views among combatants, etc.). First off, military historians have in the past made attempts to argue for the importance of events such as battles — for example, James McPherson’s argument for important turning points during the American Civil War, which argue that certain battles could have turned out differently, leading to significantly different historical outcomes. This is a classic counterfactual argument, and one also used by allied (and increasingly scarce) practitioners of political and diplomatic history.

While sympathetic to this argument, I would like to add another one to the mix. Military history must by necessity remain a distinct sub-field, with its own distinctive body of knowledge and methods to master, because war itself represents a peculiar and distinctive form of human activity, focused above all else on a socially abnormal use of violence that larger societies both glorify and condemn. The presence of substantial social backing makes war different from criminal activity, but the presence of multiple combatants with differing views of whose war is more legitimate requires a resolution that in large part depends on which party can better mobilize the violent tools of coercion. Furthermore, the strengths and weaknesses of both the human body and psyche adds a material basis to war, which in turn requires military historians to have at least some familiarity with the technical qualities of weapons systems and the most efficient methods and organizations for using those tools of war, with methods and organization usually being the more important (and difficult to understand) issue.

Just as we expect historians of science and technology to know something about fields of intellectual inquiry that produce and use knowledge grounded in distinctive professions, and whose knowledge is grounded to some degree in fixed material realities, military historians must know something about the peculiar profession of war in their respective historical eras. Whatever the cultural peculiarities of a specific historical era, or the social demographics of an army operating in that milieu, that army remains bound to certain material necessities—an edged weapon slashing a throat or a bullet entering the heart will take a soldier out of the fight, whatever his (or her) place in the classic trinity of academic Americanists—race, class, and gender. Take too many soldiers out of the fight and an army collapses, which in turn has effects on larger cultures and societies. And never mind the important issues of military administration and logistics.

Even the most powerful extra-military forces find themselves distended and shaped by the peculiar logic of wartime organizations and the more material forms of military necessity. All sorts of factors will bring two contending military forces into the field, some which have nothing to do with the distinctly military issues I’m concerning myself with, but once those forces take the field, military dynamics begin to make themselves felt in profound ways.

In my own work, I argue that Civil War Era Americans would rather have fought the Civil War with armies led by citizen-soldier politicians, but found themselves reliant on West Point trained veterans of the antebellum regular army due to questions of professional competence. Furthermore, the same example shows that military organizations can create their own peculiar social and cultural systems, and cannot be reduced to the larger societies from which they come. This in turn affected all sorts of important historical phenomena of interest to non-military historians, such as the length of the war (which helped lead to emancipation) and the absence of a coordinated Confederate reliance on insurgent tactics.

In short, should military historians dominate the larger profession? Of course not. But there does need to be some sort of distinctive and separate intellectual space for military historians to operate in, where practitioners can acquire a sufficient familiarity with the peculiarities of the military experience, and it would be preferable if that space included a presence in civilian academe, as opposed to an exclusive presence in the national security state and the world of commercial publishing. For me at least, it’s a point of concern that in a recent 2005 survey, only 1.9 percent of historians at four-year post-secondary institutions self-identified as “military historians.”

comments powered by Disqus