New appeal to "Bring Back Military History"

Historians in the News
tags: military history



Aaron B. O’Connell is a cultural historian of the military at the United States Naval Academy. His second book, Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.

Fifty years ago this month, the New Left journal Ramparts broke a story that would reshape universities across the nation in ways both good and bad. In "The University on the Make [or how MSU helped arm Madame Nhu]," Warren Hinckle, Robert Scheer, and Sol Stern gave a detailed exposé of Michigan State University’s Vietnam Advisory Group — a $25-million taxpayer-funded program that sent advisers to arm and train South Vietnam’s police and paramilitary forces, all under the banal label of "technical assistance." (The program, which ran from 1954 to 1962, was also a cover for the CIA.) The article closed with a question that laid bare how far the university had strayed from its educational mission during the Cold War: "What the hell is a university doing buying guns, anyway?"

Subsequent evidence of collaborations between the military and academe led to student strikes and violence across America. In 1968 students occupied Columbia’s Low Library after learning of the university’s partnership with the Institute for Defense Analysis, funded by the Defense Department. In 1970 student terrorists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison bombed the school’s Army Mathematics Research Center, killing a researcher and wounding three others. Elsewhere, protests on campuses led to soldiers; at Kent State University, National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed students and wounded nine.

These events, and the Vietnam War that produced them, led to a divorce between academe and the armed forces. ROTC programs disappeared from many campuses, in many cases for decades, because the military discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation — an argument that was sound on the merits but which increased the separation between the military and academe, denying colleges the perspectives of those students for whom ROTC was the only path to an education.

In retrospect, rejecting classified military cooperation and banning ROTC for discrimination were good decisions, but like many divorces, the one between the military and the academy went too far. In the years after Vietnam, most of the nation’s best universities also abandoned the scholarly study of military affairs, and military history in particular, even though student demand for the courses remained high. When the historian John A. Lynn surveyed the state of the field in 2008, he found that just four of the 91 top-ranked Ph.D.-granting history departments in America had programs in military history. His examination of 150 issues of the American Historical Review, flagship journal of the American Historical Association, revealed a similar neglect of military affairs. When a distinguished military historian retired from Purdue University in 1999, his department declined to hire another one, because (as recounted by Lynn) the department chair felt that "there was no social purpose to the study of military history."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Wars and militaries do far more than topple governments and redraw maps ­— though those actions are obviously important; after all, it was a war that finally ended chattel slavery in the American South. They also wreck and rescue economies, spur scientific discovery, and redefine labor relations. They alter the built environment and our day-to-day lives: Think of Levittown, the highway system, the Internet, and penicillin. They redefine race, class, and gender hierarchies and change the narratives we use to understand ourselves and our countries’ roles in the world. And wars erase as many narratives as they produce. If the first casualty of war is truth, then one of the few groups preventing such casualties, or at least naming them when they occur, are scholars who study the military….




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