Blogs > HNN > Military History and the Academy

Jun 25, 2004 11:43 am

Military History and the Academy

Recently, a blogger at Cliopatria who is interested in the everyday lives of people in the past wrote a post calling for some historical work on menstruation. No problem there. How people in the past have dealt with menstruation is an interesting topic that can probably tell us a great deal about gender relationships in the past. But, not to pick on the blogger David Lion Salmanson for a bit of hyperbole, the post included some thoughts on summer reading:"There are some summer reading lists for history floating around at other websites, but I'm not going to link to them because I think they are very boring, more wars, and presidents, and that kind of thing. Really, how many books on the Civil War can people read before they say,"Hey, maybe something else happened in American History?""

I responded at Big Tent (then at Cliopatria). A small discussion ensued (see the comments), one that largely turned to issues of contingency and military history. As almost always happens in such cases, all of a sudden everyone had a strong opinion on decisive battles, George Washington as a military commander, and how the Civil War turned out the way it did, etc. I know comments on a weblog are a very limited format, and obviously the debaters were writing off the cuff, so I will not get into details about the myriad problems with the views expressed in the debate. Although the commenters (commentators?) made solid points, from the perspective of an academically trained military historian the discussion was shocking for its simplicity. I'm picking on these guys a bit unfairly, they are perfectly capable and intelligent people who have the right and ability to comment on a wide variety of topics, but that discussion and where it began are representative of a larger problem in the historical profession. For other examples see historian of populism and progressivism (and a damn good one) Michael Kazin's recent piece on American exceptionalism and war. Or one that particularly grates me: the insistence of cultural and film historians to dismiss haughtily the multi-ethnic platoon in World War II movies as a cliché or propaganda or both. Try again. Even a superficial reading of the work by military historians on the World War II fighting man, or a perusal of a few memoirs from the era, would reveal that in this case, at least, Hollywood got it right.

The problem is that there simply are not enough military historians working in the American academy. Caveat: I am a military historian who will be on the job market this year, so I have just the tiniest bias. That said, the point stands. Military affairs, including wars, are a key component to the history of humankind. At some point every historian has to (or at the very least should) deal with some component of military history in their research, writing, and teaching. In teaching, especially, it is unavoidable. I suspect that is the reason why so many historians who otherwise avoid military affairs always seem to chime in with partially informed opinions when issues of war come up. Any sizable history department worth its salt should have a military historian around just to help keep his or her colleagues more informed on such a central issue.

That has not been the case. In fact, much to the horror of academic military historians, as some of the most eminent scholars in the field have retired over the last twenty-five years, some of the most eminent universities in the country have seen fit not to replace them with military historians at all. The University of Michigan has not had a permanent military historian on staff since John Shy retired. Nor did the University of Wisconsin replace Edward"Mac" Coffman when he left Madison, and it has taken a sizable contribution from Stephen Ambrose to lead to an as yet unfilled chair in military history there. More recently, the issue came up at Yale with some of its junior faculty. Temple, Kansas State, Texas A&M, North Carolina/Duke (they have a joint program), and Ohio State (the evil empire, grrrr) are notable exceptions in the profession, but too many of the top schools have no one who deals primarily with military history.

I'm going to try not to rehash the arguments already out there on this issue--like, for example, this one from Cliopatria's KC Johnson--partially because I think political bias is only part of the story. Something else is going on with military history. It is pretty clear that the success of many military history books with popular audiences has worked against academic military historians. David Salmanson's original post hinted as much. Popular reading lists and the shelves at popular book stores are filled with tomes on war. But I'll let everyone in on a little secret, some academic military historians might write some books for popular audiences (or books that become popular) but those types of works are only a tiny fraction of what academic military historians do. Take a look at this reading list from Duke and this one from Ohio State (grrrr)--not too many best sellers there. And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the specialized and obscure works that every academic military historian has to grapple with in order to master the field.

