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Sep 27, 2006 1:29 pm

Taps for Military History ??

The item below appeared in yesterday's National Review Online. Over the course of that day, I received several private emails asking what I thought of it. Later today I'll have a post telling what I think, but for the moment, here's the provocative piece itself:

Why military history is being retired


A decade ago, best-selling author Stephen Ambrose donated $250,000 to the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater, to endow a professorship in American military history. A few months later, he gave another $250,000. Until his death in 2002, he badgered friends and others to contribute additional funds. Today, more than $1 million sits in a special university account for the Ambrose-Heseltine Chair in American History, named after its main benefactor and the long-dead professor who trained him.

The chair remains vacant, however, and Wisconsin is not currently trying to fill it. “We won’t search for a candidate this school year,” says John Cooper, a history professor. “But we’re committed to doing it eventually.” The ostensible reason for the delay is that the university wants to raise even more money, so that it can attract a top-notch senior scholar. There may be another factor as well: Wisconsin doesn’t actually want a military historian on its faculty. It hasn’t had one since 1992, when Edward M. Coffman retired. “His survey course on U.S. military history used to overflow with students,” says Richard Zeitlin, one of Coffman’s former graduate teaching assistants. “It was one of the most popular courses on campus.” Since Coffman left, however, it has been taught only a couple of times, and never by a member of the permanent faculty.

One of these years, perhaps Wisconsin really will get around to hiring a professor for the Ambrose-Heseltine chair — but right now, for all intents and purposes, military history in Madison is dead. It’s dead at many other top colleges and universities as well. Where it isn’t dead and buried, it’s either dying or under siege.

Although military history remains incredibly popular among students who fill lecture halls to learn about Saratoga and Iwo Jima and among readers who buy piles of books on Gettysburg and D-Day, on campus it’s making a last stand against the shock troops of political correctness. “Pretty soon, it may become virtually impossible to find military-history professors who study war with the aim of understanding why one side won and the other side lost,” says Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who taught at West Point for ten years. That’s bad news not only for those with direct ties to this academic sub-discipline, but also for Americans generally, who may find that their collective understanding of past military operations falls short of what the war-torn present demands.

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Mark Grimsley - 9/27/2006

I know Mac personally, and he does indeed consider himself a social historian of the American military experience. He wrote two classic works on the subject -- The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898, and The Regulars: The American Army, 1898-1941 -- and trained a generation of fine military historians, many of whom employ the same approach; e.g., Joseph T. Glatthaar's Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Mac takes particular pride in his extensive use of oral history to recover the experiences of not just ordinary soldiers but also, for instance, the wives of Army officers.

John H. Lederer - 9/27/2006

I don't know that "social history" is completely accurate. Perhaps "institutional history" might be better.

I still recall Coffman's lecture on the adoption of the machine gun by the U.S. Army. Social history? Well ,arguably, but I don't think that really captures the essence of a lecture that mentioned, among opther things, why the machine gun was at one point placed within the Coast Artillery. The machine gun was viewed as presenting a supply problem because it could use a lot of ammunition. Forts were supplied by ship and had large magazines and thus would solve the supply problem machine guns presented to the field artillery. Ergo, the machine gun was a coastal defence weapon.

Mark Grimsley - 9/27/2006

Very astute!

The tendentiousnes of the piece is really breath-taking. I can't wait to unload on this thing in my post this afternoon.

Jonathan Rees - 9/27/2006

From later on in the article. If I read it right, this is essentially the thesis:

“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.”

Doe this guy Miller know that Coffman's specialty was essentially the social history of the military? And do you think it's a coincidence that he decided to start the article by attacking Wisconsin? I don't.

Alan Allport - 9/27/2006

"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."

What Dennis says is true (though why it's true is a different story), but note the unacknowledged shift from what is being taught to what is being researched. You won't find much operational military history on my CV, because I don't write about it. But I bet I know a heck of a lot more about Blitzkrieg, the Bismarck, and the Bulge than John R. Miller, and it all gets included in my WWII course (without crowding out the wicked social history that he has his ants in his pants about). Does this fellow think that instructors ought to do primary research in everything they teach? Quelle horreur!

Mark Grimsley - 9/27/2006

I've heard of nothing like that. If I had to guess, it may be sitting on the money because an endowment of even $1.5 million is no longer enough to fully pay the salary of a top notch scholar. We still use that figure as our benchmark here at Ohio State, but inevitably, internal funds have to added to the revenue generated by the endowment. It may be that Wisconsin wants to raise a further $500,000.

But I really don't know. And neither does NRO. I'll place a call to Wisconsin today and see if I get the real scoop.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/27/2006

Mark, Is there any indication that Wisconsin is hesitant to conduct the search because the department is embarrassed by the very recent memory of how Ambrose came by the money? His published work, especially in the later years, came from a production line in which he often had limited hands-on experience. This, apparently, led to the plagiarism scandal. And, finally, he also apparently made a ton of money from testifying for tobacco corporations in legal cases, only to succumb to cancer, himself. (All of that really is intended as a question.)

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