Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 27 - After only two people besides myself showed up for last week's History of War readings group, I asked a grad student to look into it.  He e-mailed me over the weekend to say that he had been in touch with nine of the grad students in military history.  There was a strong consensus in favor of continuing the readings group.  Finding a common time was a problem, however.  In addition, some students felt genuinely overwhelmed by their existing schedules.  Others said they would like more control over the readings and the way the sessions are run.  As for anything to do with "force and culture," I had the impression they wouldn't go near it without receiving academic credit for it, though if credit were offered most said they'd sign up for such a course.

I wrote back:

Thanks for taking the lead on this.  I think that ideally, the mil his grad students should be able to sustain a readings group without any faculty input at all, so most of what you say is music to my ears.  I do think it would be wise to have readings from time to time that would draw students from other fields, as it will give all of you early exposure to seeing how the questions that scholars in other fields ask of military affairs tends to differ from our own.  This has a practical benefit when mil his grad students go on the job market, but I also think it helps them better explain the concerns of our field to them and to ourselves.

I hope they'll take this suggestion to heart.  I know that in the months before I had my interview here at Ohio State and gave my job talk, I made a point of organizing a readings group that specifically dealt with early US history, not military history, given the strong assumption out there in academe that military historians don't know anything beyond military history.  I also went through every major journal for the past five years, culling out any article that relevant to what a military historian should know.  (That is why the most recent reading was James McPherson's presidential address.)  Those two precautions certainly increased my confidence level going into the job interview and job talk.

They may indeed have saved me from disaster, for as soon as I completed the job talk and asked for questions, hands shot up from two faculty members who were quite obviously gunning for me, both of them intent on demonstrating that I knew nothing of early US history beyond the Civil War.  One of them was my (now) colleague and friend Saul Cornell, who asked me to resolve a long list of major historiographical debates then current (e.g., the debate between Eugene D. Genovese and James Oakes about whether antebellum Southern society was pre-capitalistic or capitalistic).  After serving up this little bundle of would-be poison, he boomed cheerily, "Make your career!"

In a way, I did--or at least I got my career started.  I didn't resolve the Genovese-Oakes debate, of course, or any of the others, but I was able to speak about them conversantly enough that no one in the room could say thenceforth I didn't know anything beyond military history.  After that, the questions got progressively less aggressive and more genuinely curious, until by the end of 45 minutes of Q&A I got a warm round of applause.

There's a larger issue here.  I sometimes hear military historians talk as if familiarity with other fields were simply a means to an end:  since there are few jobs in our field, grad students should learn to sell yourself as an Americanist or Europeanist.  Since faculty at job talks usually want to hear how your work relates to theirs, learn to do that.  The problem is that the unspoken corollary is, "And once you get your foot in the door, you can show your true colors."  (One military historian, I'm told, literally sent out this email after receiving tenure:  "Hoist the Jolly Roger!")

That was done in a spirit of fun, of course, but the choice of metaphor is suggestive.  Military history as a form of history is very old, but as an academic field it is new.  I don't think the first built-from-the-ground-graduate programs emerged any time prior to the mid-1960s.  It's not as though we were once well-established and are only now besieged.  We have always been subversive, establishing ourselves in history departments by guerrilla tactics and, once installed, "hoisting the Jolly Roger" to do our own thing.

To the extent that such an attitude prevails, we miss a huge opportunity and we do every military historian who comes after us a grave disservice.  Because our "true colors" lead us to engage primarily with those who share our historical interests, political values, and methodological preferences.  We tend to resent and resist the rest of the academy; we do not think of ourselves as ambassadors on behalf of the field, and therefore we do not do as do other ambassadors and learn the relevant languages.  Because of that, we delay the day when military history becomes an accepted field of academic history

We also tend to think that there's something unfair about the criticisms people in other fields make of us in ours--that such criticisms are driven by mere political correctness.  Maybe so, maybe not.  I do know that pegging the validity of the other person's argument to the validity of their motives makes little sense, because you can never know for sure the motives of another.  The better way to proceed is on the intellectual merits:  to go from the premise that the criticisms are invalid to the premise that they are not only valid but an opportunity to show how outmoded is the "guns and battles" stereotype.  But they're an opportunity only if one has already done the work of considering deeply the intellectual roots, basic assumptions, and major questions of one's own field--the cognitive landscape--and can talk as meaningfully about what goes on at the boundaries of the field as at the core.  What the students call the "force and culture" sessions were designed to do that.

I can do this in a regular course, I guess, and for me personally it would be easier since I'd get academic credit of a different sort, whereas the readings group was done on my own time.  But I would have thought that such a purpose is best accomplished informally, because an informal approach offers the best chance of engagement with students in other fields, few of whom would take a course in military history.  But it is better to get the job done, one way or another, than to worry too much about how it gets done.

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