Of course in part it is our own fault. Military historians have at times been far too caught up in the traditional end of our field--discussions of battles from the perspective of generals. We have not done the best job in explaining how the importance of military affairs extends far beyond the battlefield. But the effort is underway, and has been for twenty-five years, to broaden military history to include all manner of discussions on race, class, gender, social life, cultural issues, memory, and politics. (Still, since when has the standard for fields addressing issues in the past in an academic setting been how well the practitioners of one field explain the importance of that field to all other fields? That is a pretty high standard to which to hold military historians, especially considering that it is patently obvious how important wars have been to history without even broadening the field.) But in any case, we have broadened our work, even while much of the rest of the profession has narrowed theirs. The result of this trend? A separation of historians into narrow tracks that has caused all of us to miss some of the most important aspects of American history in the last 150 years.

Think about this for a second: David Salmanson made a great case for the importance of slow change over time based on the everyday lives of people in the past, and I agree, yet it took a sociologist in Theda Skocpol to finally discuss the importance of veteran’s pensions after the Civil War. Worse, there are no, zero, published comprehensive academic studies on the G.I. Bill. (Michael Bennett is a journalist, Keith Olson's book deals with the schools, and there has been a recent dissertation on the topic at the University of Chicago but I do not know its publication status.) There are no academic studies that deal specifically with the question of the role African-American veterans of World War II and the Korean War played in the civil rights movement. No one has seen fit to explain why it was that the veterans of World War II raised the generation of whom so many opposed the Vietnam War, the results of which we face all the time. Talk about everyday lives.

We are missing a huge chunk of our past because the specific and important skill-sets of academic military historians do not have enough of a voice in the academy. It is a trend that must stop. Hire military historians (like, you know, me). Then we'll talk about where and how the United States won the Civil War.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tom Bruscino - 7/2/2004

I enjoy ancient history a great deal and try to read up on it as often as I can, but I do not know Drews' work. At first glance his arguments look interesting, but they do look like they have a lot of technological determinism in them, something military historians like Victor Davis Hanson, Jeremy Black, and John Lynn, among many others, have been trying to jettison for quite a while. Having not read the books I won't aim criticism at Drews, but technological determinism is one of the things that military historians have done in the past that simplified and thus hurt the field in the academy.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/2/2004

I'm not sure this counts as "military history", but if it does, then it certainly takes into account the broader effects of the military on history. I'm referring to the works of Robert Drews, the classicist, who has written two books (often said to fall in the category of the military technological determinism), relating widespread events and processes to military innovation.

The first is The Coming of the Greeks, where he marshals archeological, linguistic, cultural, and military technological facts to suggest that the Greeks were part of a wave of chariot-borne warrior elites that came out of the Central Asia/Caucasus region (if I remember correctly). One thing he cited blew me out of my chair: the Vedic ritual known as the Ashvamehda, and the early Roman ritual of the October Horse (so early, there is no precise dating to it's introduction, suggesting it goes way, way back, perhaps to the beginning of Latium or before) are identical!! In each, a two-horse chariot race was held annually, and the right-side horse of the winning team was sacrificed to the war god. I hadn't known that such specific cultural practices could be found in common that stretched virtually across the entire Indo-European domain (even across the major early linguistic divisions of PIE).

The other is his book, The End of the Bronze Age, where he marshals a large body of evidence to suggest that the introduction of the Naue II Type sword upset the power monopoly of centralized kingdoms with large chariot armies, empowering roaming minorities that brought on the catastrophe at the end of the Bronze Age.

Tom Bruscino - 6/30/2004

Thanks Ben. I couldn't agree more. I was reading books about D-Day, Leyte Gulf, and the Flying Tigers when I was a little kid, and my interest in history only grew from there. We might not be the best sample, but I think you do have a point about military history being a gateway for interest into other areas. I see it right now in some of the classes I teach. My military history classes are into lectures on battles no matter how good or poor the presentation, but it seems like no matter how much I try to get them fired up about the progressive era, students can't seem to muster a lot of enthusiasm.

The point should be made again: all kinds of non-military topics are perfectly interesting and exciting, but it takes a certain background knowledge to get to the level where students can understand how and why they they are interesting and exciting. Military history can be a great way to get students to want to develop that background knowledge. Lots of departments could benefit from that working relationship.

