Historians' panel at the AHA centers on what it takes to write good military history.

Historians in the News
tags: military history, AHA2016



It’s an old question: Does one have to have military experience to write and teach military history? Panelists at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, all of them military veterans and academics, offered fresh perspectives on the matter here Thursday. And while their responses differed somewhat, a common thread emerged: strong evidence and scholarship and -- hopefully -- good writing should matter more than personal insight.

Aaron O’Connell, an associate professor of U.S. military cultural history at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps, had the strongest reaction, saying the “‘he or she hasn’t served’ arguments are largely a symptom of a broader problem in the historical profession today.” Namely, he said, there's “overemphasis on questions of identity and authenticity, which tie the quality of the scholarship to the background of the author” -- rather than the quality of the writing and the research.

Just as one shouldn’t have to be gay to write a history of gay Americans or a woman to do women’s history, he argued, “if you think personal experience is an essential criterion for doing history, then you invalidate any inquiry into a period before your own life experience.” He called for an end to such arguments, lest historians be reduced to memoirists.

Illustrating his point, O’Connell detailed a conversation he’d had with Harvard University Press leading up to the publication of Underdogs in 2012. Whereas he’d clearly indicted that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve inside the book, he said, the press wanted that biographical detail on the outside, ostensibly to sell more copies.

Ron Milam, the panel’s moderator and a professor of military history at Texas Tech University, said he’d had a similar discussion with the publisher of his book on junior U.S. officers in the Vietnam War. The press wanted to indicate it provided an “inside” view, based on Milam’s military service, he said, but a colleague warned that promoting a book as a memoir might hurt his chances at tenure. The press prevailed. But Not a Gentleman's War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War still helped Milam still earn tenure. ...




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