Interrogating the Project of Military History

June 10 - The SMH meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Bethesda, a handsome but pricey venue with plenty of bars and restaurants near at hand and quick access to downtown Washington--especially the newly-completed  World War II Memorial, which a number of participants managed to visit.  I myself stayed at a handsome but less pricey venue a couple of miles up the road and thereby saved a bundle.

When I first attended conferences, years ago, I associated them with sessions and papers and assumed those formed the main rationale for holding conferences in the first place.  Wrong.  Nowadays I would say that the most important business at a conference is transacted neither in the meeting rooms nor the book exhibit hall (which would be my second choice), but rather hotel bars like the one at left.  Here is where historians and editors discuss book projects, either prospective or in progress (this is especially true for the largest conferences like the AHA and OAH).  Here too is where historians compare notes on all sorts of issues, hatch plans of various kinds, persuade one another to join this or that project, and in general transact a lot of informal business.  The hotel bar is also a convenient place for grad students to interact with established historians.  Most especially it's a place for old friends to meet and renew acquaintances.  So if you ever need to find me at a conference, you now know where to look.

I've never been good at attending conference sessions, anyway.  I find it hard to pay attention to the content of the presentations.  I get distracted by a presenter's speaking style, or I wonder why no one ever taught the moderator how to coordinate his clothes.  It helps to take notes.  Still, the presentations fly by so fast it's hard to keep up, besides which--and this is the part that kills me-- you can almost always get the presenter to give you a copy of their paper.  Which makes me wonder why we bother doing the whole arcane exercise of reading papers to one another, anyway.  Sometimes there's a certain sick fascination in witnessing someone deliver an especially bad paper or watching a commentator who fails to grasp the distinction between a rigorous critique and verbal humiliation.  I have even seen one or two sessions turn into academic versions of The Jerry Springer Show.  But such occasions are rare.

When I attend a session it is usually for one of two reasons:  either I am a participant or organizer, and therefore have to be there; or else the topic is very close to one of my professional interests.  I wasn't on the program at this year's SMH and few of the sessions dealt with issues of central concern to me.  Indeed, the question that most concerned me at the meeting--whether military historians shared my interest in linking our field more closely to academic history--could be answered reasonably well just by looking at the session titles.

Here's a copy of the program, color-coded so that sessions that dealt directly with professional military education are indicated in red and sessions that seem obviously inspired by current military issues are indicated in this color (whatever it is).  Out of 42 regular sessions, six struck me as belonging in the former category and three in the latter.  Thus, slightly more than one out of five sessions was more or less self-consciously focused upon the present-day strategic policy-making community.  Most of the rest dealt with what I think most of us would recognize as traditional military historical topics--topics that would not have seemed odd or out of place had the conference been held twenty-five years ago.  Few of these seemed to draw much upon the work of historians in other fields, save perhaps diplomatic history.  I have indicated in green the sessions that appeared to be significantly influenced by the present-day academic community.  I counted eight of these, which to say not quite one out of five sessions.  If you look over the program for yourself you'll undoubtedly disagree with some of my categorizations, but I think we'll wind up with about the same proportions:  21 percent strategic policy-making community, 60 percent traditional military history (which may reasonably be said to resonate with the worldview and conceptual frameworks of the strategic policy-making community) , 19 percent academic community.

I'm not suggesting any sort of invidious comparisons, though a few blog readers will undoubtedly suspect that for me, a session  that engages with the academic community equals good and the rest equals not so good.  In fact some of the better papers I heard were part of "strategic policy-making" or "traditional military history" and some of the less convincing ones attempted to make use of concepts considered "cutting edge" within the academic community.  Furthermore, some of the sessions include papers from different categories and some of the individual papers fuse the concerns of different communities.  My point is simply that I found the program a useful though incomplete way to get a handle on the way in which military historians, as a corporate entity, position themselves.  This I supplemented by noticing the size and makeup of the audience that appeared for the sessions I attended (it would be interesting to have the actual figures for every session), by listening to the questions that were asked of the panelists, and above all by talking to attendees in, you guessed it, the hotel bar.

I'm not sure I came away with any definitive pronouncement, except to say that I saw little evidence that most of those at the SMH share my interest in knitting military history more closely to academic history.  I'll give you an example.  At the final plenary session, Jeremy Black spoke about the need to synthesize a coherent world military history.  Harold Selesky argued that the American armed forces tend to see World War Two as the classic paradigm of the American military experience, whereas much of that experience actually suggests that the conflict in Iraq--a war across cultures and involving non-state actors--is really more the norm than the exception.  Jon Sumida offered a comment that really dealt with the whole conference as much as with the session papers.  Both he and Harold, in different ways, emphasized the need for military historians to keep before the eye of policy-makers a sense of the complexities and unintended consequences that attend the use of force.  Not to mince words, both were critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war, if not the decision to attack Iraq in the first place.  The papers and comment were all terrific.

My friend Jeffrey Grey heard these prepared remarks but had to leave for an appointment shortly after the Q&A began.  Recently he emailed me asking for my impressions.  I give them below, interlaced with his comments.

You asked about the plenary session.  I gather you weren't able to stick around long enough to hear the question I posed to the panel--and for that matter, the whole audience.  Basically I said that the papers and commentary were all first-rate (which I really meant, BTW), but that it seemed to me that Harold's paper seemed to face toward the strategic policy-making community while Jeremy's seemed to be of relevance chiefly to the academic community.  I continued that military history has three audiences, the two relevant ones being the strategic policy-making and academic communities.  In terms of the future of the field, I wondered if they had any thoughts concerning which of these audiences should be our primary focus.