Ben H. Severance - 6/30/2004


An excellent piece, one I am in strong agreement with. The reason there are so many books on the Civil War is that there is a huge audience for the subject. The reason there are so few studies on say family structures in Colonial America is that very few people are interested in such a topic. Not that social-cultural history is dull, it is actually quite fascinating, but rather for most people a curiosity for history begins with gunfire. As a boy, I was drawn to military history because of the seeming excitement and intensity of the action involved. Accordingly, I plunged into the Civil War. As I matured intellectually (a presumption on part perhaps), I discovered that there was much more going on beyond the battlefield. Today, my scholarship focuses primarily on the Reconstruction period, which I consider a militant extension of the Civil War. But twenty years ago, my perception of Reconstruction was that of a turgid and boring political episode. My point is that the military story proved a natural starting place for my academic journey.

Wars are excellent topics from which to examine cause and effect, human motivation and agency, and social organization. Using the battle of Gettysburg as a starting point, a good teacher will eventually branch out into all aspects of 19th Century America. Could one do the same by starting with say the Walker Tariff or the Pendleton Act or the Temperance Movement? And who is even initially drawn to history by these latter three events?

The case for military history could be presented more broadly by including it as the center piece of "violence history." Let's face it, conflict and violence attract students and readers. Wars, bloody strikes (e.g., Homestead), slave revolts (e.g., Nat Turner), race riots (e.g., Memphis 1866), vigilante activity (e.g., KKK or Shays's Rebellion), assasinations (e.g., JFK), etc... Once one is baptized in the bloodletting of American history then they will be purified to see the light of labor meeting minutes, barbie doll manufacturing, and frontier butter-churning.

Tom Bruscino - 6/28/2004

I knew the name sounded familiar. I wouldn't call Lotchin a military historian per se. He seems to me to be a historian of California who focuses on the state in relation to defense. His work certainly meshes with a lot of military history, and I wouldn't bar him from any military history conferences. He calls himself an urban and western historian at the UNC site. I've used the essay by the late George Pozzetta out of his "The Way We Really Were" book in my dissertation research.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/27/2004

Lochtin wrote a book called Fortress California on the rise of the defense industry in Cali going back to the turn of the century. It is boring as all hell but full of good insights. The situation you describe seems a bit like the situation in Environmental History where the non-US, US divide is pretty big and also carries over as well. I contacted a couple of Cold War themed conferences that weren't specifically culture of the cold war stuff and the organizers told me not to waste my time, the were interested in more traditional themes. At least one of these was a "multi-disciplinary" effort which meant historians and political scientists and it was pretty clear that the conference was really "Rational Choice and the Cold War" despite whatever the title was. I've had less success than you and Jonathan although I still have gotten into every conference I've applied to the first time. Not so successful with second papers.

Tom Bruscino - 6/27/2004

I'd be interested in what military history conferences you contacted. The Society for MIlitary History is pretty selective, but beyond that I've found that, like Jonathan Dresner talked about over at Cliopatria, most conferences seem willing to accept just about everything. You do make a solid point. Like many disciplines, military history can be pretty clubbish. I think what makes military history a bit worse than some on that note is the strange divide in the field between non-Americans (awkward term, I know, but the group is made up especially of Brits, Canadians, and Australians) doing military history and Americans doing military history. The former group, which has a much larger and more secure role in schools in Britain, Canada, and Australia, can afford to be more provincial. And they can often be dismissive of other historians and even American military history generally. Some American military historiansrun with that crowd, and they seem to be the ones who are less accessible. The strongest refuge for Americans doing military history is in Civil War history, and although those guys gather together in their corner at the Southern every year, they are generally much more open.

I'm sorry, I do not know who Roger Lochtin [spelling?] is, so I can't comment on your question. As far as Gray goes, The Warriors is still on one or both of those reading lists I linked, and I've found it to be full of insights on men in combat in World War II. Gray's greatest contribution, it seems to me, is when he argued that the three “secret attractions of war [were] the delight in seeing, the delight in comradeship, the delight in destruction," a lesson that is all too forgotten by historians of men in combat who focus all of their attention on comradeship. Why is asking if I would use it in a class a loaded question? I probably would not use it since it is both out of print and pretty narrowly confined to World War II, but it would make any graduate reading list I put together for military history.

When I taught 20th century American Military History last quarter the books I used were James Morris, America's Armed Forces (an excellent textbook, actually a great read); Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace (to give them some insight on the smaller wars that were outside the main narrative of the class); Peter Kindsvatter, American Soldiers (a book that gets more done that Gray's--I talked about this one in my discussion with Ralph); and Charles Heller and William Stofft, America's First Battles (interesting in showing how well prepared Americans have been for war over the years).

