Blogs > Cliopatria > Crocodile Tears For Military History: An Open Letter to John J. Miller, National Review Online

Sep 27, 2006

Crocodile Tears For Military History: An Open Letter to John J. Miller, National Review Online

Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

Dear John,

Thanks for nothing.

"Sounding Taps," your September 26 article in National Review Online, is on the surface a sympathetic lament for the supposed marginalization of academic military history. But it is constructed so tendentiously, and overlooks so many relevant facts, that it is really quite misleading.

So misleading, in fact, that you may have done more to harm academic military history than any bunch of"tenured radicals" has managed to do in many years, if ever.

Take, for example, your starting point: Wisconsin's failure to run a search to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. You say that"more than $1 million" sits in the endowment. That sounds like a lot, but it isn't. At Ohio State, the minimum needed to fund an endowed chair is $1.5 million, and even then internal funds are routinely needed to top off the chairholder's salary. Two million dollars is a more realistic figure nowadays.

You could have started with Ohio State. We do have $1.5 million sitting in a bank to fund an endowed chair in military history, and guess what? My department, which includes numerous historians of gender, class, race, and culture -- and even a historian of fashion -- voted unanimously to run a search to fill the position at the earliest possible moment. To do less, everyone understood, would have been an insult to the benefactor, General Raymond E. Mason.

Got it? Not just an endowed chair in military history, but one endowed by, and named for, a retired Army general.

That's how radical my"tenured radical" colleagues are.

Oh, I nearly forgot: a second endowed chair in military history is coming online over the next five years, through the generosity of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. Not because they're ashamed of military history, I feel obliged to add, given your genius for subtle distortion of anything that doesn't fit your agenda, but because they're modest. Fancy that.

It will not surprise you to know that many wealthy people who wish to give something back to their society are both politically conservative and often fascinated by military history. But they didn't become wealthy by making bad investments, and your article conveys the distinct message that giving money to support academic military history would be a bad investment.

Again, thanks for nothing.

My field's professional organization, the Society for Military History, has plans afoot to approach benefactors and"marry them" to receptive history departments in order to create more military history positions.

I sure hope those potential benefactors don't read National Review Online. You've given them good reason for pause. We'll urge the opportunity, they'll wave"Sounding Taps" in our face.

Thanks. For Nothing.

You concede that a few military history programs do exist, but their existence hurts the point you want to make, so you blat out the names and hurry on. One name you don't blat out is Duke University. Another is the University of North Carolina. I wonder why not? Could it be that Duke and UNC are too well known as bastions of liberalism? It's kinda awkward for your thesis that Duke and UNC have jointly created -- actually revived -- one of the best military history programs in the country. In fact, since unlike you I like to be honest in my presentation, the Duke-UNC program is as good as ours at Ohio State and arguably even a little better.

But it gets no mention at all from you. I wonder why?

Happen to have heard of COL H.R. McMaster, the Army officer who during Desert Storm won the battle of the 73 Easting and nowadays regularly makes headlines for his tough-minded, innovative approach to the Iraqi insurgency? He got his PhD from UNC, after study in the Duke-UNC military history program.

I could go on, and believe me, I will. That's the great thing about blogging -- I could never win an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel, but I have access to as many electrons as National Review Online.

Let's face it, pal. You don't give -- as my drill sergeants used to say -- a lusty crap about academic military history. Yours are crocodile tears. You'd love to see us disappear, because it would make a nice talking point in the increasingly stupid culture wars.

Well, sorry to disappoint you. Our graves ain't dug yet. And right now, the only one I see wielding a shovel is you.

Thanks. For. Nothing.

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More Comments:

Mark Grimsley - 10/3/2006

Believe me, I've been wondering the same thing.

And if the military historians who so eloquently beat their chests and rent their garments for that NRO article had exerted the same energy to find and inspire a benefactor or benefactors, maybe we wouldn't look so terminally ill that a bugler somewhere is warming up to play "Taps" over our collective grave.

I've said it before but it still amazes me: Here we have a group of men and women who spend their lives studying warriors of action, determination, and will; and yet they are all but inert when it comes to building their chosen field.

