John J. Miller: Is Military History Dead?





... Although the keenest students of military history have often been soldiers, the subject isn’t only for them. “I don’t believe it is possible to treat military history as something entirely apart from the general national history,” said Theodore Roosevelt to the American Historical Association in 1912. For most students, that’s how military history was taught — as a key part of a larger narrative. After the Second World War, however, the field boomed as veterans streamed into higher education as both students and professors. A general increase in the size of faculties allowed for new approaches, and the onset of the Cold War kept everybody’s mind focused on the problem of armed conflict.

Then came the Vietnam War and the rise of the tenured radicals. The historians among them saw their field as the academic wing of a “social justice” movement, and they focused their attention on race, sex, and class. “They think you’re supposed to study the kind of social history you want to support, and so women’s history becomes advocacy for ‘women’s rights,’” says Mary Habeck, a military historian at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. “This makes them believe military historians are always advocates of militarism.” Other types of historians also came under attack — especially scholars of diplomatic, intellectual, and maritime history — but perhaps none have suffered so many casualties as the “drums and trumpets” crowd. “Military historians have been hunted into extinction by politically active faculty members who think military history is a subject for right-wing, imperialistic warmongers,” says Robert Bruce, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

At first glance, military history appears to have maintained beachheads on a lot of campuses. Out of 153 universities that award doctorates in history, 99 of them — almost 65 percent — have at least one professor who claims a research interest in war, according to S. Mike Pavelec, a military historian at Hawaii Pacific University. But this figure masks another problem: Social history has started to infiltrate military history, Trojan Horse–style. Rather than examining battles, leaders, and weapons, it looks at the impact of war upon culture. And so classes that are supposedly about the Second World War blow by the Blitzkrieg, the Bismarck, and the Bulge in order to celebrate the proto-feminism of Rosie the Riveter, condemn the national disgrace of Japanese-American internment, and ask that favorite faculty-lounge head-scratcher: Should the United States have dropped the bomb? “It’s becoming harder and harder to find experts in operational military history,” says Dennis Showalter of Colorado College. “All this social history is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.”

Consider the case of Steve Zdatny, a history professor at West Virginia University. On his webpage, he lists World War I as one of his “teaching fields.” But he’s no expert in trench warfare or aerial dogfights. Here’s how he describes his latest scholarship: “Having recently finished a history of the French hairdressing profession . . . I am now in the opening stages of research on a history of public and personal hygiene, which will examine evolving practices and sensibilities of cleanliness in twentieth-century France.” His body of work includes journal articles with titles such as “The Boyish Look and the Liberated Woman: The Politics and Aesthetics of Women’s Hairstyles.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But when fashion history begins to crowd out military history, or even masquerade as it, the priorities of colleges and universities are clearly out of whack. “The prevailing view is that war is bad and we shouldn’t study bad things,” says Williamson Murray, a former professor who is now at the Institute for Defense Analyses. “Thank goodness cancer specialists don’t have that attitude.” The problem is most severe at first-tier schools. Two years ago, Coffman, the retired Wisconsin professor, pored over the faculties of the 25 best history departments, as determined by U.S. News & World Report. Among more than a thousand full-time professors, only 21 listed war as a specialty. “We’re dying out,” he says.

To make matters worse, faculties are refusing privately financed lifelines. Years ago, William P. Harris, the heir to a lumber fortune, tried to establish a chair in military history at Dartmouth, his alma mater. He offered $1.5 million to endow it, but the school turned him down. “Liberals on the faculty objected to the word ‘military,’” says Harris, who recently pledged his money to Hillsdale College, which was happy to accept it.

Another reason for the shortage of scholars is that military historians have been shut out of The American Historical Review, the most prestigious academic journal for history professors. Last year, John A. Lynn of the University of Illinois surveyed the last 150 issues of the AHR, which comes out five times annually. During this 30-year period, he couldn’t find a single article that discussed the conduct of World War II. Other ignored wars included the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. There was a single article on the English Civil War, dealing with atrocities committed therein. Lynn located precisely two articles on the U.S. Civil War. One of these also dealt with atrocities. “I guess military atrocities are attractive to the editors,” he says. The only article on World War I focused on female soldiers in the Russian army. “I suspect the editors liked it because it was about women, not because it was about war.” The lead article in the most recent issue of the AHR is about wigs in 18th-century France. ...

Related Links

  • Mark Grimsley: An Officer at the Pentagon Evaluates NRO's"Sounding Taps"

    comments powered by Disqus
  • History News Network