Interrogating the Project of Military History

June 14 - A part of the SMH conference I found especially insightful was not a session but, unexpectedly, the business meeting.  It was the first such meeting I had ever attended and I had no idea how many people would be present.  I might have bought a clue from the fact that the meeting was held at 8:30 a.m. on the last day of the conference.  Although it took place in a room that could have seated several hundred people, I doubt if more than twenty-five were actually in attendance.  Nevertheless, the SMH president and officers dutifully presented their reports to us as if were many times our number.

Toward the end of the meeting, someone in the audience asked a question--I cannot for the life of me recall what it was--whose answer required the SMH president, Dr. Timothy Nenninger, to dip back into his memories of the organization since he first joined it in the early 1970s.  At that time, he said, the organization (then called the American Military Institute) consisted chiefly of active-duty and retired officers and its "annual meeting" was simply a luncheon held in Washington, DC, with attendance usually hovering between sixty and one hundred people.  Beginning in 1980 a couple of plenary sessions began to supplement the luncheon, and a year or two later the annual meeting began to be held in other venues.  But not until the late 1980s did the annual meeting come to resemble a normal academic conference with a full slate of sessions.  (The first such instance, I think, occurred in April 1989 when the meeting was held at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.  That was the same year in which the organization became the SMH and Military Affairs became the Journal of Military History, with a strikingly greater resemblance to an academic journal.)

Dr. Nenninger's resume reminded me of just how little time has passed since academic values and interests began to exert a significant influence on the organization.  By implication, it also suggested how long it has required for the organization's culture to shift, for at least twenty years elapsed between the rise of academic military history and the convening of an annual meeting that looked like an academic conference.

Fixing a date for the dawn of academic military history is, of course, a somewhat arbitrary matter, but I have always associated it with the 1970 publication of an essay by Allan Millett entitled "American Military History:  Over the Top," which appeared in Herbert J. Bass (ed.), The State of American History (Chicago:  Quadrangle Books, 1970), 157-182.  Its first paragraph reads:

At least since Charles Francis Adams made his plea for military history to the American Historical Association in 1899, scholars have put a fog as great as the "fog of war" about research in this specialty.  It has suffered from the liberal, often pacifistic narrow-mindedness of historians, the lack of graduate programs, the paucity of research support, and the capture of the field by the armed forces' historical programs, journalists, publicists, and political scientists.  Some of these still influence research in the specialty, especially the limited number of courses, programs, and teaching positions.  I would modestly propose, however, that military history research is now reorganizing and consolidating, not struggling to the line of departure.  Scholarly activity since World War II has elevated military history to full intellectual status.

What is striking about this paragraph is that its list of things that had restricted the field prior to 1970 is a list that remains familiar today.  It is common for military historians to lament the "liberal, often pacifistic narrow-mindedness" of their peers in other fields, though nowadays this is called "political correctness."  (At the plenary session, one attendee loudly announced that he was headed to the men's room because it was at least one place where men were still welcome.)  There are equal complaints about the small number of dedicated teaching positions available in military history--most academically-trained military historians are actually hired as American or European historians, and the fact that graduate programs in military history frequently disappear with the retirement of the faculty who created them (e.g., Wisconsin and Michigan).  My own complaint that military history looks more readily to the strategic policy-making and general reader communities than to the academic community is not that different from Allan's comment about the entities that once captured the field.

Indeed, other similar essays from the early 1970s sound themes that I have begun to explore in this blog.  In "The History of War" (1971), Peter Paret wrote that most military history was "extremely conventional--descriptive history, centering on leading figures, campaigns, and climactic battles, often with a strong antiquarian bent."  He added that the field was "characterized by indifference to the problem of methodology, most writers being content to jog along in the old narrative ways."  In "Demilitarizing Military History:  Servants of Power or Agents of Understanding? (1972)," Peter Karsten averred, "Military history has too long been the property of 'war buff' antiquarians and policy-oriented 'servants of power' who regard their mission as the reconstruction of tactical, strategic, or leadership problems 'lessons of the past' for those training military leaders of tomorrow."  The utilitarian bent of this sort of history implicitly accepted the worldview and agenda of those in power and ignored questions the power elite would find uncongenial or irrelevant.