I imagine such sentiments won't make me popular. If that's the case, I guess I'll just have to get used to it. It's time someone lit a fire under these folks. Since nobody else seems to be doing it, I guess I'll have to give it a go myself. If I did otherwise, I feel as if I were breaking faith with my graduate students, most of whom would like very much to teach in an academic setting.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/3/2006

Why, I wonder, haven't a couple of pro-military history types gotten inspired by this discussion to give the money necessary? Could it be that there's less interest and support out there than we think?

Mark Grimsley - 10/2/2006

Jeff: Thanks for supplying us with this information. I notice that for a "named professorship," $30,000 is required. That's less than my starting salary when I joined my department as an assistant professor in 1992. At Ohio State, the outside funding for a named professorship supplements the internal funding, and Wisconsin seems to have the same arrangement.

The next level is "distinguished chair," which certainly sounds like an endowed chair but may or may not be. Let's make the reasonable assumption that it is. As Ralph notes, $40,000 per year, the amount the current A-H endowment could support, is roughly the present going rate for a starting assistant professor. And we're not taking into account benefits, which Wisconsin computes at 36 percent of salary.

From conversations I've had over the past few days, the estimated cost of attracting a senior scholar to fill the A-H chair is at least $100,000/year, plus $36,000/year in benefits. (A number of my distinguished collegues here at OSU make in excess of $120,000/year, and are worth every penny.) Interest from an endowment is usually computed at 5 percent per annum (I notice Wisconsin seems to compute it at 4 percent). To fully fund the A-H chair, therefore, would require $2,720,000 at 5 percent interest per annum and $3,400,000 at 4 percent.

The real question is what was the endowment amount agreed upon when the A-H chair fund was created. Here at Ohio State, the policy is to honor those agreements even if internal funds are required to pay the difference between the endowment revenue and the actual cost of salary and benefits. If Wisconsin agreed to $1 million as the size of the endowment, then it's honor bound to fill the chair. But I have so far received no indication that such was the case.

On the contrary, it appears that Ambrose hoped to solicit enough funds from alumni, friends, corporations, and foundations to top off an endowment of at least $1.5 million. He had trouble getting others to contribute, so he put in $500,000 of his own money. Adding the money contributed by others still leaves at least $500,000 yet to be raised. And it is notoriously difficult to generate such sums when, as is the case here, the late-arriving benefactors have no say over the name of the chair or the terms of the bequest. Here at Ohio State we simply would not enter into such an arrangement.

Whatever chance existed to secure the needed funds has been jeopardized, if not scuttled, by the NRO piece. Making matters worse is the tight fiscal environment at Wisconsin -- as I think I've already said, the university has suffered a net cut of $190 million in its operating budget since 2002, and six faculty positions in the Wisconsin history department have been authorized but are on hold because there are no funds available to actually hire anyone. Under these circumstances, Wisconsin cannot fill the A-H Chair without cannibalizing at least two and probably three of those six unfilled positions.

At the very least, one has to concede that the picture at Wisconsin is far more complex than "tenured radicals" arbitrarily blocking a search for the A-H Chair. Personally I think the tenured radical thesis, in this instance, is moonshine. People believe it simply because it squares with their prejudices.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/2/2006

I think it's fair to imagine that Stephen Ambrose did not envision filling the chair that he endowed at an assistant professor level. $40,000 won't pay for more than that.

Jeff Myers - 10/2/2006

With respect to this issue:

Wisconsin's failure to run a search to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. You say that "more than $1 million" sits in the endowment. That sounds like a lot, but it isn't. At Ohio State, the minimum needed to fund an endowed chair is $1.5 million, and even then internal funds are routinely needed to top off the chairholder's salary. Two million dollars is a more realistic figure nowadays.

Let's look at what Wisconsin itself recommends:


It says a Distinguished Chair requires an endowment on the order of $1 million to $2 million in order to generate a salary of $40,000 to $80,000. Thus, if the Ambrose foundation has donated over a million, then Wisconsin in fact has the minimum needed to begin a search according to its own guidelines.

