Thursday, April 6, 2017

Blog CCXXIX (229): The State of Military History (Part 2)

Editorial Note: This posting is part of an exceptionally long essay on the status of military history.  Since it is over 5,000 words in length, it has been divided into four parts.  Click here to read part 1, part 3, and part 4.

The wide-spread attention that these articles garnered had an impact among academic historians.  Two of the main journals within history—The Journal of American History and the American Historical Review—published historiographical assessment of military history in 2007.  These two articles were:
  • Wayne E. Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” Journal of American History, 93 (March 2007), 1116-1160
  • Robert M. Citino, “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” American Historical Review, 112 (October 2007), 1070-1090. 
Lee's article was the centerpiece of a roundtable in the JAH on the state of military history.  Lee, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, examines the cultural turn in military
Lee
history, which he sees as a different topic and approach from the social history approach that had been so central to the "war and society" view of military history.   A number of historians: Sir Basil Liddell Hart, Russell Weigley, Victor Davis Hanson, and John Keegan have pushed the idea that there are cultural norms within the military and the larger society that shape a distinctive approach to war.  This article was an interesting historiographical examination of work on the U.S. Army, and—to a much lesser degree—the U.S. Air Force.  “Cultural analysis in military history should connect that "idea template" to wartime behavior, while recognizing that there may be different templates at different levels with in the military and the political leadership,” he argued. 


Four historians offered their assessments in the pages that followed.  A trio of foreign scholars (Brian P. Farrell of the National University of Singapore, Marc Milner of the University of New Brunswick, and Brian Holden Reid of King’s College London) argued that there was a need for comparative studies of the U.S. and British Armies to see if there really was a distinct cultural approach to war as so many argue.  Ronald H. Spector in his commentary added that ground power dominated military history and that scholars needed to look more at naval power.

The other major article of 2007 was Robert M. Citino’s “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” a 20 page historiography.  He starts the article with a tired observation: “Military
Citino
history today is in the same curious position it has been in for decades: extremely popular with the American public at large, and relatively marginalized within professional academic circles.”  He also notes “its academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities.  It has been this way for a long time, and frankly, there seems little chance that things will change any time soon.”  Fortunately, he does not spend the rest of this essay belaboring this point.  He notes that there are three main subjects that military history explores: war and society; operational history; and the history of memory.  His discussion of the literature goes back a hundred years to the work of English and German Medieval historians who tied changes in military technology to the rise of feudalism.  (Historians since have disputed these views).  He also discusses more recent military histories of Ancient Greece, Rome and then moves to Southwest, South, and East Asia before spending a good deal of time in early modern Europe, and then the United States. 


Despite this wide ranging account, he did not get to everything.  His analysis ignored accounts about the application of military power at sea and in the air.  (Then again, not many people write on these topics.  That probably has something to do with a larger unfamiliarity with the sea and the air as transportation venues among historians.  There is plenty of scholarship on railroads and the auto industry; far less on maritime or aviation history).  His study also tended to ignore strategic history—where military, political, and diplomatic history collide.  (This field is one in which social scientists rather historians dominate, so there might have been good reasons for Citino to pull his punches).   The long and short of it is this essay is an impressive, wide-ranging study that shows the diversity of military history.  If one is looking for a quick introduction to the field, they would have a difficult time trying to find a better starting point.

As these articles were going into print, another venue of opinion journalism fired a shot in this debate.  David A. Bell, a historian of Napoleonic France at Princeton University and a contributing editor for The New Republic entered the fray with his essay "Casualties of War: Military History Bites the Dust."  Bell argued the military history suffered because of the success of other fields. "Most historians pay scant attention to military history," he noted, "particularly the part that concerns actual military operations."  That might be a luxury that universities could no longer afford as the United States was in the midst of a long fight in the shadows against terrorists organizations like Al-Qaeda. 
In the real world, nonintellectual concerns constantly impinge upon what professors teach and write, while the question of the university's civic—as opposed to intellectual—obligations is not easily put aside. During the cold war, the government and private institutions like the Ford Foundation provided impressive funding for various sorts of 'area studies,' so as to increase American understanding of the regions in which we might find ourselves confronting the Soviets. It was not a question of forcing existing professors to teach or write on new subjects, but of encouraging movement into the desired areas.
The issue even entered the presidential campaign of 2008 when Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a candidate for the Republican nomination, blamed the decline of military history on the ideological nature of university faculty.  "History that ignores the importance of warfare is not history," he remarked in a radio address.

