Monday, April 7, 2008

What Happened to Military History?

Well, what happened to military history in America's colleges and universities?

I think I know, but check out U.S. News and World Report:

Five years into the war in Iraq, military history seems to be experiencing a golden age. Hollywood has been cranking out war movies. Publishers have been lining bookstore shelves with new battle tomes, which consumers are eagerly lapping up. Even the critics have been enjoying themselves. Two of the last five Pulitzer Prizes in history were awarded to books about the American military. Four of the five Oscar nominees for best documentary this year were about warfare. Business, for military historians, is good.

Except, strangely enough, in academia. On college campuses, historians who study military institutions and the practice of war are watching their classrooms overflow and their books climb bestseller lists—but many say they are still struggling, as they have been for years, to win the respect of their fellow scholars. John Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, first described this paradox in a 1997 essay called "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History." The field, he wrote, with its emphasis on predominantly male co mbatants and its decidedly nontheoretical subject matter, "has always been something of a pariah in U.S. universities." For years, military historians have been accused by their colleagues of being, by turns, right wing, morally suspect, or, as Lynn puts it, "just plain dumb." Scholars who study D-Day or the Battle of Thermopylae may sell books and fill lecture halls, but they don't have much success with hiring committees.

This state of affairs, needless to say, vexes military historians to no end. As the Iraq war plods along, shackled to frequent—and often misleading—comparisons to Vietnam and World War II, scholars with a deep understanding of war would seem to be in high demand. But, at many prestigious schools, they are not. "Military 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," writes Robert Citino, a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, in a recent issue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the historical profession. "While military history dominates the airwaves...its academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities."

The field that inspired the work of writers from Thucydides to Winston Churchill is, today, only a shell of its former self. The number of high-profile military history experts in the Ivy League can be counted on one hand. Of the more than 150 colleges and universities that offer a Ph.D. in history, only a dozen offer full-fledged military history programs. Most military historians are scattered across a collection of midwestern and southern schools, from Kansas State to Southern Mississippi. "Each of us is pretty much a one-man shop," says Carol Reardon, a professor of military history at Penn State University and the current president of the Society for Military History. The vast majority of colleges and universities do not have a trained military historian on staff.

This situation may get worse in the next few years. As the first baby boomer historians have begun to retire at schools like Michigan and Purdue, two traditional bastions of support for military history, they are not being replaced. More than a decade ago, the University of Wisconsin received $250,000 to endow a military history chair from none other than Stephen Ambrose, the author of Band of Brothers and one of the field's most popular figures. Ambrose donated another $250,000 before he died in 2002, but the school has yet to fill the position. Illinois's Lynn, who has taught military history for more than 30 years, recently announced his retirement, as well. "And when I leave," he writes in an upcoming article in the journal Academic Questions, "a sixty-five year tradition of teaching military history at my alma mater will almost certainly come to an end."

All of which raises the question: Why, especially in a time of war, aren't military historians getting more respect? This has been the subject of furious debate among scholars in journal articles, conferences, and heated blog discussions over the past year. And while some believe the profession is being purposefully purged by a generation of new-wave historians of gender, labor, and ethnic studies, whose antiwar views blind them to the virtues of military history, most insist that nothing so insidious is happening. "I don't think there's been a deliberate policy of killing these positions," says Wayne Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Instead, most of the historians interviewed by U.S. News believe the study of war, like several other, more traditional historical disciplines such as political and diplomatic history, has simply been de-emphasized as the field has expanded since the 1960s. Amid that decade's social upheaval, historians finally began examining the plight of the many groups overlooked by scholars in the past, from women and African-Americans to factory workers and gays. Military history, as a result, fell out of favor. "It wasn't just that people were antiwar and didn't want to read books about war anymore," says Citino, "History itself splintered into a number of different approaches. Suddenly, if you were a history department that had pretensions about being world class, you had to cover a lot more bases." While the number of specialties in history departments expanded, budgets did not. Some subjects got squeezed. When Lynn started working at Illinois in 1978, a cadre of World War II veterans worked together on military history. Today, the school employs more than 50 historians, but he is the only military specialist left.