Harold, Jeremy, and Jon all gave the question respectful attention, but I thought they really talked around the issue.  (Several people approached me afterward to say they liked the question and were disappointed it didn't get a real answer.)  I think the problem was partly due to the fact that Harold immediately asked what I thought the third audience was, and when I said, "the general reader," he spent most of his time saying we ought to engage more with that third audience.  Jeremy and Jon picked up on this and basically endorsed what Harold had to say.    Some of the responses touched a bit on the importance of the strategic policy-making audience.  Nobody talked at all about the academic audience.

I think both papers were extremely interesting, and agree that there is good mileage in Jeremy's current approach to the issue. In fact, he'll be out here next month for three weeks and I have him giving a guest seminar in my graduate course, and have arranged for him to give a seminar at the Land Warfare Studies Centre, the main Army think tank here.

I suspect that Harold's response is conditioned by the fact that he is in the academy already, and from that perspective sees engagement with a wider general readership as being the pressing task. If so, he's right, from that perspective, because so much academic history is written in ways that simply turns off the wider reading public, who then go to the Keegans, Ambroses (and worse) instead. But you are correct as well, it isn't the *only* audience. I suspect that you would get different responses depending on the sector in which your interlocutor was employed. Someone working at CMH probably wouldn't see the policy community orientation as being an issue, because that's where they work. Those with little or no real experience of the university sector probably don't appreciate the importance of the point you are trying to make - some because they're hostile, some because it just doesn't impinge much upon them. That's no excuse, but it is a partial explanation.

Why don't you think about writing something for JMH on this issue? It *is* an issue, it is worth discussing, and grabbing people's attention is probably an incremental process. If you think it's worth the effort, I'd be happy to jointly author such a piece with you. Think about it.

In fact, my impression from the SMH overall is that not many people share my interest in engaging more fully with the academic community.  Some people seem to think we do that perfectly well already; others seem alienated by and antagonistic toward that community.  I thought it was telling that when Jon Sumida mentioned a post-9/11 "teach-in" called "Gender, Race, Class, and Terrorism," the remark got a big derisory laugh from the audience.  It was as if everyone considered it self-evidently true that those categories of analysis could tell us nothing of value about terrorism and, by extension, war.  Moreover, since "gender, race and class" is usually just shorthand for academic culture, I think the remark was aimed at academic historians in general.

I know what you mean, and will admit to chuckling when Jon made that point. It's not that G/R/C aren't key determinants and worthy of serious consideration when discussing current circumstances, but rather that so many in the academy seem incapable of looking at any issue in any other terms. If many military historians are guilty of thinking too narrowly about military issues, many non-military historians are guilty of a different sort of narrowness, one that appears to be broad and inclusive but in fact does not admit of other ways of viewing a specific body of knowledge - war and peace robbed of the military activity, if you like. It strikes me as being just as skewed. And I think it leads to some of the sorts of caricatures that you've described so well in the latest blog (may I use that page in my class next session please?). Part of the problem, I believe, over the Abu Ghraib affair is the use of reservists (not the reservists per se, but the ways in which they are being utilised and the preparations they have have actually undergone for the tasks they are actually faced with) and the ways in which the Army moved many of what I'll call 'Phase IV functions' out of the active duty military after Vietnam. Now that's a military organisational/institutional/policy issue with very wide ramifications that we are now seeing. It isn't the only reason why these things occurred. But I don't think an exclusive G/R/C focus gets you very far in understanding that particular issue. So I have some sympathy for both sides of this particular equation. OK, so I'm fence sitting a bit. :)

I must say it's always a bit odd to ask a question at one of these gatherings.  When you ask a question one-on-one you can stop the respondent if necessary and clarify your meaning, but in a large gathering you really have to just sit there and listen to the answer whatever it may be.  I felt a little silly, smiling and nodding as if edified by the exhortations of the three panelists to engage more with the general reader.  In fact, I have written for the general reader since I was twenty and have always considered this a worthy task.  Almost the first paper I tackled, when I began my PhD studies, was one entitled, "The Professional Historian and Popular History."  It essentially argued that academic historians should write for the general reader if they could and, if they couldn't, at least respect those who did.  (The paper wound up being published in Columbiad magazine and was just recently reprinted as the first chapter of The Ongoing Civil War:  New Versions of Old Stories, ed. by Herman Hattaway and Ethan S. Rafuse [University of Missouri Press, 2004]).  In this wish to engage with the general reader, however, I am hardly alone.  Most military historians of my acquaintance have written books intended to reach a wide audience or have contributed essays to magazines of popular history.  To put it simply, this is an audience we already do a good job of reaching.  Don't believe me?  Visit any book store.  That's why I attempted to focus my question only on the strategic policymaking and academic audiences.

As for authoring or co-authoring a piece for the Journal of Military History on the issue of beefing up military history as an academic venture, it's probably a step someone needs to take.  The trick would be to frame to question so as to move the dialogue forward--too often when I raise this matter the battle lines are drawn very quickly, the stock phrases that deflect and deaden the exchange spill forth, and the conversation goes nowhere. 

For the rest of it--how much do academic historians disdain us versus how much do we disdain them--who the hell really knows?  Lately I have begun asking people who make these kinds of generalizations to offer specific incidents and to name names.  Mostly they either can't do it, or their sample is very small, or the incident they mention is open to more than one interpretation.  (Example:  not long ago a grad student told me that a colleague of mine has said, "I don't do military history."  Which might be a putdown--like the maid who sniffs, "I don't do windows"--but it might be just a simple statement of fact.)  Besides, it's a barren exercise that gets us nowhere.  As far as I'm concerned, it's a given that we already do a good job of reaching two of our three core audiences--the strategic policymaking and general reader audiences.  It's the academic audience that needs work.  Not because the other two audiences aren't legitimate, but because this one is too.

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