This is the text of an informal talk I gave to a group of grad students in military history in April 1995.
Is there a career in military history?
The short answer is yes.
But: The job market in academia is tough generally, and the job market for military historians is even tougher.
Few departments consider military history important enough to create a position devoted to that area of specialization.
Women's history makes a good basis of comparison, because it's a thematic field that arose at about the same time as academic military history.
Among the top 25 history depts., only 20 historians are identified , in the Organization of American Historians directory of faculty in history departments nationwide, as people working in some aspect of military history (or war, or violence), compared with over 80 who are identified as women's historians. (Many more do "family" or "gender" history.)
Reasons? Practitioners in both fields perceive a bias against their subject, but on balance women's history has fared much better. Changes in social climate and campus politics have played a role, but in my opinion the most important factor has been the success of women's historians at demonstrating the power of their subject to organize and explain important aspects of the human past. Not only have they addressed the history of a neglected half of the human community, they've established gender as a major category of analysis.
Military historians, by and large, have achieved no similar success. In academic circles, there is a strong perception of the field as passť, intellectually sterile, tradition-bound, antiquarian, etc.
Why is this? Two explanations:
First, the field occupies an essentially "false" intellectual position. Whereas one might see gender as a basic category for social analysis, the same cannot yet be said for collective violence, or the role of the coercive variable, or war, or any other formulation one might use to define the core concern of military history. Instead, most military historians seem comfortable with the idea that war is indeed the central concern of their field, and also that war is an extension of politics.
It may also be, as John Keegan has recently argued, an extension of culture, but however defined, military history seems to be about the violent dimension of some other historical process. In this sense, the "war and society" notion by which military institutions and processes are worth studying because they reflect the societies that give rise to them, begs the question: why study the reflection when you can study the thing itself more satisfactorily through political, social, or cultural history.
Military history draws on the methodologies and conceptual frameworks of many other types of history--what does it contribute in return?
One answer, of course, is that the best military history contributes plenty, as I think the military revolution debate has demonstrated. Indeed, I would say that the work being done in early modern European military history is, in many respects, a model of what the field can accomplish. Too often, however, excellence in military history is the exception rather than rule.
Nine-tenths of everything is crap, I know, but in military history the fraction is quite a bit higher. And that's my second explanation for the field's perception as a backwater. In short, I think the criticism leveled at military history as a field is largely justified.
I know that many academics do take a jaundiced view of the field because of their political views. Many others are wary. But in my experience, most academics are from Missouri: military history may be relevant, it may have a high order of sophistication, but "you are going to have to show me."
As you go out on the market, you're going to encounter this view with monotonous regularity, and you're going to have to work harder than other candidates to overcome it. The raised eyebrows won't stop when you get a job, either, and I basically think that from the time one enters the job market to the time one achieves tenure (or some other job security), you're going to find yourself wondering about how your field stacks up against other fields and how it fits in.
Once you achieve job security, though, you can bask in the full sunshine of a morning whose sky never clouds. Academics may be wary of us, but publishers love us. So do any number of others. As a result, good military historians find no end of opportunities to publish books, give presentations, and so on.
With so many other opportunities for validation, concern for the approval of one's colleagues in the profession seems to diminish. In one respect, that's healthy. But I think it has contributed heavily to the dearth of serious intellectual introspection in military history.
I hope you will resist that temptation when it, at last, arises. A little angst is good for the soul, so take advantage of it now, while it's plentiful.
Three pieces of advice:
Return to Dialogue