I find it difficult to believe, given the vast oversupply of PhDs who are out there, that Wisconsin would be unable to fill a chair that was endowed with "only" a million and that provided a salary of "only" in the $40K range. I guess we could quibble about how "distinguished" the professor would be, but I feel sure that many worthy candidates are out there who would jump at the chance to teach at Wisconsin for "low" pay.

Mark Grimsley - 9/29/2006

Because with friends like this, my field doesn't need enemies. To repeat, Mr. Miller's original post was structured so as to make it appear as if academic military had been driven from the academy already. The title -- "Sounding Taps" -- set the tone, and the neglect or passing mention of anything that pointed to a less catastrophic picture showed that Mr. Miller was constructing a polemic. Like me, Mr. Miller is an experienced writer and he knows exactly what he's doing when he structures a column. He was trying to achieve a certain effect and that effect was unacceptably inaccurate and highly tendentious in its use of terms like "tenured radicals." I'm not apologizing for my response in the least.

"Sneering" and "obnoxious" are adjectives I'm willing to accept. "Lack of civility" gives me greater pause. As regular readers of my entries here and my individual blog are aware, I generally strive for a civil tone. In this case, though, the most I thought warranted was the avoidance of anything that abused Mr. Miller's personhood.

As for driving potential supporters away -- anyone who could be driven away by a passionately written post would not be much of an ally anyway.

Lastly, you might take a moment to consider that not all of us are so thin-skinned we can't take a good drubbing. Mr. Miller didn't cry foul at my tone; he came back swinging -- see his riposte which I myself posted on Cliopatria as "John J. Miller Strikes Back." At least one commenter thinks he mopped the floor with me. Do you think I care? NRO is a partisan political magazine, and when you respond to political partisans, especially on the blogosphere, Marquess of Queensbury rules don't apply.

Jeff Myers - 9/29/2006

It is possible to disagree without doing so in such a sneering and obnoxious manner. Lack of civility does not add power to your argument - in fact, it drives potential supporters away from your side of the issue.

Lucas Cato - 9/29/2006

Thank you for the kind words.

Lucas Cato - 9/29/2006

With perhaps the difference of a jot or a tittle here or there, yes. While I'm not persuaded that there is (or isn't) any sort of deficiency in the field as a whole, I do believe that these sorts of discussions are worth having--the ever-increasing fractionalization, marginalization, and trivialization of the fields of academe are a real and present danger, I believe. ("Fashion history" may--I repeat, MAY--be a sort-of example of this. Or not. I'll let others argue that.) But I think you have the gist right. Thanks.

Mark Grimsley - 9/29/2006

No doubt the interest is there. It doesn't necessarily require more military history specialists to address it, not if historians in other fields learn to use military history in their classes, as some already do. But it certainly is an additional reason to end this silly and destructive feud between military history and other fields, if feud is the word.

Thanks for such a gracious, constructive comment, Grant.

Mark Grimsley - 9/28/2006

I've posted both Lucas's excellent comment, and my reply, on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age. It will be published in the morning at 7 a.m. I thought his proposed agenda did not deserve to be relegated to the Cliopatria comments, especially under a post that is now over 24 hours old.

Mark Grimsley - 9/28/2006

Lucas, your thoughtful comment strikes me as mistitled. I had supposed you were going to be dismissive of the whole exchange. On the contrary, what you propose is a very sensible call for measured, constructive discussion.

I like your proposed agenda.

1) Do the skeptics have a case to make -- does military history exhibit intellectual deficiencies that would justify the belief that it deserves no more than a marginal place in academe. (You may have used "deficiency" in a different sense; that wasn't clear to me, so I apologize if I'm getting you wrong here.

2) What specific evidence do we have of hostility toward academic military history? (At conferences I frequently ask for specific anecdotes and am surprised by how frequently people who complain of an anti-military history bias cannot come up with any. But that doesn't mean others mightn't be able to do better.)

3) Given that history departments do not have an endless supply of faculty positions, what priority should milittary history enjoy relative to other fields?

