Interrogating the Project of Military History

November 19 - "I don't get no respect," was the signature line of comedian Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004).  It could be the signature line of a good many military historians, too.  Few believe their field commands much regard among those who toil in the groves of academe.  The usual explanation for this, political correctness, ceased to convince me a long time ago.  I have argued instead that it's more because the field really does have weaknesses--that academics find it wanting for substantive reasons.  But implicit in this view is the assumption that our fellow academics are familiar with what we do.  This, increasingly, I doubt.

How you feel about the place of military history within academic culture depends a good deal on your personal  angle of vision.  To my friend John Lynn, the lone military historian in a department where the new cultural history has shouldered aside a number of "traditional" fields--political history, legal/constitutional history, diplomatic history--the situation seems pretty bleak.  By contrast, I'm one of seven faculty in my department (counting the regional campuses as well as main campus) whose core interests involve military history.  Under such circumstances it's a little hard to feel beleaguered.  And I don't.  Nevertheless, on the few occasions when colleagues ask me a specific question about military history (usually by way of trying to make polite small talk), it usually deals with generalship, battles, or some other traditional "drums and trumpets" matter.

For a long time I didn't think twice about this.  To me it was the same as the questions I get from people who think that because I'm at Ohio State, naturally I follow the Buckeyes.  But it finally occurred to me that when my colleagues tried to make small talk, they were drawing upon their notions of what they supposed might be the core concerns of my field.  Those notions were not so much wrong as they were incomplete.  Still, where could they have gotten a more accurate picture?  Certainly not from me.  Because until recently, all too seldom have I had much by way of exchange with my colleagues concerning what I do--or for that matter, what they do.

Military historians can't control what other historians think of the field.  But we can do much more to ensure that such assessments are at least based on reality, not stereotypes.  We can cultivate a deliberate, on-going program of engagement with other historians on their own terms.  By modeling curiosity about other fields, we encourage curiosity about our own.  In the long run, that has to be good for the field's political health.  Much more importantly, it's good for the field's intellectual health.

Attending Claire Robertson's class last winter is one example of what I mean.  Another was my decision a few weeks ago to invite to my graduate research seminar two colleagues whose work dealt routinely with issues of race.  One was Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a young, energetic (even charismatic) historian of the modern African American experience.  The other was Kevin Boyle, a historian of the modern United States who was trained in the "new labor" history.

I hope to discuss their visit to the seminar (as well to provide updates on the seminar itself) in a future entry.  For now, however, I just want to note that both Hasan and Kevin were more than happy to help me out, that their presentations benefited the grad students a good deal, and that both seemed genuinely struck by the rich potential of studies that explored race in the American military experience.  Lastly, I want to note--actually, cackle with glee--that Kevin has just won the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction.  Check it out !

See the Washington Post article on the award banquet and ceremony.

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