PhDs who specialize in military history have four viable career tracks: civilian academe, to be sure; but also PME, public history (where there is considerable demand for expertise in military history), and national security research institutions such as RAND Corporation. I once pointed this out to a colleague of mine, who shrugged it off with a jibe about the 'military-industrial-academic complex.' The colleague, safely ensconced in a tenured berth, could afford to take such a view. My students can’t. Consequently, nor can I. As the anecdote suggests, in my view it remains a fact that military history lags badly in terms of its acceptance within academe. This does not mean that tenured radicals are driving military history out of the academy, as the National Review asserted in 2006; much less that it has been “purged” from the academy, as the Wall Street Journal declared in 2009. In fact, there are more graduate programs in military history that at any preceding time. However, I continue to find that historians outside of military history frequently look askance at the field, usually on the basis of unexamined assumptions.
In 2010 Stone of Kansas State wrote a short, but important article, “The Future of Military History: A Glass Half Full,” in Historical Speaking (April 2010), 33-34. He designed this essay as a rejoinder to the symposium that had taken place in the journal on military history. This piece is one of the most interesting contributions to this public debate, because it broke away from the "woe-upon-me" school of thought that had dominated so much of the public debate about military history's role in the profession. “There’s good reason to believe that military history is as strong as it has ever been for all the reasons listed in the symposium.” These factors included strong enrollments, public interest in the topic, and financial support from think tanks and foundations interested in the field. The real acid test for military history or another sub-field is employment options. Here the evidence is ambiguous. Trying to find a job as a history professor, regardless of specialization, is amazingly difficult these days. Stone’s research of data from the American Historical Association found the percentage of faculty teaching military history ranged between 2 and 3 percent from 1975 to 2005. Departments offering courses in military history fluctuated between 30 and 35 percent. Those numbers are not particularly great, but neither are they as bad as many in the public debate had assumed. Another factor that Stone found is quite interesting. In absolute terms the number of military historians doubled from 1975 to 2005. “It is worth keeping in mind that far more military historians are practicing their craft in American universities now than thirty years ago.”
The leadership of the SMH worked to take advantage of the turning of the tide with the release of its white paper: "The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.” (I wrote about this document in Blog CXCIV (194): The SMH White Paper and the Future of Military History). The paper hit on a major strength of military history: "Our students’ desire for knowledge creates an important opportunity for Departments of History. The late recession has produced a drop in humanities majors as students seek courses that seem more likely to produce an immediate payoff in terms of jobs and wages. Legislative budget cuts have forced even state schools to conform to a tuition-driven model, and departments that cannot attract a sufficient number of students can expect hard times to get harder." All of that is true, but that fact that students often vote with their feet or their tuition is something that decision makers should consider. "University college administrators, particularly college deans and chairs of History Departments, may find some relief in the appeal of military history. Courses in military history tend to fill, not only with history majors and minors, but also with students from other disciplines who are interested in the field. And because military history intersects regularly with the profession’s other subfields, it can serve as an ideal gateway to the other specializations any given History Department has to offer. It may, as well, lure back some of the students who have been drawn away to political science, international relations, and public policy departments."
Because of this shift—which was subtle—critiques in journalistic venues went into hibernation for several years. In 2016 Robert Neer reopened the debate with an article in Aeon, the digital magazine of ideas and culture. In "The US Military is Everywhere, Except History Books," Neer stated that "academic historians, especially those at the nation’s most richly endowed research universities, largely ignore the history of the US military."
Ann Little on her Historiann blog made her feelings clear with the title of a post on this topic entitled: "Here We Go Again: Military Historian Complains that No One Teaches or Writes about Military History Any More, Part Eleventybillion." She observed: "Yes, it’s a perennial complaint we hear about the absence of military history, although it’s usually part of a not-very-sophisticated political attack on the other fields history departments also represent these days." She makes another strong point:
If Neer were remotely curious about the world west of the Hudson River, he might discover that hundreds of state universities and colleges–Aggies, and the directionals, primarily, like North Texas, Texas A&M (two very prominent military history bastions he mentions in his article!), not to mention the University of Colorado and Colorado State University–hire in military history, teach military history classes, and promote colleagues who research and write in the field. But none of this matters because Harvard, Yale, and Columbia don’t!
Although this point is a strong one, I am of two minds of it. First, I agree with Little; there is a lot more to the historical profession than the departments of eight private schools in the northeast. On
Paul Huard wrote a news story on the defense news web site: War is Boring. The title of his article is interesting: "The Battle Over U.S. Military History Loved by Ordinary Americans, Hated by Scholars? The Answer is More Complicated Than You Might Think," but the piece fails to deliver on the complexity it suggests. Huard repeats the argument that military was dominated academia in the past—it did not—and the old argument that it is popular with the general public, just not academics. “I’m not going to criticize anyone’s interest in any kind of history,” Little is quoted in the story. “We need audiences to buy and read our books. But I will suggest that popular writers of the ‘battles, bullets and bios’ school underestimate their reading audience.” She also adds: “I think anyone who will buy and read serious nonfiction should be treated like a sentient and thoughtful adult who can handle the complexity or ambiguity of warfare. Many, if not all, are not necessarily looking for another heroic biography or another reflexively and stupidly patriotic treatment of military history.”
Little appreciated the article: "Interestingly, both in Huard’s article and in recent private correspondence between me and Neer, we probably agree on more than we disagree."
Neer and Huard were not the only ones advancing these views in 2016. Max Boot, wrote an article "Teaching to the Narrative" in Commentary magazine on the Logevall and Osgood debate on political history. He was sympathetic to their arguments, but tried to turn the conversation back to military history: "The failure is even more serious in the field of military history which has been all but drummed out of the prestigious universities."
Editorial Note: click here to read part 1, part 2, and part 4.