4) Is there really a shortage of military historians and military history programs? How many PhDs in military history would be needed if the academy's bias against the field were to disappear? How many military history programs would be needed to supply this need?

5) Years of pissing and moaning about the state of academic military history have proven of little efficacy. What concrete steps could be taken to expand the foothold military history has within the academy?

Lucas, have I paraphrased your proposed agenda accurately?

Grant W Jones - 9/28/2006

Thanks again for another thoughtful reply. Ralph may be surprised by my saying this, but now that I think about it "fashion history" could be of great interest and importance. This is because of the importance of textiles and the fur, wool, and silk trade. Garments are also related to health and personal hygiene and the introduction of cotton was very helpful in that regard.

I just think the term "fashion history" is unfortunate as it conjures up images of Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde." Maybe there is a better term.

Perhaps we can agree that more military historians are needed for undergraduate education in the subject and its historical impact. As I previously noted, the interest is there.

Lucas Cato - 9/28/2006

Ladies and Gentlemen--greetings--

Having read Miller's piece, the responses herein, and being a recently retired faculty member, I must say that the whole thing here seems to be a matter of umbrage taken unnecessarily. I cannot discern in Miller's piece any disrespect for the field of military history, and to presume that he's trying to implement some secret plan to kill it off simply to be able to make a point about the liberal biases of academia leads straight to paranoia.

It seems that Miller's piece was incomplete, and no doubt he regrets any significant omissions--but looking upon you as persons who understand that any conveyance of facts about an event or circumstances by necessity must be limited, I would expect more understanding of this to be displayed.

The primary facts of Miller's piece seem largely correct, and while it might sound more dire than is warranted, and the root causes may be--indeed, probably are--much more complicated than any mere liberal bias, I think the topic is worth discussing; at my two previous institutions, which shall remain unnamed herein, there existed a recognized deficiency in the area of military history, and it was, and, as far as I know, remains unclear what level of priority this particular sub-field has within the respective departments.

Let's start again; is there a significant shortage of good military historians and programs in the same? If so, what might be the reasons? What can be done about them? What should be done?

Including persons from institutions (such as OSU) with strong programs and people from schools wanting to establish, resurrect, or improve programs in the field, might be both interesting and fruitful. And less hard upon the blood pressure.

Mark Grimsley - 9/28/2006

Academic military history did not arise until circa 1960. It came about, in part, because historians trained as Americanists or Europeanists became involved in the armed forces official history projects (like the Army Green Book series), and many came away with an interest in military history that led them to begin training graduate students in the field. The first real military history program, I think, was at Duke University. Theodore Ropp is perhaps the figure most closely associated with it.

John Lynn's piece, "The Embattled Future of Military History," began life as a lunch talk at the 1997 annual meeting of the Society for Military History. It reflects, in part, John's personal frustration at the time in his own department -- thus you'll note several references to occurrences within that department. But his larger purpose was to get the SMH audience on his side by intentionally playing upon the "they're out to get us," syndrome, and then hitting them with his real argument: that gender history and the new cultural history actually provide us with powerful tools to get at the core concern of military history, the experience of combat. John subsequently went on to demonstrate this point brilliantly in <em>Battle: A History of Combat and Culture</em>.

To some extent, one's optimism or pessimism re academic military history -- or for that matter, any other field or discipline -- depends upon one's own angle of vision. I'm sure my relative optimism concerning the field in its relationship to academe is partly a function of my good experiences here at Ohio State. But it must be understood that my colleagues are representative of academe, not aberrations. They have come to respect military history because we OSU military historians have also respected them. Too many military historians at other institutions, in contrast, were outspoken in their hostility to other fields and quite simply failed to be good ambassadors for military history. Ours, at the end of the day, is very much a people business. One cannot trash one's colleagues and still expect their support.

Grant W Jones - 9/28/2006

Thank you for your civil reply, Mark. The context of this discussion would be the fact that prior to WWII military history was the red-headed stepchild of the discipline. And, since the war military historians have had to fight for academic respectibilty.

If it is making headway in the contemporary academy, then great! I hope that it is.