Finally, in 1975 Allan Millett extended the Western Front metaphor of his 1970 essay to warn that while American military historians might at last be "over the top," they were still "Struggling Through the Wire."  "I no longer think that the specialty is making any significant impact on the writing or teaching of American history."  His principal explanation was "the lack of a meaningful historiographical tradition in American military history," a condition that he thought accounted for much of the "intellectual flabbiness" of the field.  Why was this the case?  Partly because of the consensus that characterized the field--there were no serious intellectual disagreements foster debate--and partly because such difference of opinion as did exist tended to focus on whether American military history should be a tool for the education of professional officers or a tool to combat the spread of American "militarism."

Allan thought American military history ought properly to be judged in terms of its impact on the history of warfare and its impact on the history of the United States.  "The first influence is difficult to assess, the latter less so.  In essence, the writings on American military history have made virtually no impact on the teaching and writing of American history."  As evidence, he cited a recent article summarizing the thirty-two books published since 1960 which American historians rated most highly.  Only dealt with American foreign policy and not one covered an American war or military institution.  "One can quibble with some of the book choices," Allan conceded, "but in all candor I can think of only one effort sufficiently compelling in breadth to justify its inclusion on this list of 'must read' books.  It is Russell F. Weigley's The American Way of War."

Thus it looks as if we're dealing with perennial issues:  a bifurcation in the field between those whose gaze is directed primarily toward the policy-making community and those oriented mainly toward academe; a methodological conservatism; a sense of being besieged and scorned by non-military historians; the creation of a substantial body of work but not a substantial historiographical tradition; and a lack of impact on the history of the United States (and by extension, the rest of the world).

If this is the case, it should be obvious that we can't just keep doing what we're doing in the vague hope of generating a critical mass that will somehow bring academic military history into full parity with other fields.  Nor do I like the option of settling for the status quo and blaming the "political correctness" of our peers for the intellectual ghetto in which we find ourselves.  (Allan considered and firmly rejected this explanation back in 1975.)  Rather, I think it makes sense to "work the problem," and systematically develop strategies that will advance the field.

The SMH has the potential to do this if it so chooses.  I will give just one suggestion.  The Bethesda conference was specifically intended to showcase military history to the strategic policy-making community.  Nearly a third of its sessions dealt with professional military education, the program was festooned with high-ranking officers, and the dinner speaker and chair of the plenary session was an Australian commodore.  I see no reason that future conferences could not be constructed so as to showcase the field for nonmilitary historians.  Actually the term "nonmilitary historian" is something of a misnomer, for a good many historians who do not think of themselves as military historians nevertheless focus on research that is centrally directed toward the military dimension of human affairs.  The authors of the essays I selected in this winter's History of War readings group are examples of what I mean.  So far we have expected them to come to us.  Some do.  But it would never occur to them to most of them to give a presentation at the SMH.  A partial result of this is that they hold many of the same unexamined assumptions about military history as other historians and thereby help to perpetuate them--whereas if they could be brought inside the tent, their presence would encourage non-military historians to reevaluate their stereotypes.  That state of affairs won't change on its own.  But we could make an effort to invite "non-military military historians"  by tasking SMH members to organize sessions composed of such scholars.  (This proactive stance already is a common practice in other organizations.  For example, dismayed by the lack of military history submissions for the 1996 Organization of American Historians annual meeting, the program committee asked me to put together a military history session.)

The question is whether the SMH would do such a thing, or anything like it.  There's something suspicious about the bitter zeal with which many of its members castigate historians in other fields, reject any idea that we ourselves bear responsibility for our position in academe, and "yes, but" constructive suggestions to change the status quo.  Sometimes a crappy situation persists not because people especially like it, but because they find it familiar and therefore, in a perverse way, comfortable.

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