Interrogating the Project of Military History

June 9 - Several weeks ago the military history grad students assumed charge of the History of War readings group, and a few days before I left for Bethesda the student organizing the group sent me an email updating me on their efforts and progress.  "I would like to do a reading," the message said at one point, "about where military history SHOULD be going (i.e. The newer military history, as opposed to the new military history, or the old military history), and I was wondering if you had any suggestions."  It added, "We believe that no matter what, the readings should be short, easily accessible, and readable."

Here's my reply.  Since it gives a precis of my views on the state of the field, circulated among the grad students, and figured prominently in one of their subsequent discussions, I include it in full:

Thanks for your email, and sorry it's taken so long to respond.

I'm slightly taken aback by your request for readings about the direction military history should be taking.  It's a very good question, and if you look at my web page, "Dialogue in Military History," you'll find I've had pretty pronounced views on this subject for many years.  The blog is my most recent attempt to deal with this subject, and the readings I selected for the readings group were also designed to deal with this subject.

I'll try again and will be as direct as I can. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, the field of military history, in the academic sense of "field," barely exists.  In general, university historians choose their subject matter from intellectual concerns.  By contrast, most of us who become military historians (including me) are drawn toward the subject matter independently of such concerns.  We often begin in childhood with a sort of hobbyist interest in military affairs; or our interest in military history derives from an adult involvement in the armed forces; or both.

Either way, it is a sort of free-floating interest:  entirely valid and, I deeply believe, of great importance to understanding human affairs, but not well-grounded intellectually.  We borrow most of our categories, concepts, definitions, and questions from the armed forces.  We think the way they think, ask the questions they ask, overlook the questions they overlook.  For officers like yourself, this poses no problem.  For civilian grad students interested in working as analysts in think tanks or as instructors in places like the Air University or the service academies, this poses no problem.  But for civilian grad students who wish to become professors at major universities, to train grad students of their own, and to be members of a field that every top-25 history department will regard as essential to its success, this is a big problem.  Or, as I prefer to think of it, a big challenge.

When military historians attempt to claim, as some will, that the field has gained so little purchase in academe because of political prejudice, they're either deluded or knowingly serving up bullshit.  At best, the verdict on such a claim must be "Not proven."  We do not look or act like an academic field.  Consequently it is unreasonable for historians in other fields to regard us as one.  An academic field has at least three basic features.  First, it is self-reflective; it consciously and critically thinks about its origins, its purpose, its direction.  Second, it sustains an on-going dialogue on major questions that arise from this self-reflection.  In a thematic field (e.g., women's history, legal-constitutional history, international/diplomatic history), these questions are typically comparative and/or longitudinal:  which is to say they range broadly across space and/or time.  Third, it has a professional organization and a professional journal devoted to the advancement of the field.

Re the first feature, self-reflection:  From an intellectual standpoint, military history is self-reflective only in a rudimentary sense.  I've read every historiographical essay on the field I could lay my hands on published since 1970.  They are either celebratory or (more usually) defensive, and often rather casual in tone.  Women's history, to give just one example, has been around for about the same amount of time and has a very rich theoretical development.  This isn't because women's historians are bright and military historians are stupid.  It's because women's historians identify closely with the norms of academe while military historians generally do not.  Military historians generally identify with the policy-making community and share the pragmatic orientation of that community.  Every grad student who chooses to self-identify as a military historian must decide how she or he feels about this.  I myself decided years ago that our involvement with the policy-making community was a good thing--it kept us relevant and connected to the world at large--but that we orbited that community too closely.