However, nine years ago John Lynn wrote a scathing article on academic history, dealing with this very issue, in the Journal of Military History (Oct. 1997). Was he wrong at the time or have things gotten better?

Mark Grimsley - 9/27/2006

In fairness to Grant, he got "fashion history" from my post, and I made the reference because the Miller piece talks about fashion history crowding out military history.

I don't think there are any fashion historians in the sense of a distinct field. Ours -- Kate Haulman by name -- was hired as an early Americanist with a research specialization in the Atlantic world; in her case, the connections between western Europe and North America. She uses fashion as a way to get at issues concerning the diffusion of culture in the British transatlantic empire, or so I seem to recall at this (for me) late hour.

As for why Wisconsin did not replace Mac Coffman right away: Wisconsin never had a military history program in the sense of having at least two military historians, which is the usual minimum for a field. Mac himself was not hired as a military historian, if I recall correctly, but as a US historian. He managed to generate so many excellent military historians through individual collaborations with various Wisconsin faculty members -- thus Joe Glatthaar, if memory serves, was trained by Mac Coffman and Richard Sewell, a 19th century American political historian.

Thus, the department never created a position in military history; it simply accepted Mac's intellectual interest in the field. It was therefore not repudiating military history when it didn't replace Mac with another military historian. The case, then, was different than if, say, my department had decided not to replace Wick Murray when he took early retirement or Allan Millett when he retired last year. Wick's replacement was hired in 2003, and of course we're running a search this year to replace Allan. If the department were not pursuing such a plan, given its earlier creation of and commitment to a military history program, we could be said to be repudiating military history. But the situation at Wisconsin was not analogous to ours.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/27/2006

Grant, Did you bother to read Mark's two posts? Did you notice the budget-cutting to the state university? Did you notice that there are actually six positions lined up to be filled? Where did you get "fashion history"? Tell me who holds that slot at Wisconsin. When your folks cut budgets, you have to accept the fact that budgets have been cut and some positions will go unfilled -- at least for a period of time. Try to make a fool of yourself for all the world to see less often.

Grant W Jones - 9/27/2006

Why a replacement for Edward Coffman hasn't been hired in fourteen years.

If specialists in fashion history can be found, certainly most large history departments could have a military historian or two on the payroll. Student interest is there, why not provide the classes?

Mark Grimsley - 9/27/2006

Earlier this afternoon, I spoke to Prof. David McDonald at the University of Wisconsin. He tells me that I was right about the endowment -- it's big but not quite big enough. Even so, the department wanted to run a search to replace Mac Coffman this year. They couldn't get permission from the Dean, because too much internal funding would be required to make up the gap between the endowment and the necessarily salary and benefits package (at Wisconsin, the benefits are computed at 36 percent of salary).

Another problem is that over the past four years, the University of Wisconsin has absorbed a net cut of $190 million in state funding. That makes it even more difficult to do new hiring, and the Wisconsin history department has six other faculty slots that need to be filled.

BTW, there's a rumor to the effect that the department was balking because of the plagiarism allegations concerning a couple of Ambrose's last books, and thus it didn't want to have a chair named, in part, for Ambrose. In fact, Ambrose himself hoped to create a Hesseltine Chair, but could not get much help with the funding. He wound up pouring in so much of his own money that the department made it the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair in honor of his generosity.

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 9/27/2006

Great post, Mark!

I would add that it is possible that Wisconsin has already commenced a search, but because it's a senior-level hire it will almost certainly involve poaching someone from somewhere else, so they would be understandably reluctant to discuss it. And, as we all know, hiring can get messy and complicated in ways that no one would like to discuss with a rag like the NRO.

I'll also add that just because a university doesn't have a military history class doesn't mean that military history isn't taught at those places. I'm teaching the American Revolution this semester, and I have a string of classes called "Citizen Soldiers," "The War in the North, Part I," "The War in the North, Part II," and "The War in the South--A Civil War?" all of which will be military history lectures/discussions. I tried to work in a naval history session, but if I'm to cover other really important topics, like, say, the Constitution, I had to draw the line somewhere.

Manan Ahmed - 9/27/2006

And this one sure is nice.