As far as the blueprint for success goes, I'm working on it, and so are some other young'ns in the field. I guess we'll see what we can do.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/26/2004

Geez, Tom. You had to do this when 1st my mother-in-law visits and then I had to go to my own mothers to help her out. And you had to go and post this wonderful post! Yet let me separate out a couple of different issues. First, let me say that, because I don't have access to a University library I spend a lot of time hunting around the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders. You wouldn't believe how many folks there not only buy military history but only buy specific wars (Civil War, Vietnam, World War 2, World War 1, in approximately that order). I should have lamented that plenty of interesting wars (my favorite is the Mexican-American) go uncovered by this crowd. This is different, however, in terms of decline of military history as an academic discipline. As a Western Historian I know all to well the problems of working in a "popular" discipline. I actually see many parallels between military history now and Western History two decades ago when the field was declared dead. Then along came Richard White, Bill Cronon, Ramon Gutierrez, Patty Limerick and a host of others that reinvigorated the field and then all of a sudden every major department needed a western historian. I think military history is on the verge of the big comeback. I know at Michigan people loved John Shy, loved him. But there were other military historians around who had tenure who were not all that good and quite frankly not nice to other people in the department, especially younger scholars many of whom happened to be women. So Michigan is kind of holding out until they can find another John Shy (they did the same thing with their 20th century senior hire for years, I'm still not sure if they filled it, although it was offered to a couple of people who turned them down). I do think military historians tend to be a little closed to outsiders and that doesn't help the case. I say this having a) worked on a museum exhibit about the army in the American Revolution and b) written a dissertation on the Cold War in New Mexico. I went to SHAFER and was warmly received, after a couple of tries with military history conferences, I couldn't even find ones that seemed remotely interested and stopped looking. Uranium mining was an important part of the Cold War in really concrete ways and yet the conferences I looked at didn't even seem to suggest that such topics would be welcomed. I'm talking outreach here Tom. Military historians need to do it big time.
I have a couple of questions. First, is Roger Lochtin a military historian? Second, what do people think of Gray's The Warriors these days? Third, would you use it as the key text in a course on twentieth-century American wars? (Ok that was loaded, but like I said, the other military historian at Michigan was not liked for a wide variety of reasons).
I'm with you on this Tom, twenty years ago, I was arguing in high school term papers that the Korean War was absolutely essential to the origins of Rock and Roll. I think writing good military history is among the hardest tasks in the profession to pull off. I just wish I didn't have to wade through so much crap to find it.
And yeah, we all know certain historians that need to read it to get a clue. But seriously, look at what happened with Western History and follow the blueprint they laid out. Step one, claim nearly anything remotely related is part of your discipline.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/26/2004

O.K., I confess. The military historian to whom I earlier referred was my second department chairman. We loathed each other. I didn't realize how my rants at home were dominated by irritation with him until my daughter named one of her dolls for him. I abducted the doll and devoted it to Caribbean rites involving pins, mountain oysters, garlic, frogs, and snake venom. His favorite Civil War general was Sherman. Ruined my taste for General Sherman.
The basic issue between us was that I didn't respond positively when he ordered me to vote for particular candidates for positions in our department. Being a military historian, he considered that insubordination. Being your standard issue academic, I considered that doing my duty to vote for the candidate I regarded as best qualified.
dc, I share your computer grief. No sooner had mine recovered from a vicious adware/spyware attack than my ethernet card got fried by brownouts. I'm $650 the poorer for all of it.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/26/2004