Re the second:  an on-going dialogue on major questions.  I don't see much evidence of this.  The military revolution debate models the sort of dialogue I mean.  How many similar debates can anyone identify?  I think we have the beginnings of a good discussion on soldier motivation and perhaps the early breaths of a good discussion on whether there's such a thing as a western way of war--which, by the way, can be seen as an offshoot of the military revolution debate.  Otherwise most of the debates focus on relatively narrow matters.  I do not say unimportant or arcane.  I say narrow.  Prof. Millett has told me he thinks the sine qua non of a true military historian is the ability to do comparative or longitudinal work; that most self-described military historians are really historians of single wars.  He estimates that about 35 academic historians correspond to military historians as he understands the term.  (And anyone who glances at the cv's of Profs. Millett, Guilmartin, and Parker will see that they amply meet that test, as did Prof. Murray.)  The question remains, are 35 scholars enough to generate a body of work in conversation with one another?  If not, it becomes not only a partial explanation for the relative dearth of major debates, but also forms an additional argument that the field of (academic) military history as yet exists only in embryo.

Re the third:  a professional organization and journal.  The Society for Military History was originally the American Military Institute, an organization principally composed of serving and retired officers.  Academic military historians, as they came into existence, just sort of piggy-backed onto to AMI.  As president of that organization circa 1990, Prof. Millett was at the center of the effort that resulted in the name change to the SMH, a reorientation more in the direction of academic military history, and the overhaul of Military Affairs into the Journal of Military History.  But I don't think anyone would disagree with the view that the SMH remains a hybrid organization where academic military historians, "public" military historians (i.e., those working in some government capacity), and interested laypersons co-exist.  Is such an organization valid?  Assuredly.  Is such an organization the best vehicle by which to develop military history as an academic field?  I have my doubts.  By the same token, my sense of the JMH is that it does a very good job of reflecting the current state of the field, in the sense of publishing good scholarship reflective of the field, but does not take much of a hand in shaping the field.  (You might look at Diplomatic History under Prof. Michael Hogan's editorial control as a good example of a journal that took a strong hand in trying to shape the field.)  Here again, grad students in military history must decide what they think of this.  Would it be appropriate, even if possible, to shift the SMH further in the direction of academic history?  Should the JMH be encouraged to take a stronger hand in shaping the field, and if so, in what direction?  Should a new organization be created to advance the interests of academic military history?

Basically, then, I think the focus of the readings group should be to focus on articles or essays that encourage discussion on these three features.  The first two features can be "got at" more or less directly by a judicious selection of articles and essays.  Consideration regarding the third will most likely arise indirectly.

Where to start?  My thought in creating the readings group was to bring together military and non-military history grad students, on the theory that this offered a good way to encourage reflection and self-reflection on military history.  This approach evidently didn't work, so at the beginning of spring quarter I tried another approach, which was to discuss articles with a military dimension which the American Historical Review--the flagship journal of academic history in this country--had decided were of sufficient importance that all academic historians should, presumably, read them.  When I selected James McPherson's presidential address, you were the only military history grad student who showed up, and knowing what I know now, I don't think this was just a matter of bad scheduling.  I still think it would be a good piece to discuss.  Even better might be the article (in the current AHR) which gives a revisionist view of the thinking of the Japanese government re war termination in 1945.

Wherever you look for readings, I encourage you to choose a good, solid, meaty article.  If I understood your email correctly, the current consensus favors somewhat lighter fare.  In the short run you should do, I suppose, whatever it takes to establish and maintain an ongoing discussion group, in the interests of fostering an intellectual community.  In the intermediate and long term, it should be understood that in our profession one is expected to keep up with the major literature on a lifelong basis.  In my experience, an assistant professor teaching two courses (for which the lectures are already prepped) does about the same amount of work as a grad student taking two to three courses.  (If the lectures aren't yet prepped, which is usually the case for several years, the burden is much greater.) In addition to teaching courses, the assistant professor is expected to keep regular office hours, attend faculty meetings, serve on department, college and university committees, and--the exact requirements vary from institution to institution--be professionally active through conference presentations and the publication of articles and/or books.  On top of this the professor is expected to stay reasonably abreast the emerging literature in one's field, the really important new historical works broadly conceived, two or three "general" journals like the AHR, and at least one or two others most relevant to her specialization. 

