Mark Grimsley: The Future of Military History ... Beyond the Culture of Complaint

On September 26, 2006, National Review Online published an op/ed piece by John J. Miller entitled, “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retired.” It drew a picture of the field of military history having been hounded almost out of the academy by “tenured radicals.” Although highly tendentious in its portrayal, it drew strength from juicy quotes by a number of military historians, many of them quite distinguished, in support of its basic contention.

In the short run, the article may have had a positive effect. A central element in its portrait was the failure of the University of Wisconsin to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair in American Military History despite the presence of a million dollars in its endowment fund, allegedly because “tenured radicals” within its history department were actively hostile to military history. The explanation was incorrect: A million dollars is about half of what it costs to endow a chair nowadays and Wisconsin is currently in very tight financial straits, so that no funds were available to cover the difference between the endowment’s revenues and the actual cost required to pay a chair holder’s salary and benefits. Even so, six weeks after “Sounding Taps” appeared so did an announcement that a search was underway to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. It may reasonably be assumed that the bad publicity from the National Review piece had much to do with this new development.

I hope, however, that no one will draw from this the lesson that complaining about the state of the field will serve as a strategy for growing the field. Enlarging the place of military history within academe ought to be a significant objective of the Society for Military History, and we cannot rely for that purpose upon the occasional rare alignment between our own bitterness and the interests of a magazine of partisan political affairs. (Indeed, an article like “Sounding Taps” was as likely to hurt as to help, by inadvertently convincing potential benefactors that investing in military history would be a futile exercise.) We need instead to maintain a positive vision for the field backed by a specific strategy for its development, and to test the assumption of a relentless hostility toward military history by our colleagues in other fields.

We might begin by seeing the state of academic military history in less catastrophic terms, for I and others sincerely did not recognize the field as “Sounding Taps” portrayed it. I’ve no doubt that many military historians believe that the field has seen a decline in the top levels of university programs. I would be curious, though, to know exactly when we reached our high water mark. For example, it cannot really be said that the University of Wisconsin ever had a military history program to lose. Edward M. “Mac” Coffman did an extraordinary job of producing grad students — so much that it is easy to see why one would think there was such a program, and a vibrant one at that — but there was never a second tenure-track or tenured military historian at Wisconsin. The field did lose a program when John Shy and Gerald Linderman retired from the University of Michigan and were not replaced, but I wonder if either of them was hired as military historians and, therefore, how much of a commitment Michigan ever had to the field. Somewhat the same thing might be said for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where John A. Lynn continues to do great work, á la Mac Coffman, but has lost a second military historian in the field.

The program at Ohio State University, on the other hand, has never weakened significantly over the past fifteen years, while programs at Texas A&M University, Kansas State University, and elsewhere have done very well. The program at Duke University did nearly disappear at one time, but in the form of a combined program with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has become quite robust, with six full-time military historians and six affiliated faculty.

According the Society for Military History web site, at present ten American universities have an MA program in military history and nineteen American or Canadian universities have an MA/PhD program. I’m not sure how long-standing are these programs, but surely some of them have grown, or even made their initial appearance, in the past decade.

As for academic jobs in military history, there have never been many so far as I can recall. Most military historians I know were actually hired as Americanists or Europeanists; they merely happened to have a research specialization in military history. Our situation is not much different from that of others: The market, especially for tenure track positions, is tight in practically every academic field. In short, military history is in about the same shape as when I entered graduate school in 1987.

What has disappeared is the optimism about the future that surfaced (rather briefly) around 1990. As “Sounding Taps” underlines, the tone among many senior scholars in the field — including those who hold, or have held, leadership positions — is often rather defeatist. Along with their rank-and-file counterparts, they complain about the marginalization of the field, blaming it on a blind prejudice against military history among academics in other fields.

It may be true that such prejudice exists. It is also irrelevant. We cannot change the views of some within our profession. But we can become better ambassadors for our own field. ...

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