Ralph -
We all hope that Tom gets a good job. (Actually, I hope that he ends up begging on the streets, giving handjobs for crack and generally acting like every other Browns fan out there. But I digress.) We also, I hope, know that comparing the status of Civil Rights historians and military historians in this market is, well, it is what it is (C'mon -- admit that much? I may have put you in an uncomfortable position by coming after you earlier, perhaps too aggressively [moi?] but if you had a grad student who was weighing two options -- military history or civil rights, and they were equally adroit at both, and you liked the student, which would you steer them toward?).
As for military historians not seeing a war they didn't like -- I cited the historians earlier -- Wiegley, Keenan, Coffman, Ambrose were among them -- none of them has been anything other than clear about their belief that war should be used only in the most limited circumstances, but when used, it should be used effectively. Lives are at stake, after all, and they know this better than others, just as you and I know what price civil rights activists faced for their "apostasy." (By the way -- would someone punch me in the face for using the scare quotation marks?) It is why we admire them. Our argument of slight difference -- which is about historiography, more than history, I would propose -- is just that. I know well enough to know that you are at least to a degree simply putting out a challenge that I do think Tom needs to address, if only because my knowledge of Tom's views is not sufficient for a public forum in which others do not know those views. But the problem is that much of the military "history" (left cross this time, please, so my jaw hurts on both sides) that Tom is implicitly being asked to address is precisely the stuff that Tom opposes. It's not fair to burden him with crap any more than it is fair to hold us responsible for Halberstam. Right? Then again, I guess Halberstam's stuff is out there and we have to address it, if only to debunk (and then Rebunk -- solipsism alert!) it.
By the way -- as I write this I am almost literally weeping. I just wrote a 2000 word piece on my experiences here in Caretta that got swallowed by a wretchedly bad computer system, that I stayed up until 4:00 in the am writing, and that cannot be recovered. It had nothing to do with military history, one of my much more sensitive than I colleagues read it and loved it, and I will never be able to recapture it. At least my much nicer than me colleague just said "it was quite beautiful." Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much, especially as I feel as if my writing on this NEH experience has not been all that good.
I just hope that even if the comments are not coming, people are reading this, weighing the arguments, and taking serious military history seriously. I'd rather have them agreeing with you even if I do think that Tom is playing Sherman and kicking a little Georgia ass, just because this time the Georgia folks come at it with their hearts and heads in the right place. Georgia seems to have risen from the ashes. So too, Ralph, my friend, in some degree my mentor, do I believe that we'll all escape unscathed. Unlike in real military history, both sides here can be on the side of angels, and the body counts should be relatively low.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/26/2004

I haven't the faintest idea whose ass dc thinks is getting a big kick out of this, but tb will continue to labor under the burden of suspicion that military historians never saw a war they didn't like, just as civil rights historians labor under the burden of never having seen a righteous and winning cause they didn't love. Have I been clear about the fact that I hope tb gets a good job?

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/26/2004

Tom. Is. Kicking. Ass.
It's nice to be part of a world in which knowing stuff matters.
My apologies for spelling "Coffman" "Kaufman" earlier. I am clearly retarded.
Nonetheless, I hope we've removed this "cheerleaders of war" trope.
Tom wins. Let's move on. Or let's not. This is good stuff. And in the only world I care about, good friends and good folks can disagree vehemently. Can even be smartasses. And I think the military historians who are good should get jobs. But that's just me. (It's just me who happens to be right, but if you're reading Tom's stuff and don't get that, I bet you may be part of my last department.)

Ralph E. Luker - 6/26/2004

It's pitiful, isn't it?

Tom Bruscino - 6/26/2004

Yes, thank you for the link and endorsement. Debating has been a rollicking good time, as always.

How cool are we? Discussing the profession late on a Friday night. Sweet.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/25/2004

O.K., and if I knew as much about the field as you do, I'd have the background to begin to make the case. Ambrose was corrupted by various things. I can't demonstrate that his love of war was one of them. If you've looked at my post and link at Cliopatria, you know that I've endorsed your case for major state and graduate program universities.

Tom Bruscino - 6/25/2004

Driven is a strong word, but what do we call not replacing prolific and well-respected scholars and teachers of military history at top university after top university? Stanford does not have a military historian on staff, they used to have Peter Paret. Harvard does not have a military historian, they used to have Samuel Eliot Morison. Michigan does not have a military historian, they used to have John Shy. Wisconsin does not have a military historian, they used to have Edward Coffman. I'm sure some older folks could throw out some more names. But I'm really not trying to whine about the profession, just make a clear plea that more schools should be thinking about hiring academic military historians.

That said, the argument has been made that the integrity of military historians as a group has somehow been compromised by working in various jobs for the military, or at least that is the perception. I have documented at least one individual in Richard Kohn who has held numerous positions working for the military and whose integrity and independence with his work is impeccable. I can name others who have actively and openly criticized wars and the military while holding military jobs. Russell Weigley, Allan Millett, and even Stephen Ambrose come to mind. Let me go a step further. Since the military's primary interest in military history is in using it to help win future wars, places like the various War Colleges actually encourage criticism of the origins, intent, course, and outcomes of the military's actions in the past.