Not surprisingly, this dearth of experience worries many military and nonmilitary historians. War may not always be the trendiest of subjects—especially in times of peace—but there's no doubt it is a field worth studying. As Trotsky put it, "You may not be interested in war. But war is interested in you." And yet, in an analysis Lynn conducted of the past 30 years' worth of articles published in the American Historical Review, he found that not a single article had appeared on the conduct of—to name a few—the Revolutionary War, World War II, or Vietnam. The AHR represents the cutting edge of scholarly research, serving as a measure for the rest of academe of what scholars should be working on. Lynn, for one, is appalled by this scholarly oversight. "The new wisdom," as he puts it, "decrees that the death of at least 60 million people, the Holocaust, and the reshaping of the world by warfare from 1937 to 1945 fall short of deserving a single article in nearly [three] decades because apparently more important matters had to be discussed."
David Bell, in his article, "Military History Bites the Dust," has more:

Ask most Americans about important subjects in history, and it's a good bet that "war" will rank near the top of the list. Certainly, it holds a commanding position in the history marketed to the general public. Among the "hot books" currently listed on the website of the History Book Club, fully one-third--ranging from straightforward, popular titles like Battles of the Dark Ages to a new collection of essays by the esteemed Civil War historian James McPherson--fall into the category of military history. Viewers tuning in to the History Channel on a recent weekend could choose from at least seven hours of military history programming, including an hour devoted solely to cannons. Popular taste, in other words, bears out the judgment of Edmund Burke, who quipped--long before the horrors of modern mechanized warfare--that the annals of good deeds would "not afford matter enough to fill ten pages. ... War is the matter which fills all History...."

Yet the discipline of history, as it exists in major U.S. universities, seems to have forgotten Burke's lesson. At Harvard this spring, for instance, only two of 85 history courses focus mainly on war. This is not surprising, because Harvard does not have a single specialist in military history among the 58 members of its history department. Neither does my own history department at Johns Hopkins; just two of our 61 spring courses are principally concerned with war. And so it goes across the country. The current issue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the profession, includes reviews of no less than 194 new history books, only 15 of which, by my count, qualify as military history.

The subject does remain entrenched in some small corners of the university world--notably at the service academies and in publications like the Journal of Military History. At major research universities, a few specialists, such as Omer Bartov of Brown or Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State, have continued to do marvelous work integrating the study of armies and military operations with such topics as the Holocaust or the "world crisis" of the seventeenth century.

Yet most historians pay scant attention to military history, particularly the part that concerns actual military operations. And so, even in the midst of the Iraq war--the fifth major U.S. deployment since 1990--professors are teaching undergraduates surprisingly little about this historical subject of rather obvious relevance.
Jules Crittenden has his take:

An understanding of military history ... is critical not only for those who will fight it but for the civilian population for whom they fight it and who are called on to support it. Every bit as critical as a knowledge of civic affairs and the institutions of government. Significantly more useful than excessive focus on the roles of minority groups, when that focus is presented as the overriding context of history, displacing and obscuring the larger events and context of events of importance to society as a whole.

Because, contrary to the nonsense that has been foisted on us since the 1960s, war is and will remain into the foreseeable future a sometimes necessary and moral endeavor, in a world that has not matured sufficiently to allow responsible, powerful nations to behave like flower children.
My dissertation, a work of international relations theory in political science, drew intensely on the work of diplomatic history for the secondary source database upon which to test my thesis.

I teach world politics today, and my text, Ray and Kaarbo's, Global Politics, offers outstanding coverage of the history of 20th century international politics.

The introduction to this history in my course is the closest most of my students will come to engaging the great problems of diplomatic and military history of recent decades.

That's a shame.

Hat tip:
War Historian.