Why Military History Sucks

In November 1996, H-CIVWAR featured a number of posts from individuals frustrated by a belief that military historians were the victims of a kind of blind prejudice on the part of non-military historians. This was my response.

I've read with interest the views of those who think that military history suffers from a bad rep in the groves of academe. I agree that prejudices such as those described exist. But I also believe that we military historians have done much to perpetuate our own marginalization within the academy. Since others have made the case for a political bias against military history, let me make the case for an adverse judgment based on the real shortcomings of military history.

To begin with, those who compare us with women's history, ethnic history, and so on, overlook the fact that such fields have created categories of historical analysis that command the attention of historians in other fields. No one any longer would argue that gender relations have not powerfully shaped human affairs; historians of gender have created sophisticated conceptual tools by which to understand those relations. The fact that the more mediocre scholars dress up commonsense ideas in the language of gender, or construct pseudosophisticated towers of Babel, should not blind us to the fact that the best gender history is imaginative and illuminating. Few human activities are more completely dominated by gender than warfare--it is a preeminently masculine activity--yet how many military historians have ever read the work of Cynthia Enloe or Jean Bethke Elshtain, each of whom has dealt explicitly with women and war; to say nothing of gender historians who do not look at war directly? If we fail to engage with them, why should we expect them to engage with us?

Much more damaging is the fact that we military historians have yet to create a category of historical analysis with anything like the interpretive power of gender, race, or class. You can sneer at the "holy trinity" but you can't deny that these things fundamentally shape our lives and have been doing so--with the possible exception of race--for many centuries.

We military historians can point out again and again that much historical change occurs violently, but that's not enough. Any rube can see that such is the case. But what can military historians tell other historians that they can't figure out on their own? Why exactly do we need experts in the subject? And what exactly is our subject? Most military historians think our subject is the history of "war," but war is an inherently politicized concept. Indeed, most of our intellectual definitions are borrowed from diplomatic, government, and professional military authorities. We haven't examined our field afresh. Women's historians sometimes seem morbidly absorbed with theory. We're not nearly theoretical enough. Even if we ultimately fail to create a "coercive variable" in history that is as powerful a tool as the trinity, we can at least systematically explore the sources of social power and show how military affairs relates to them.

I think it's nuts to assert that the rest of the historical community isn't interested in the military dimension of human affairs. Political historians, social historians, cultural historians have generated enough work on this subject to choke a horse. Indeed, I would argue that the best military history is usually done by people who were not trained as military specialists. And the fact that they do do it should suggest not only their interest in military affairs but also the fact that they have to do it--that when they pose a historical question related to military affairs, too often no military historian ever thought of the question before or thought it was worth exploring. We were too busy writing about our subject in a way that did not connect with the concerns of non-military historians.

I would argue that we are not good military historians even on our own terms. At a minimum, military historians ought to be historians of warfare. Too often, we're really historians of specific wars. At a minimum, military historians ought to have a working knowledge of nonwestern military history. Instead few of us do, including myself. In fact, I am scandalously ignorant of nonwestern history and the only reason I'm not ashamed to admit it is that I know most of you are in the same boat. How much comparative military history gets written? Not much.

I will add one final observation, based on a number of years spent observing my peers. The best military historians are among the best historians around. They possess a wide knowledge base; they are conversant with--and sincerely interested in--nonmilitary history as well as their own specialty; they have thought deeply about their intellectual assumptions and search diligently for appropriate conceptual frameworks to inform their work. But too many military historians are as prejudiced against nonmilitary historians as they claim nonmilitary historians are prejudiced against them. They dismiss new trends in history as a lot of P.C. fadmongering. They don't engage with, for example, the new cultural history and find it wanting. They ignore it--and then complain when cultural historians ignore them.

You want to get hired by a history department? Learn to talk about something besides military history. Learn what other historians care about, and show them how an understanding of the military dimension can illuminate the issue. Don't expect that just because a lot of students are interested in military history that that should be a credible reason to have military historians on the faculty. A lot of students are interested in beer, too; it doesn't mean we have to offer courses in the subject. Given a choice between creating a faculty position for world history or one for military history, I would choose the former--the military history enthusiasts in the student body can get their fix from A&E, the History Channel, and the bulging military history section of the local bookstore.

But if a person trained in military history applied for the job who could show me credibly that she or he knew more about world history than the rival candidates, and that their expertise in military history strengthened their ability to understand and teach world history, I would hire them. And so would many historians. When it comes to military history, most nonmilitary historians are not antipathetic toward the subject, just skeptical. In effect, they're from Missouri: we are going to have to show them.


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