Interrogating the Project of Military History

A military historian takes the postmodern (PoMo), postcolonial (PoCo) plunge.


What is the relationship between the book at left and the people at right, photographed living in the city dump in the hills above La Ceiba, Honduras, July 2002?

"Deconstruction does not say there is no subject, there is no truth, there is no history. It simply questions the privileging of identity so that someone is believed to have the truth. It is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced." - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak - founder of postcolonialism.

December 14, 2003 - Back in September Ken Andrien, the current Chair of the history department, called me into his office. In my eleven years on the faculty, a summons to meet the Chair has yet to result in anything unpleasant, but that makes no difference. I always respond by racking my brains--OK, what have I done wrong?

Turned out Ken wanted nothing more than my service on a search committee. September is an odd time to launch a search, but the College had just received funding to appoint a specialist in Latino/a Studies. The College currently has no program in this field, but it does have several faculty--in English, Comparative Studies, Women's Studies--whose research focuses on the subject. The committee mandate was to find someone with the interest, energy and drive to synergize those faculty into a program. It's part of the University's on-going commitment to greater diversity.

I'm no specialist in Latino/a Studies--indeed, I know scandalously little--but the three Latin Americanists in our department already had a full load of assignments and I am known to be a friend of diversity--albeit in what I imagine may appear an amiably clueless, old-style liberal way. The sort who thinks he gets diversity but doesn't. The sophistication of my views mattered not. My assignment was to serve on the committee as a kind of liaison. My Latin Am colleagues would feed me the names of people to approach, especially in the field of history, and I would pass those along to the chair of the search commitee, David Horn, who also chairs the Department of Comparative Studies.

Rounding out the committee were Jared Gardner (English) and Catriona Rueda Esquibel (Women's Studies). Unlike me, the others had real knowledge about the field. Me, I just passed along the nominations and tried not to pretend I knew something I didn't.

I will leave aside the details of the search. Recounting them would be not only inappropriate but also beside the point of this blog. Suffice it to say that in the upshot, we--well, the others--identified a very promising candidate and lost no time in bringing him to campus. I'll reveal his real name in a later post, but for now I'll call him Marco Gonzales.

David invited Marco to campus, Jared went to work on the itinerary, and we all pitched in with suggestions about how to make the visit as smooth and impressive as possible, because when you bring in a candidate you want him to be, well, impressed. Marco arrived at the end of finals week--a bad time because so many faculty and grad students were either snowed under with grading or skying out for the holidays, but a good time too, because a scholar as good as Marco was bound to have multiple suitors. This gave us a chance to make that good impression before m/any others.

Just before Marco arrived, I re-read his file and examples of his scholarship, some of which was available online because Marco was plainly as enamoured of the Web as I am. Although I'd seen most of it before, I'd been too distracted to be really engaged, partly because the quarter was under full steam and partly because Marco's area of specialization is, to say the least, very different from mine. The prospect of soon meeting Marco increased my interest. So did the afterglow of a recent encounter with a grad student in our department. Because this tale can only do him credit, I'll use his real name: Steve Hyland.

Steve came to the program from the University of Texas at Austin. There he had obtained his degree in anthropology. Here I have to leave the story for several paragraphs, but I'll circle back later. Trust me, it's a necessary excursion..

Anthropology is a field which since the 1960s has generated theories that have profoundly influenced the humanities (e.g., history, languages) and has, in turn, absorbed equally influential theories stemming from literary criticism. My own discipline, history, has absorbed a goodly dose of these "cutting edge" approaches. But my field, military history, emphatically has not. In fact, I would say most military historians--even those at major universities--possess only the haziest idea of what's going on. All they know, for the most part, is that whatever it is, they hate it. Because they have the sense that "it" hates them.

In some corners of academe they may be correct. John Lynn, my good friend and colleague at the University of Illinois, probably knows as much about these new approaches as any of us--certainly far more than I. This has availed him little. As his colleagues in traditional fields retire, the department uses the funds thus freed to hire in emerging fields that it deems more important. Here's the list of faculty. You'll see that the research interests of most of them include one or more of the following terms: gender, women, culture, sexuality, race, ethnicity. Incidentally, you will not see the holder of the James G. Randall Chair, which became vacant some years ago upon the retirement of Robert Johannsen. That's because according to the bequest creating it, the Chair can go only to a scholar in political, military, or legal-constitutional history, none of which are areas in which these cutting edge approaches have flourished.

John and I are military historians. Like most academic military historians of his generation--he received his PhD from UCLA in 1973--John was actually trained in another field (in his case modern European history). I'm part of the first generation to be trained in military history per se. Unlike other specializations, ours has a strong non-academic component. If you peruse the Directory of Members of the Society for Military History, the principal association in our field, you find that members with military rank preceding their names, or members with no discernible academic affiliation, make up well over half the list. If academic military historians know little about the approaches derived from anthropology and literary criticism--and yes, I promise to get to them soon--the non-academic ones know less. And they seem proud of the fact.