If the issue is integrity, then we need some kind of evidence that any military historian ever had his or her integrity of work compromised by working for the military. Until then, I stand by my contention that such a perception is totally wrong.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/25/2004

I suspect that you know very well why I did not give more details about the instance I cited. But, Tom, there is rub in the rubbish. I know lots of historians who teach at state universities. Virtually to a person, I dare say, they believe that more of the state's resources ought to be devoted to education, to their institution, to their department. David Beito is one of the few historians I know who I believe would gladly have the University of Alabama privatized and delinked from state subsidy. I think you'd have some trouble documenting the claim that military historians were "driven" from higher education. They've had the defense establishment in its many guises as an alternative all along. Few other kinds of historians have that built-in alternative.

Tom Bruscino - 6/25/2004

An anonymous military historian who was backed by the "military establishment" when he got in trouble for some unnamed indiscretions is pretty vague. It might be evidence of something, but of what is totally unclear.

I think the irony is obvious here. Academic military historians are driven out of the academy and get jobs working for the various branches of the military--by the way, the active and deep rivalry among the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines, and regulars and reservists alone should call into question the existence of a coherent military establishment, but that's another topic--then the academic community questions their integrity because they took those jobs.

All the while intellectual historians, cultural historians, and social historians have comfortable positions within the academy that are willing to accept a wide variety of indiscretions, especially biases, and no one worries about them. I understand it is an issue of perception, but the perception is wrong. By the logic here, anyone who works for a state university or college is somehow beholden to that state's, and the federal government's, policies. Unless and until there is evidence that that is the case, then we should dismiss the perception for what it is: rubbish.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/25/2004

Look, Tom, separate two things: 1) the professional positions of particular people. I don't know Kohn, but I respect his work. I do know Don Higginbotham at UNC and I respect his work. We are talking about my graduate history department. 2) the perceived reality, at least, that military history has its own subsidy in the military institutions of the country and an alliance with the country's military establishment. I happen to have taught with one fairly prominent military historian, for whom the military establishment maintained a comfortable position when he needed to leave a liberal arts college because of his own indiscretions. That is evidence of something. I don't know that intellectual historians, cultural historians, or social historians who have that sort of subsidy.

Tom Bruscino - 6/25/2004

I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to ask for some specific examples. There appears to be some group of military historians out there that I do not know and have never met who think all wars are great and are in the pocket of the "military establishment." Who are these people? I have to say, I think the accusation that someone who worked as an historian either for the military at various posts around the world or at one of the service academy lacks critical distance when it comes to their work is horrendously unfair, not to mention wrong.

Once again, the lack of perspective from military historians rears its ugly head. Anyone who has ever read the scholarly material coming out of the various war colleges would be shocked at how relentlessly self-critical that work is. Pick up any issue of Parameters (which I read quarterly and is online), and you will see what I mean. I have never seen or heard of civilian professors at the service academies being anything other than your typical college professors, only with really clean cut and diligent students. There needs to be evidence beyond just shady implication that the "military establishment" limits their work in any way.

As far as civilians working as historians in the military, I defy anyone to come up with a more important, relentless, and critical student of civil-military relations than North Carolina military history professor (and fromer student of Coffman) Richard Kohn. Kohn, has been a strident advocate in a variety of printed works on maintaining strict civilian control of the military. He has often criticized the military for trying to expand its power in dictating American policy. His various positions, in addition to teaching at UNC?:

Adjunct Professor, National War College

Chief of Air Force History and Chief Historian, U.S. Air Force

Harold Keith Johnson visiting Chair of Military History, U.S. Army Military History Institute and Army War College

He is just one example. There are plenty more. That he or any of his ilk are specially biased is frankly an unfounded and awful accusation--one from which I hope a reasonable person would back away.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/25/2004

Good lord, Derek, you seem to imply that it must be me! When one traces the long-term investment of military history with the military establishment in this country (command historian this, West Point that), my argument that it tends to lack critical distance holds up in ways that I suspect you simply choose to ignore. If military historians choose to identify themselves with that military establishment and receive its funding, I have a hard time understanding why they shouldn't be held to judgment for it. Maybe it's just me. I suspect not.