Few do this perfectly, of course, but one had better do a reasonably good job of it.  The burden increases significantly with promotion to associate professor and increases again with promotion to full professor.  Given these realities, it does not seem unreasonable to expect a grad student to read independently one scholarly article in her field on a weekly basis.  If that expectation is unreasonable, then quite plainly we faculty have done a poor job of selecting the grad students for this program.

I hope this response makes up in content for what it lacks in promptness.  Thank you again for taking a leadership role in this matter. . . .  Feel free to share any or all of this email to the other mil his grad students as you see fit.

Best,

Mark

Last week I received this follow-up, which I reprint with the sender's permission:

At our last discussion on Friday, the group discussed the e-mail you sent me, as well as its relation to Professor Millett's 1970 "Over the Top" and Professor Lynnís "Embattled Military History." The conversation grew quite heated sometimes, but we all agreed that yes, we needed to find more balance between academia and practical policy and that your e-mail offered a good place to start from.

I think you will find the following two e-mail selections heartening. The first is by L----, as his guide for this week's discussion, which he is leading. The second is a response by M----.

Folks,
This Friday's reading is Prof. Geoffrey Parker's "The Artillery Fortress as an Engine of European Overseas Expansion, 1480-1750".

I believe that the function of the readings group is not so much to discuss specific aspects of military history (that requires alcohol), but to act as a forum wherein we can begin the much-needed process of generating a working definition of "academic" military history. To be "academic" is, literally, to be a member of the academy. As we discussed last time, becoming full and equal members of the academy will not be achieved by desperately chasing after intellectually fashionable will-'o-the-wisps. Nor will it be found in grafting on alien concepts in order to create some kinder, gentler Frankenmilitaryhistory. Instead, that process must begin organically, with military historians defining "military history" and, once having established that firm foundation, actively (and confidently) engaging the rest of the academy. Put simply, if you don't know where you are, you won't know how to get to where you're going.

So, why the Parker article? When some brilliant new historian out there is probably writing a monograph explaining the political culture of Stuart England as a function of the defecatory habits of Glaswegian fish-mongers, why would anyone care about the artillery fortress? This is a question that would undoubtedly have many heads in the faculty lounge knowingly nodding in assent.

Allow me to suggest the obvious: Parker is not writing on the artillery fortress for its own sake. He is scarcely writing on it even as a military phenomenon. Rather, he takes the artillery fortress, which itself a product of the interaction between war, technology and the urban landscape, and examines its role as a catalyst to the growth of the great seafaring empires of Europe. The artillery fortress acts as the 'tipping point', if you will, in the dynamic strategic continuum between European and non-European powers in the early modern period. As such, it has important implications for any scholar whose subject is a function of the early colonial empires.

If Parker is not talking about the artillery fortress for its own sake, or its actual military performance, is he even writing military history? If it is not military history, what is the definition of military history such that Parker's article must be excluded? If it is military history, how must we define the term? Most importantly, if it is military history, what does it mean for our relationship to other historical fields?

Please forgive my penchant for definitions, but I was trained as a lawyer. The art of law consists of making facts fit the definition. Definitions, therefore, are not so much unalterable realities as they are signposts towards a destination. Accordingly, I like to know exactly whereof I speak.

***

All,

I would echo what L--- proposes.  (I can't be there this Friday... but I will be there in spirit)

Last week at the Society for Military History (SMH) conference we (academic milhistorians) were skirting around the same issue.  how do we get past guns & battles (which are still important) and ask the "big" questions?  some of the older generation did not see the point, but being a pro-active new asst. prof. I was asking around about this very question. 

It seems that the interested members of the society, as well as the new generation (for the most part) are interested in making milhist more "important".  We - collectively - need to be well grounded in the basic narrative, but then need to look at the greater implications.  [We need to] ask the 'why' question more frequently. 

in the interest of space and time i will confine my thoughts to the above.  I will be there eventually, count me in.  But for now, know that you are taking up the challenge of the new generation and giving context AND content to milhist as a discipline.
 

It's against the background of these exchanges that I'd like to take up discussion of the SMH conference itself.  I'll get to that next time.

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