Are Graduate Programs in Military History a Bad Idea?


In this essay I am candidly playing devil's advocate, but I hope with a constructive purpose. . . .

Recently I was asked to participate in one of those perennial Society for Military History (SMH) panels about the state of military history.  I declined because I feel that such panels are pointless.  They do nothing to shape the field.  Only good, substantial scholarship shapes fields.  But there's an aspect of the question which does interest me, namely whether graduate programs in military history are a good way to shape the field.  Do they shape good, substantial scholarship?

It has long seemed to me that most of the best military history is in fact done by historians trained in other fields. Geoffrey Parker could be the poster child for this argument, but examples are legion. Neither of my own mentors, Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, were trained in military history programs; ditto for my colleague and good friend Joe Guilmartin--whose Gunpowder and Galleys, incidentally, was recently praised by John Keegan as one of the works of military history that had most impressed him over the past thirty years.

Perhaps there's a fundamental reason for this.  As Clausewitz said, "War has its own grammar but not its own logic."  He thought the logic was political.  It could be cultural or something else, but the point is:  violence is a way of solving problems generated by politics, demographics, economics, ideology, and so on.  And the agents of violence--human beings--are themselves shaped by these things as well as by race, gender, and class.  Seen this way, training graduate students in military history makes little intellectual sense.  Better to train them in fields that deal with the woof and warp of the total human experience, and then let the logic of certain historical problems lead them into the military dimension of that experience.

Undoubtedly some scholars will always be especially attracted to that dimension of experience, and so there will still be utility in having professional organizations where they can meet, share ideas, etc.  In that sense, there will always be a field of military history.  But while a military history graduate program may well be a sort of badge of academic respectability, it may well be counterproductive if the real goal is to deepen our intellectual understanding of war.

Yesterday I was looking over the upcoming SMH program, which will be devoted to "What's on Our Minds: Critical Problems in Military History."  It's supposed to showcase state-of-the-art military history.  In one sense, I'm pleased to see such a theme--it beats the hell out of the lame ones that led me in past years to regard the SMH as distinctly optional.  But here is the program committee's guidance:

"The Program Committee invites proposals for papers and panels that will address such general issues as military institutional transformation, professional military education, strategy and politics, the relationship of historical understanding and policy-making, and the economic dimensions of national security policy."

Is there anything here that would not have characterized the field's agenda in 1970?  That was the year Allan Millett published "American Military History:  Over the Top!"--a sort of trumpet call announcing the arrival of the "new" military history.  (The essay appeared in Herbert J. Bass (ed.), The State of American History [Chicago:  Quadrangle Books, 1970]).  Millett asserted that most of the "new" military historians had "abandoned the military's definition of military history as 'lessons' of command and strategy. . . .  Rather, we study the conduct of America's wars and the development of its military institutions in the unique political, economic, social, ideological, and technological milieu which shaped them."  And why?  "I would guess we hope such study would give us a fuller understanding of American"--and by easy extension, Asian, Latin American, European or World--history rather than make us strategists."

Of course, this new vision of military history did not preclude strategic policy-making history, and Millett went on to produce, often in collaboration with Wick Murray, some of the best such history that has been done in the years since then.  Nor did it rule out the study of combat.  But it certainly created a very large sphere in which the field of military history could operate.

Is there any hint of that larger sphere in the SMH program committee's guidance, which continues:

"The following panel titles are offered by way of more specific suggestion: strategy and economics, officer selection and promotion, coalition warfare, the relationship of military force and diplomacy, military industrial logistics in the era of the World Wars, rules of engagement and collateral damage, military organizations as consumers of technological change, military history and the formulation of military policy, history and military education, military occupation, synthetic surveys of military history, directed transformations of military institutions, legislative supervision of military policy, classical strategic theory and the teaching of strategy to military professionals, military history and operational analysis, military intelligence and military decision-making, global power projection (a.k.a. imperialism), the management of national resolve in war, the experience of families of war casualties, military history as institutional memory, the influence (or lack thereof) of historical scholarship on documentary film-making, comparisons of political scientific and historical approaches to military subjects, and historical consideration of the latest conflict(s) in the Middle East."

Nothing looks new here, either, aside from the "experience of families of war casualties", "memory" and "film-making suggestions," and these have a somewhat half-hearted quality compared to the confidence with which more traditional--or let's say perennial--themes are articulated.   And what is one to make of the decision to keep "imperialism" in parentheses, preferring to call it "global power projection."  Is there any other academic field that would pussy foot around a word like imperialism?

Finally, note two embedded asumptions.

First:  military history is essentially about nation-states and their forces, not violent resistance to those states (except by other states).  If one's research focuses on counterinsurgency, that's military history.  If insurgents--unless with an eye to "learning lessons" that can be applied to counterinsurgency--then apparently it isn't.  There seems little space in this agenda for much that would fall under Joe Guilmartin's useful "working definition of war":

"War is the use of organized, socially-sanctioned, armed violence to achieve a political, social, or economic objective."

War is an inherently politicized term, and governments that can do so almost invariably define what is and isn't war to suit their own purposes.  Joe's deceptively simple definition gets around this problem only that the armed violence be organized and "socially-sanctioned"--a phrase that intentionally allows for sanction by non-governmental groups.  By this definition, pirates, banditti, and terrorists can also be said, quite rightly, to be engaged in war.

Second:  the assumption that to the extent that military history is interdisciplinary, it connects primarily with the social sciences, especially political science.  True, for many purposes the social sciences remain a useful source of theory--just as we remain, for them, a useful source of actual data!--but as John Lynn stressed in his cri de coeur, "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History" (Journal of Military History 61:4 [October 1997]:777-789), the new gender and cultural history are also very helpful in unlocking questions of central importance to military history, while my own research has drawn me, not quite kicking and screaming but somewhat reluctantly, to post-colonialism and subaltern studies.  My reluctance stemmed not from aversion to the "politically correct"--and the cry of PC is nearly always a cop-out, a way to dismiss that with which one does not wish to engage--but rather because it meant (and means) a hell of a lot of new stuff to learn.  But it happens that I need to recover the mindset of soldiers who have left few if any traditional testimony, and recovering the voices of the voiceless has been a central concern of the post-colonial approach since its inception.  So it's learn that approach or abandon this particular historical problem.

A final thought.  So much change occurs--or is blocked--through violence that even if every military history program disappeared, academic military history would still get written, because so much change occurs through armed coercion that historians simply cannot avoid it.  The other evening I had a very pleasant and illuminating discussion about subaltern studies with a gifted OSU grad student in Latin American history.  I returned home, got online, and punched the keywords "soldier" and "subaltern" into a journal database to see if it produced anything.  Sure enough, a number of articles appeared, including one I saved, printed out, and read over the weekend:

Ricardo D. Salvatore, "Repertoires of Coercion and Market Culture in Nineteenth-Century Buenos Aires Province," International Review of Social History 45 (2000), pp. 409-448.

It's as valid a piece of military history as I've seen.  If you think I'm kidding, look it up.

So do we need graduate programs in military history?  Having played devil's advocate, let me now speak sincerely:  Hell yes.  But only if we recognize that all academic specializations represent a concession to our mortality.  Ideally we should be polymaths.  It is not only an act of intellectual cowardice to insist on a "blinkered military history," to paraphrase Holger Herwig's assessment of the imperial German officer corps, it is a huge missed opportunity for adventure.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!  On les aura! Over the top!

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