Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Military History: The State of the Field" in Historically Speaking

[The full forum will be available at Project Muse. Subscribe to HS to read more.]

The uncertain status of military history in the academy has been the subject of considerable
debate over the last decade. With John J. Miller’s 2006 National Review Online piece, “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retired,” the debate went public. It surfaced again as part of a broader assessment of the discipline of history in Patricia Cohen’s June 2009 New York Times article, “Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?”

Here several leading historians assess the state of the field of military history. Brian Linn and Dennis Showalter, current and past presidents of the Society for Military History, offer their opinions. Prominent military historians Robert Citino, Victor Davis Hanson, and Roger Spiller respond, followed by brief rejoinders from Linn and Showalter. This forum is funded by a generous grant from the Earhart Foundation.


Brian McAllister
Linn, Historically Speaking (November 2009)

Military historians occupy a distinct position within the historical discipline. Some university faculty, particularly those in history departments, regard them with suspicion. At best they are wannabe generals, at worst warmongers and militarists corrupting the nation’s youth. In contrast, the public and the armed forces turn to military historians for entertainment, for insight, and for explanations of current events. Whereas many academic fields grow ever more specialized and narrow, the interests of military historians are as broad as in the days of Herodotus and Thucydides. Their purview remains the study of war and the institutions that fight it, a definition encompassing everything from a naval air squadron to a Stone Age tribe, from weapons development to national mobilization, and from the individual experience of combat to how societies memorialize their war dead. Marxists believe that history reflects mankind’s relationship to the means of production; military historians believe that it reflects mankind’s relationship to the means of destruction.

Military history defies academic trends in other ways as well. Despite much rhetoric about multidisciplinary approaches, academic history is becoming more exclusionary and inbred. Some historians are so specialized that their writings are all but incomprehensible to another historian, even one who studied that subfield two decades ago. And there are academics who would restrict the title of “historian” to the doctorate-holding faculty. In contrast, military historians are a wide and diverse lot—the more than 2,400 members of the Society for Military History range from graduate students to three-star generals—and some of the field’s most popular and influential authors are not academics at all. This has always been the case, for alongside its own “cuttingedge” and “paradigm-shifting” scholars, military history has also relied on “amateurs” such as Livy, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bruce Catton, as well as on warrior-scholars like Carl von Clausewitz and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Indeed, if today’s readers can tell a Mauser rifle from a javelin, they can readily immerse themselves in two millennia of military writing.

Much of the debate about the current state of military history has focused entirely on the distress of military historians who are faculty or graduate students at universities. Commentators as diverse as Professor John Lynn and the National Review’s John Miller have drawn attention to the perilous state of “the embattled field.” They note that for decades the two most prestigious professional journals essentially embargoed articles in military history (in fairness, recently the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History published review articles and the OAH Magazine of History did a special issue on teaching military history). They argue that universities are not replacing their retiring faculty, and the corollary, that graduate programs at top-rated universities are disappearing. They warn that if universities cease training students in military history, the public, the armed forces, and the nation’s policy makers will have to rely for their critical analysis of defense policy and war on ideologues, social scientists, former officers, and the ubiquitous celebrity historians.

Certainly the state of military history in the ivory tower is cause for concern. But what characterizes a successful historical field? For far too long, academic military historians have judged their specialty by the opinion of their colleagues and their deans, and then publicized their dismal findings. The result has been a widespread perception that the field is in precipitous decline. But is ephemeral and subjective academic prestige going to be our sole criterion for judging the state of military history? Perhaps as the child of an academic I was born cynical, but I often wonder if the average college department is capable of establishing consistent and verifiable indices for excellence. If there were such standards, why have so many departments hired so many faculty whose dissertation topics went from “cutting-edge” to “traditional” in the time it took them to come up for tenure? Why are faculty who “popularize” history, whether to enthusiastic students or the reading public, regarded as lacking in academic rigor? And why is publishing a 400-copy monograph that is favorably reviewed by another specialist in a journal with a circulation of a few hundred other specialists seen as the apex of scholarly achievement? I could go on, but the academic readers already know why so many murder mysteries, dramas of dysfunctionality, and vicious satires are set on campus, while the rest of you still would not believe what passes for normal in most departments. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of picking the battlefield, so why should military historians not heed their illustrious ancestors and look outside of the narrow confines of college departments to judge the state of the field? . . .

>>> The rest of the forum will be posted at Project Muse and available in print.

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