Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Vanishing Military Historians

John J. Miller (via PDTR) investigates why military historians are become scarce on college campi. He quotes Mary Habeck, a military historian at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., who blames the "tenured radicals" of the 1960's, who prefer studying "the kind of social history [they] want to support." Thus, according to Miller, these academics concentrated on social history instead of "diplomatic, intellectual, and maritime history — but perhaps none have suffered so many casualties as the 'drums and trumpets' crowd."

Miller has surveyed American colleges and universities and explains:
At first glance, military history appears to have maintained beachheads on a lot of campuses. Out of 153 universities that award doctorates in history, 99 of them — almost 65 percent — have at least one professor who claims a research interest in war, according to S. Mike Pavelec, a military historian at Hawaii Pacific University. But this figure masks another problem: Social history has started to infiltrate military history, Trojan Horse–style. Rather than examining battles, leaders, and weapons, it looks at the impact of war upon culture. And so classes that are supposedly about the Second World War blow by the Blitzkrieg, the Bismarck, and the Bulge in order to celebrate the proto-feminism of Rosie the Riveter, condemn the national disgrace of Japanese-American internment, and ask that favorite faculty-lounge head-scratcher: Should the United States have dropped the bomb? “It’s becoming harder and harder to find experts in operational military history,” says Dennis Showalter of Colorado College. “All this social history is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.”
Miller also gives examples of endowed military history chairs that are going unfilled (University of Wisconsin); accomplished military historians who are retiring and not being replaced (Gerald Linderman and John Shy at Michigan); or replaced by non-military historians (James MacPherson's prospective replacement at Princeton is an expert in gender studies); and institutions that are refusing endowments for a military history chair at all (Dartmouth).

It's not just the universities that have turned away from military history. At least one of the mainstream historical scholarly publications has been ignoring straight military history, too.
Another reason for the shortage of scholars is that military historians have been shut out of The American Historical Review, the most prestigious academic journal for history professors. Last year, John A. Lynn [who states he is a Liberal Democrat--ed.] of the University of Illinois surveyed the last 150 issues of the AHR, which comes out five times annually. During this 30-year period, he couldn’t find a single article that discussed the conduct of World War II. Other ignored wars included the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. There was a single article on the English Civil War, dealing with atrocities committed therein. Lynn located precisely two articles on the U.S. Civil War. One of these also dealt with atrocities. “I guess military atrocities are attractive to the editors,” he says. The only article on World War I focused on female soldiers in the Russian army. “I suspect the editors liked it because it was about women, not because it was about war.” The lead article in the most recent issue of the AHR is about wigs in 18th-century France.
Miller does qualify that the military academies are still strong in military history and also menitions that some public universities, including Kansas State, Ohio State, and Texas A&M, have strong, well-respected military history programs. However, he also explains that military historians are forced to find refuge at second-tier schools and in the military itself.

Miller may seem a bit snarky towards the social historians, but the point of his article isn't so much to attack what is being studied as it is to call attention to what isn't. Military history--traditional military history--is important because of the lessons it teaches:
“Knowledge of military history is an essential prerequisite for an informed national debate about security and statecraft,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist at the Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas. Many voters, for instance, don’t know how to contextualize the nearly 23,000 U.S. military casualties in Iraq since 2003. That’s a pretty big number. But it’s also roughly the level of casualties suffered at Antietam in just one day, and a small fraction of the more than 200,000 casualties endured in Vietnam.

Critics of the war also have plenty to gain from a public that has a better understanding of older conflicts. “People might have realized that we have a poor track record of using the military to do nation-building in Third World countries,” says Desch. “The model isn’t Germany or Japan, but Nicaragua and the Philippines.” Finally, the population of Americans who have served in the military is shrinking, and with it their knowledge of what armies and navies do.

Anybody who has studied the history of war knows that it’s possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — it happened at Shiloh, when a Confederate attack nearly routed the Union army, only to have General Grant drive them off the field of battle the next day. Perhaps military historians can stage a similar comeback. In their efforts to do so, they will be wise to remember something that Grant didn’t know back in 1862: An awful lot of brutal fighting lies ahead.
I think Miller's concerns about the dearth of military history courses offered to, say, your average undergraduate, is--while not unfounded--a bit overwrought. I can only point to my own personal experience.

I took courses titled "World War II" and "The Civil War" in which I think it could be reasonably expected that "military history" would be covered. In my World War II class, the professor (whom I'd describe as a diplomatic/social historian) came right out and said he wasn't going to focus on tactics (which was fine by me). Nonetheless, he did cover basic strategy and also touched on the "war is politics by other means..." methodological track. That being said, as he promised, he focused much less on battles than the social impact on the homefront, for instance. Miller is also on target in that we did investigate one of the very topics that he mentions as being a favorite: Hiroshima. The course was very well done and enjoyable and I learned a lot. But it was definitely presented from the perspective of social and diplomatic history, not military.

The Civil War course, on the other hand, was taught by a professor who was much more of a diplomatic/military historian. As such, he delved much deeper into tactics and battles, though he didn't neglect politics or diplomacy. He did, however, give relatively short shrift to social history. This course was also worthwhile, but, again, the dominant perspective was that of the discipline in which the professor specialized.

Thus, I believe that, when done properly, a general survey-type course--the kind most undergrads take--can effectively delve into tactics and battles as well as other areas (social, diplomatic, political). That's where I think Miller is a little off the mark. The traditional topics covered by military history are being taught as part of a larger, more comprehensive course that also covers history as studied via a wide variety of historical methodologies. That being said, he does make an important point.

Colleges and universities need to have military historians on campus who teach conventional military history courses as well as general surveys. First, and most in-line with Miller's critique, the continued popularity of books devoted to the military history of the Civil War and WWII show that there is a body of students out there who would be interested in straight forward military history courses. Thus, specific, upper level courses in military history would probably be well received and be attractive to many students.

Yet, to my mind, it is the role that military historians can play in the historical education of the broader student population that is more important. I saw many people interested in military history in my Civil War class. They were there for the guns and ended up learning about a whole lot more (yes, like about the "butter"). Similarly, there were people in my WWII class who were interested in the home front and Hiroshima, but also took away some knowledge about battles and a few tactics and how specific military capabilities and outcomes play a part in history.

What I'm getting at is that a military historian--just like a social or economic or diplomatic historian--brings a certain point of view to courses that deal with broader topics. It would be a shame if these perspectives are lost because they aren't popular enough amongst the academics or "sexy" enough for academic journals. The current impression is that any young historian simply can't make much headway with a specialization in military history. If there is no demand for this methodolgy, the supply will soon dry up and our understanding of war will be the worse for it.

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