At the 1997 annual meeting of the SMH, held, tellingly, at the Air University in Montgomery, Alabama, John gave a luncheon talk entitled, "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History." The first half was a diatribe. "Current fashions in the study of history are more self-righteous and intolerant than they have been for generations, and, I might add, more bizarre." John then described an approach to history so intensely theoretical that it simply derailed the empirical study of the past.

"I have seen amazingly questionable stuff pawned off as serious," told his audience. "In a job search for someone in the 'new cultural history' my colleagues brought in a finalist who was trying to analyze the political opinions of Huguenot refugees in New York by the turnings on chairs they crafted." John, who is an accomplished artist and craftsman, then ad libbed that he was the more skeptical of this analysis because from his own experience, he knew that some of what the finalist adduced to conscious design was really a necessity imposed by the material being used. "It was a classic case of piling up speculation upon speculation to get from the subtle differences in chair spindles to an entire weltanschauung [world view]. One of my colleague walked out of the room with a look on his face that can only have mirrored St. Bernadette's expresion at Lourdes after her first vision. Turning to me he gasped, 'He put the whole world in a chair!' I felt duty bound to remind him that chairs were really designed to accommodate asses." Here's my guess concerning the finalist's identity.

The luncheon audience howled in appreciation. It warmed to John's tirade even more as he told them the results of a content analysis he had done of articles published in the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the historical profession, which demonstrated a near-complete dearth of attention to warfare. That lack of balance extended to staffing priorities in history departments. "There seems to be a desire to restrict history departments to a narrow spectrum. I am infuriated by my colleagues' lack of concern with preserving variety, breadth, and balance." Confronted with requests to preserve a presence in traditional fields like political and diplomatic history, "the new wave fights with the self-righteous tenacity of a persecuted minority when they are neither persecuted nor a minority any longer."

It went on like that, and as I type these excerpts I am tempted to include more and more, because it's all really good stuff. But I'll restrain myself, and urge you instead to read the version of the talk published later that year:

The Embattled Future of Academic Military History John A. Lynn The Journal of Military History , Vol. 61, No. 4. (Oct., 1997), pp. 777-789.
Stable URL:

You'll need access to J-STOR (short for Journal Storage) to see the piece. I'll ask John if he still has the text file of the luncheon talk. If he does, and he gives his okay, I'll post it. . . . Hey, what do you know? He did--although the version he sent is pretty close to the one published by JMH.

"Rally Once Again": The Embattled Future of Academic Military History

After doing a nice job of pointing out the substantive reasons that "cutting edge" historians might look down upon military history, John concluded--or seemed to conclude--on this note:

"And so they are cutting us down. When we-the-tenured retire, disappear, or are assassinated by our own disillusioned graduate students, it unlikely that our positions will be filled by other military specialists. The record is pretty bad there. When 'Mac' Coffman retired from Wisconsin, he was not replaced; there are no plans to hire a military historian to fill Gunther Rothenberg's shoes at Purdue; and I have no doubt that if I drop dead tomorrow, my colleagues at the University of Illinois will happily bury military history with me and hire someone in a more 'exciting' field--maybe that guy who does chairs."

For the assembled SMH--military officers, non-tenure-track lecturers, independent historians, and a modest number of regular faculty--this was red meat and strong beer. If John had stopped there, he would have been chaired from the banquet hall in triumph. But John had more to say.

"In my opinion we are under attack, and to survive we must rally once again and find strategies for survival. Survival will, I am confident, lead to victory, because current trends will not continue for ever; some are simply too cockamamie in some cases and will naturally moderate in others. But what should we do 'til then?

" One reaction to the hostile environment facing us might be to adopt a siege mentality and hunker down behind the nearest fortified position. Military institutions will always have a certain number of billets for us, although they tell me that these maybe declining in numbers too. But I feel that military history would suffer considerably if it were to find its primary refuge and support within the walls of war colleges and military historical services. The problem is that this would warp one form of military history into another. Academic military history would have to become more narrowly practical, and this would only make its position more tenuous in academe. Military history may survive in other venues, but it only reproduces itself and grows within universities. The real battle ground is there, so let us stay in the open and rally by our colors."

John went on to say that whatever the "current historical fashion" might make of military history, military history could appropriate "elements of that fashion [to] make for much better and more intellectually active forms of military history, forms that will help military history regain its proper focus. This was not true the last time around [i.e., the late 1960s], when advocates of a 'new military history' urged us to integrate social history, sociology, and political science into our field, for these approaches had a tendency to divert us at the same time that they promised to enlighten us."

The "new military history" trained its attention on the military as a social institution and "neglected or even denied" the focus on combat that to John was "the essence of military history." The new gender and cultural histories, however, offered strong potential for illuminating precisely this central concern. You can read this section of his talk to see how he made his case. The operative point is that, despite John's rousing delivery, the audience response was decidedly tepid. They not only didn't get it, they didn't want to.

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