Loved by ordinary Americans, hated by scholars? The answer is more complicated than you might think
by PAUL HUARD
Walk into any book store or scan a cable television line-up and you will see plenty of evidence that ordinary Americans love military history.
Bookshelves groan under the weight of new titles examining generals, battles and weapons. Every year, Hollywood or foreign film producers release a handful of films based on war-related themes or topics that usually do well at the box office. And History Channel carries so many documentaries about World War II that its nickname is “Hitler Channel.”
But do scholars of history share the love? When it comes to the serious, academic study of history in the United States, some say the relationship between Mars and Clio — she’s the muse of history, in case you don’t know — is no love match.
Advocates for academic research into military history sometimes quietly complain that colleagues often regard the discipline as a haven for warmongers and weapons-nuts.
Other academics say that’s nonsense—that it’s mere jealousy on the part of some professional historians, as military history no longer holds the place of prominence that it did a generation ago in university history departments.
The truth about the national state of military history is far more complex — and much more interesting — than the stereotypes imply. What emerges is a picture of a still-important and vibrant path of inquiry within the academy that being shaped by the larger changes in the study of history during the last 50 years.
The so-called “drums and trumpet school” of examining battles and generals isn’t the only game in town. Military history now embraces multiple ways to understand the effects of military power through the ages.
But some scholars openly say that the nation’s best universities could do more to study military history — if for no other reason because the United States is the most militarily-powerful nation in the world. For better or for worse, that fact alone means we should do more to study our martial past in order to avoid mistakes in the future.
From the late 19th century through the 1950s, military history was history — along with diplomatic and political history, it dominated the scholarly study of the past.
Today, military history is a broader discipline. Examining war from the “bullets, battles and biography” perspective is no longer the standard approach.
“We see our realm as encompassing not only the study of military institutions in wartime, but also the study of the relationships between military institutions and the societies that create them; the origins of wars, societies at war; and the myriad impacts of war on individuals, groups, states, and regions,” wrote Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Rob Citino of the University of North Texas in a “white paper” for the Society of Military History, the premier professional organization for military historians.
“Our mission encompasses not only traditional studies of battles, but also of war and public memory,” Biddle and Citino added.
Taking their cue from social historians of the 1960s and 1970s who emphasized the study of race, class and gender, many military historians now examine how war influences society and how it acts as a force for societal change.
Other historians study how individuals and nations remember wars — an approach which often yields profound observations about politics and culture as well as warfare. There are even historians who investigate how war changes the environment and shapes ecosystems.
In fact, military history during the last 20 years became what many scholars deem “a big tent,” a discipline that splintered into hundreds of diverse subfields.
But Citino, who is not only a professor of history at University of North Texas but also a fellow at the school’s Military History Center, told War Is Boring that for all of the discipline’s vibrancy and scholarly opportunities, some of the best universities in the nation are offering fewer courses in military history.
“While military history dominates the airwaves, however, its academic footprint continues to shrink,” Citino wrote in a 2007 essay for the American Historical Review.
During a recent interview, Citino said that shrinkage continues in some ways. “Courses have disappeared from the curriculum of elite universities,” Citino said. “That is unfortunate. Elite universities have a habit of training the elite, who often end up in positions in government circles making weighty decisions about war and peace. It would be helpful if they knew something about the history of war.”
There is a misconception that military history only appeals to “testosterone-driven boys who like explosions,” he said. “That’s not true. Interest cuts across age and gender. Military history lays out human drama as few topics do.”
In fact, when colleges and universities offer classes in military history they are often filled to capacity, Citino said.
The transformation of military history holds benefits even for the average reader, said Ann Little, associate professor of history at Colorado State University and a prolific blogger who frequently comments about issues associated with writing history and scholarship.
“I’m not going to criticize anyone’s interest in any kind of history,” Little told War Is Boring. “We need audiences to buy and read our books. But I will suggest that popular writers of the ‘battles, bullets and bios’ school underestimate their reading audience.”
“I think anyone who will buy and read serious nonfiction should be treated like a sentient and thoughtful adult who can handle the complexity or ambiguity of warfare. Many, if not all, are not necessarily looking for another heroic biography or another reflexively and stupidly patriotic treatment of military history.”
Little said her research into colonial North America, European conflict with native populations and various power struggles such as the Revolutionary War and the U.S. Civil War convinced her that it is essential to study the military history of the United States.
“In short, although we in the U.S. see ourselves as citizens of a democratic republic rather than an empire, it’s clear that imperial expansion and civil war are knit into the fabric of the U.S. as much as any of the great imperial powers in history,” Little said.
Even if you aren’t interested in another biography of Stonewall Jackson or one more examination of the Battle of Iwo Jima, there are still plenty of reasons to study military history.
For one thing, the United States spends more money on its military than any other nation in the world and it has been at war for a great deal of its history. Those facts alone mean the U.S. military has a profound influence both domestically and internationally, said Bob Neer, an author, historian and entrepreneur who teaches a summer course at Columbia University called “Empire of Liberty: A Global History of the U.S. Military.”
In a recent article he wrote for the on-line magazine Aeon, Neer said that it is striking that only a handful of history courses at elite and Ivy League universities directly examine the U.S. military.
“There are military history courses at those schools, especially using the broad definition of the term, and there are many courses about the U.S. military at other schools — they should be treasured — but at those great research centers only a handful of history courses focus on the history of the U.S. military,” Neer told War Is Boring.
“I think that is unfortunate because it makes it difficult for undergraduates at those schools to educate and thereby empower themselves about this important aspect of their country and the larger world, and it implies a lack of historical research in that particular aspect of the field at those schools.”
The response to the article was strong, Neer said. More than 20,000 people read it, according to on-line statistics. He had his share of critics among fellow historians, but Neer said he contacted as many as possible so he could to discuss their objections.
He called the results incredibly convivial. “People might disagree on the specifics, but they are united in the ability to understand the subject [of military history],” Neer said.