Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Blog CCXXVIII (228): The State of Military History (Part 1)

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 2, part 3, and part 4.

The X-Men
In 1963 Marvel Comics created the X-Men series, which in 2000 spawned into an extremely successful film franchise.  The X-Men characters are genetic mutations who have superhuman powers because of the presence of an extra gene.  These powers makes the X-Men special, but it also engenders hostility from the rest of society.  The irony of that situation makes the X-Men a very powerful metaphor to discuss a number of very different topics.

Military history and its relationship to the rest of the profession is like the X-Men characters.  In many ways the field is at the bottom of the professional hierarchy, at least in academia.  In other ways, it is one of the strongest fields in the history business today.  Reflecting both those apparently contradictory assessments, there has been a long public debate on the status of the field.  Historians love to examine their fate and debate the state of their fields. These type of debates usually take  place in academic journals where the main audience is a professional one.  In this day and age, though, there are a number of other venues in which to advocate or commentate, and the debate on the fate of military history has often involved non-historians for better or for worse. 

This debate was not the first examination on the status of military history.  There was a big one in the 1980s as the war and society approach grew in popularity.  This exchange, though, was traditional in nature.  It took place in academic journals and was aimed at specialists.  For examples, see:
  • Richard H. Kohn, "The Social History of the American Soldier: A Review and Prospectus for Research," American Historical Review, 86 (June 1981), 553-567.
  • Peter Karsten, "The 'New' American Military History: A Map of the Territory, Explored and Unexplored," American Quarterly, 36 (no. 3, 1984), 389-418
  • Edward M. Coffman, "The New American Military History," Military Affairs, 48 (Jan. 1984), 1-5
  • John Whiteclay Chambers II, "The New Military History: Myth and Reality," Journal of Military History, 55 (July 1991), 395-40
The public deliberation that I plan to discuss here focuses on the status of the field within the historical profession, and could easily be called the "Why Do They Hate Us So Much?" debate.  It started in the mid-1990s when Mark Grimsley of The Ohio State University, published an essay on his blog that soon became famous: "Why Military History Sucks."  He argued that other historians turned a blind eye to the field of military history because its quality was not particularly good:
Indeed, I would argue that the best military history is usually done by people who were not trained as military specialists. And the fact that they do do it should suggest not only their interest in military affairs but also the fact that they have to do it—that when they pose a historical question related to military affairs, too often no military historian ever thought of the question before or thought it was worth exploring. We were too busy writing about our subject in a way that did not connect with the concerns of non-military historians.
Grimsley's argument, though, was one that a lot of other military historians rejected.  For a good example, see: John A. Lynn II, “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” Journal of Military History, 61 (October 1997), 777-789.

There things might have stood—a debate fought on the pages of academic journals and a specialized blog with a very small audience—had it not been for Stephen E. Ambrose.  I have written about Ambrose and his many professional shortcomings, but one of the cooler things he decided to do was donate a big chunk of change to the University of Wisconsin to create an endowed position in military history.  Depending on your view, one of two things happened: 1) Ambrose did not provide quite enough money to fund a chair and Wisconsin had to use its own funds and investment revenues to cover the hidden costs of a faculty position (pension contributions, health care costs, etc.), or 2) the faculty in the department rebelled and simply refused to fill the position.

John J. Miller, the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, took the later view.  He wrote an article in the National Review"Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retired."  He savaged the Wisconsin history department's refusal to fill the Ambrose professorship.  Miller's take was dire, as his title suggests, and he contended that the leadership of the historical professional was marginalizing the field:
Military historians who try for a more conventional career, however, often confront the academic equivalent of urban warfare, with snipers behind every window and ambushes around every corner. “You shouldn’t go into this field unless you really love the work,” warns [Dennis] Showalter [of Colorado College]. “And you have to be ready, like Booker T. Washington, to cast down your bucket where you are.” Many talented scholars wind up taking positions at second-rate institutions because they don’t have other options.
This article got a good deal of attention, which is a bit of an understatement.  It got reposted on the blog of the historical society: Randall J. Stephens, "Which History?" The Historical Society Blog.  Other commentary followed and there was an exchange about it on the H-Net discussion group dedicated to military history: H-War.  

At this point, Mark Grimsley entered the debate again.  He pushed back on Miller's attack on both his blog and the History News Network.  The two had an e-mail exchange, which they both made public, and came into agreement on the fact that Wisconsin had an obligation to fill the position, but disagreed on why the university had failed at that point to do so.  "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."

Victor Davis Hanson joined in the fight with an article, “Why Study War?” that was published in City Journal  (Summer 2007), the quarterly of the Manhattan Institute.  A historian of ancient Greece and Rome, he was a Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  His take was similar to Miller's: “The academic neglect of war is even more acute today.  Military history as a discipline has atrophied, with very few professorships, journal articles, or degree programs.”

Editorial Note: click here to read part 2, part 3, and part 4.

1 comment:

  1. What these analyses (not you, specifically) often miss is the context of a wider and massive slump in the job market. This:

    "Many talented scholars wind up taking positions at second-rate institutions because they don’t have other options."

    Could apply to just about *any* historical subdiscipline since 1975.