In 2008 Lynn wrote another article on the state of military history for Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  He argued in "Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History" that there were three different kinds of military history: 1) popular; 2) academic; and 3) applied.  With those three distinctions in mind, much Military History, which boasts eighty thousand readers; its own book clubs; and now its own television channels. There is a great deal of money to be made on popular military history."  The problem with popular military history, he explains, is that to reach as wide an audience as possible it must take a superficial approach, which creates problems for academic military historians. 
Lynn
of the criticism that had been fired in journalistic venues was aimed at the refusal of academic institutions to teach operational military history.  One of the odd things about history Ph.D.s is that there is not much of a demand for that degree outside of academia compared to a Ph.D. in other fields like civil engineering, economics, or marketing.  The military history Ph.D., as Lynn notes, is something of an exception: "Popular military history is, indeed, an industry. It fills bookracks in the United States and around the world. It has its own magazines and journals, for example,

I am not sure that Lynn is entirely correct.  What is popular with the public is the history of combat at the tactical and operational levels.  A lot of what the public consumes is superficial, but that probably has more to do with the venue than anything else.  (How much detail does a sixty minute documentary give compared to a book in even a best case scenario?)

Lynn is on better ground in his discussions of applied military history.  I should note that applied military history is basically what I do at the U.S Naval War College.  Lynn describes applied military history as "the use of military history as part of the professional education of officers and as a guide in establishing doctrine and planning and waging war."

From my experiences working at a military school, this point is basically correct.  The study of the past is exceptionally important to most armed services.  The military uses history as part of its professional development in a way few, if any, other professions do in contemporary American society.  "Historical examples can provide warnings against poorly conceived actions on strategic, operational, and tactical levels or in weaponry and logistics, while also suggesting more effective courses to follow. In addition, knowledge of the past can serve as a kind of checklist pointing the way to important factors to be considered now and in the future." 

Lynn makes one final point that in many ways gives historians of this field more influence than those in other sub-fields: "Military historians should be cognizant and proud of the fact that we pursue one of the rare sub-specialties of historical scholarship that is actually regarded as important for training and guidance by real world practitioners."

The debate even made the pages of the news magazine U.S. News & World Report when it was still a print publication.  In "Why Don't More Colleges Teach Military History?," Lee of UNC, Chapel Hill, offered the novel argument that the popularizers were actually a liability to military historians.   “They can make us look primitive in our approach to history,” he told the magazine.  “The solution isn’t to complain about it, but to try and generate military historians who do good work and creative work and who can speak the same language their colleagues do.”

In other ways, the article advanced the "woe-upon-me-as-the-honest-but-oppressed-military-historian" take on the field.  "Each of us is pretty much a one-man shop,” Carol Reardon of Penn State University told the magazine.  Russian military historian David R. Stone—then of Kansas State University, now a departmental colleague of mine—disputed this comment: “While it is certainly true that military historians are often isolated within their departments, that’s true of most historians in most fields.  I am part of a military history program at Kansas State, but when it comes to Russian and Soviet history here, it begins and ends with me.”  

The debate grew in force in 2009 when two major New York newspapers picked up on the topic.  In May, The Wall Street Journal printed the comments of Lewis E. Lehrman at the New-York Historical Society.  Lehrman, an investment banker who ran for governor of New York in 1982 as the Republican nominee, had played a role in establishing historical centers for the study of the U.S. Civil War at Yale University and Gettysburg College.  "The study of military history has in fact been purged from many of the faculties and curriculums of the universities of the Western world," he stated. "How did this happen? Perhaps it is explicable by some form of political correctness; or, parochial specialization; or, the armchair unrealism of the faculty lounge; even ivory tower snobbery—among other related social diseases."

A month later The New York Times entered the fray with a news article entitled:"Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?"  The article had a tone and took sides: 
Simply giving everyone a place at the table is just not affordable in an era of shrinking resources. “I’d love to let a hundred flowers bloom,” said Alonzo L. Hamby, a history professor at Ohio University in Athens, but “it’s hard for all but the largest departments or the richest.” In his own department of about 30 faculty members, a military historian recently retired, triggering a vigorous debate over how to advertise for a replacement. (A handful of faculty members had the view that “military history is evil,” Mr. Hamby said.) The department finally agreed to post a listing for a specialist in "U.S. and the world," he said, “the sort of mushy description that could allow for a lot of possibilities.”
Since this story was in The New York Times, it resulted in a flurry of commentary on blogs all over the internet.  All of them in disagreement:
The Historical Society devoted several issues of its journal, Historical Speaking, to discussions on the status of "traditional fields."  These included: intellectual history, military history, economic history, and naval history.
    My personal assessment is that these arguments are premised on the assumption that things were different in the days before Vietnam.  My own research on this topic, suggests quite strongly, that military history has never been a popular topic among academia...ever.  I wrote a paper on Theodore Roosevelt's tenure as president of the American Historical Association.  He was AHA president after his stay in the White House.  Needless to say, getting Roosevelt to serve in this position was a major coup for the organization.  The details, though, were a little less impressive.  Roosevelt decided to run for President again in 1912 and never attended any meetings of the AHA officers.  Most of the work of the AHA president feel on the vice president for that year.  Roosevelt did attend the 1913 annual meeting and gave the presidential address.  He also attended a session and spoke on the status of military history.  It was not a popular topic at the time, and many of the complaints people made in 1912 about the hostility of their colleagues towards their topics sound awful lot like those made a 100 years later.

    Editorial Note: click here to read part 1, part 3, and part 4.

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