A Columbia professor is alarmed that academics are neglecting military history

Historians in the News
tags: education, military history



War defines the United States. Domestically, it is the country’s greatest budgetary priority: $598 billion, 54 per cent of discretionary spending, in the fiscal year 2015. Globally, we have more than 800 bases in some 80 countries, and spend more than the next nine nations combined. Yet academic historians, especially those at the nation’s most richly endowed research universities, largely ignore the history of the US military. This year, historians at the Ivy League schools, plus Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – who collectively offered instruction on hundreds of scintillating subjects from Puritan New England to women in the workforce – provided just six that directly examined the US military.

This is a tragedy. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon observed. Insofar as we neglect to study our military, we reduce our ability to understand it, and weaken ourselves.

I am not a disinterested observer. Since 2011, when I received my PhD in history from Columbia University, I have taught a course called ‘Empire of Liberty: A Global History of the US Military’ on and off at the university during the summers – a survey of ideas and events from King Philip’s War in 1675 to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It surprised me to discover that this was the first course on the history of the US military in many years at Columbia. It startled me even more to learn that there is little research into the history of military power at elite US universities (themselves key players, ironically, in the story: Columbia and the University of Chicago gave us atomic weapons, Harvard invented napalm, and MIT and others are major military research centres). In fact, academics nationwide often dismiss military history as the home of fetishists of suffering and antiquarians obsessed with swords, muskets and battlefield tours.

‘This gets discovered about every 10 to 15 years,’ said Brian McAllister Linn, a history professor at Texas A&M University, and a past president of the Society for Military History. In a 2007 review of the field for the prominent professional journal American Historical Review, Robert Citino, from the University of North Texas, wrote that military history’s ‘academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities’.

Vietnam-era anti-military protests, and a devotion to operational specifics by some military historians, are the most frequently cited explanations for this neglect. ‘Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,’ the senior officer George S Patton told the Third US Army in 1944. This apparently extends to history departments. ‘We’re kind of operating still in the wake of the Vietnam War. Many academics were seared by that experience. They haven’t wanted to have anything to do with war and conflict, and link any study with condoning war or conflict,’ Tami Davis Biddle, who teaches at the US Army War College, said in an interview. ...




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