Tom Bruscino - 6/25/2004

An historian can see wars as an all too often necessary evil (a far cry from "liking" them) and still be empathetic to uniformed men and women and civilians. The statement that they can't is based on the assumption that empathizing with those in uniform means keeping them out of combat. That's not empathy, it's condescension. As I suspect most military historians know, plenty of people in uniform want nothing more than a chance to fight, no matter how many works by military historians have made it perfectly clear that combat is an awful, terrifying experience. I have no idea what his opinions were on the war in Iraq, but the best recent book on this topic is Peter Kindsvatter, American Soldiers. The book began as a PhD dissertation under the late, great Russell Weigley at Temple, and is basically a social history of ground combat in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Kindsvatter is a veteran who now works as Command Historian at an Army school. The book is explicitly meant as a tonic to young men (usually men) who romanticize war, all the while hinting that sometimes war is still necessary. I highly recommend it.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/25/2004

Tom --
Great post, and good responses to Ralph, too, who raises important questions. I'm still not seeing an answer to your question of why military historians are held to a higher standard, and why they are called to the carpet for, as experts on military history, possible supporting wars while people who have no training whatsoever in military and often even political history are held to a klesser standard when they sign petitions intended to have a very clear public policy effect on matters military.
Further, the "never seen a war they did not like" argument seems to me to fall apart if one takes even a passing glance at the historiography by military historians on Vietnam. Maybe I've misread Kaufman and Millett and Wiegley and Keegan and Hanson and on and on, but if the implication is that they are cheerleaders for war, I'd say someone needs to do a rereading posthaste. Maybe it is me. I suspect not.


Ralph E. Luker - 6/25/2004

I think that you exaggerate a point about labor history. There are many labor historians who, for example, have indicted the AFofL for its elitism or the Knights of Labor for its mysticism and utopianism. That a labor historian probably sees himself or herself as empathetic to the interests of working people goes without saying. But if a military historian never meets a war she or he doesn't like, it's a little hard for me to see how he or she can be said to be empathetic to the interests of either uniformed men and women or civilians.

Tom Bruscino - 6/25/2004

Thanks Ralph,

Two things:

1. I know the reality, and I think it has made the field better, but I do not think it is fair to hold military historians to a different standard on how broad the field is. At the very least we should hold all fields to similar standards. There are books out there by professional academic historians on parlor room decorations, vibrators, and animals as working class that I'm sure have something to say about the wider world, but I don't think have really done a good job of proving it. Allan Millett at Ohio State has written pretty traditional military history his whole career--biographies, general studies of wars, the history of the Marine Corps, stuff that on its face is obviously important to the larger story of history--and it would be a shame if he had never had an academic job that allows him to be so prolific because he was held to a ridiculously higher burden of proof of importance than the historian of parlor rooms.

2. As far as the political bias issue goes, I agree that historians should maintain critical distance from their subjects, but once again I am not sure why military historians should be held to a different standard than the rest of the profession. Look at labor history. One book after another in that field cheers on labor unions as the representatives of what was or is best for the working classes. Often the more radical the better. And labor historians often seem to be vocal on contemporary issues.

I'm assuming when you talk about military historians supporting wars you mean that they support contemporary wars. That may or may not be true, but I guess I'm a little confused why the hundreds of scholars in a wide variety of fields (including military history) who signed onto the Historians Against the War petition are not called to the carpet for the same thing. If a relatively few military historians honestly use their training and skills and understanding of the past to come to the conclusion that a war is necessary in the present, and they express those views in appropriate forums, that should have no bearing whatsoever on their status in the academy.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/25/2004

Tom, Good rant and, on the whole, fair enough. I agree that war is a good lens through which to look at a society and its values. Too often in the past, however, military historians did seem to take a rather narrow definition of their mandate. I suspect that that narrowness led to some of the discrimination that you cite against the field and that the response of more recent military history to broaden its scope has been a healthy reaction. There is a lingering suspicion among some of us that military historians never see a war that they don't like and that is a problem of political bias -- not so much in the profession, as in the practice of military history. It cannot be said often enough that scholars have an obligation to maintain critical distance on their subjects.