In the Line of Historical Fire: Military Historians at the AHA

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For the military historian, war is by no means a blessing. Sure it may produce source material for a new book, but it also probably means that people will attempt to put your research (which may or may not be relevant) into the framework of a current war. It means demands on your time that probably won’t advance your standing among historians. Of course, a war may also make your research more relevant than ever before, as Linn has found.

When historians gathered this weekend in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, military historians organized a session to talk about their unusual situation right now. Panelists included historians who work in academe and those who work in the military — all of whom said they face credibility issues. Those in academe must contend with those in the military who think they are scandal-mongers or irrelevant, and with academic colleagues who question whether they are sufficiently critical of the military. And scholars in the military — even those with solid publication records — face questions from academics about whether they are legitimate.

For military historians, a war is at the very least a chance to get some attention. In the history field as a whole, war history (like diplomatic history) is not a hot field. At the AHA session, which drew a full house, the audience appeared older and was notably more male than the average session. Phrases like “war against terrorism” were used repeatedly, without air quotes. It would be unfair to characterize the panel as pro-war, however, and some of the comments were quite damning of the Bush administration (although in understated ways).

Mark Stoler, a professor of history at the University of Vermont, said that the good military historian must constantly “shatter myths” — while shifting among audiences. Stoler, who said he considers himself both a military and diplomatic historian, said he has three audiences: students, the public, and the military.

Members of all of those audiences turn to military history hoping that it will “offer a redemption story,” and most of the time it doesn’t, Stoler said. “I tell people, if you want a redemption story, go to church, go to synagogue.”...

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