The State of the Field

State of the Field: Military History/History of the Military

Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

These were my opening remarks at an Organization of American Historians Round Table Session (commissioned by the Program Committee) at the OAH Annual Meeting in Saint Louis back in mid-April. My fellow panelists were Christian Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of several books, including American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity; Meredith Lair, an associate professor in the Department of History & Art History at George Mason University, who is the author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War; and Tami Davis Biddle, Professor of History and National Security Strategy at the US Army War College, who is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, as well as Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945.

Snapshots of the current state of a given field can be among the most interesting and valuable sessions at a conference, so when I was asked to participate in this one I accepted the invitation with pleasure. But once I began preparing these brief opening remarks I found myself with questions, mostly centering on what it means to speak of the “state” of a field. It seems to me that the term can indicate at least three things. It might mean the intellectual state of the field—the questions currently being asked most urgently, new conceptual frameworks and methodologies, and so on. For younger fields it might also mean the state of the field in terms of its maturity: for instance, just how many historians are now at work within it, how many history departments regard it as important enough to justify the creation or maintenance of one or more faculty lines? Related to this second meaning is a third, the general acceptance of the field within the overall discipline.

For me at least, it’s impossible to think of the state of military history, in any of the above meanings of the term, without being reminded that military history in the United States is an unusual field. Although it has been an academic field—in the sense of having PhDs trained specifically as military historians—since about 1970, the field has always had a powerful connection with an entity outside academe, namely the American military establishment. Indeed, our flagship organization, the Society for Military History, is a descendant of the American Military Institute, created by a group of active and retired U.S. Army officers as well as interested amateurs in the early 1930’s. Over time, as civilian scholars emerged who self-identified as military historians, they more or less glommed on to the AMI until around 1990 they acquired sufficient critical mass to turn the AMI into a conventional academic organization. Under academic leadership the organization changed its name, began to hold an annual conference, and created a refereed journal, the Journal of Military History.

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SMH President’s Remarks on “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy”

Prof. Gregory Urwin of Temple University, who will shortly conclude his term as president of the Society of Military History, has a valedictory column in the current SMH newsletter.  [Society for Military History Headquarters Gazette, vol. 27, no. 4 (Winter 2015):3-4].  In it, he takes time to comment at length on the recent SMH White Paper, whose preparation he regarded as one of two principal tasks he wanted to accomplish during his presidency.  Here’s how he portrays its genesis, rationale, and purpose:

On the eve of my accession as your president, I informed the SMH Council of my intention to commission a white paper to promote the teaching of military history in American colleges and universities. I had grown tired of seeing those occasional whiny newspaper and magazine articles filled with quotations from military historians claiming that our field does not command enough respect from academe. Whether that charge is true or not, such a negative and confrontational approach – especially since it is often driven by conservative special interest groups – is counterproductive. I thought it would be far better to address a paper to university and college administrators, non-military historians, and the general public that summarized how much military history had matured during the past half century, why it is vital to an informed citizenry to understand the most fearsome (and most expensive) tool wielded by their government, and how military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.

I turned to then Vice President Robert M. Citino to ramrod this effort. Rob recruited Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College to join him, and the two of them went to work with a will. When Rob resigned as vice president just before our 2014 Annual Meeting,  Tami soldiered on, completing a compellingly argued and beautifully written essay. As I draft this column, Tami and Rob’s masterpiece, The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy, is at the printer’s and should be released before you read my words.

The SMH plans to distribute this white paper to the news media, educational leaders, and history departments across the United States. We hope that Tami and Rob’s vision will cause academe to take a new look at military history. If all goes well, the ensuing discussion will result in the creation of some additional teaching positions in our sub-field, and further elevate the Society for Military History’s position in the humanities community.

Urwin is wise to specify the main academic target audience as university administrators rather than faculty.  I recently sent the White Paper to ten faculty members at various institutions, members whose views of our field I knew to range from polite skepticism to something approaching outright disdain.  Most took time to reply; I was surprised and pleased to find that some of the faculty I expected to be most dismissive instead sent thoughtful, insightful responses–and that all of them acceded to my request to quote them without attribution.  I’ll summarize their views in a follow-up post.  For now, I’ll just say that they did not exactly perceive the White Paper as devoid of the defensive tone Urwin sought to transcend, nor did it put much of a dent in their existing perception of the field.  University administrators, on the other hand, may well be intrigued by the White Paper’s assertion that “military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.”  Faculty can airily dismiss such workaday possibilities as a kind of academic whoring.  Administrators cannot.

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Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out? – Pt 2

(Cross-posted, with minor changes, from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age)

It turns out that Megan isn’t the only writer in the blogosphere to comment on these two articles, and I’m not the only one to comment on her post.

Over the holiday break, the staff of Civil War History compiled a list of online blogs and articles that relate (both directly and more indirectly) to the think piece by Earl Hess. The staff has shared the list on the CWH Facebook page  “in hopes that it continues to inspire a thoughtful and productive dialogue.”  With that hope in mind, here’s the list as they have it thus far (leaving aside the link to my own post, previously reprinted):

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, What Do We Need to Know About Traditional Military History? (December 7, 2014)

Megan Kate Nelson, Historista, Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out (December 10, 2014)

Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, And the Dead (Fields of History) Shall Rise Up (December 11, 2014)

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, In Defense of Hess, Gallagher and Meier (December 11, 2014)

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, Civil Discourse Blog, “Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History”:  A Response (January 5, 2015)

Kevin Gannon, The Tattooed Professor,  Taking a Walk on the Civil War’s “Dark Side” (January 6, 2015)

(NB.  Actually, it’s no longer accurate to refer to the “blogosphere,” at least not as a self-contained entity, because when links to posts are shared on Facebook or Twitter (as they frequently are), most of the ensuing dialog takes place on those sites, especially FB.  The update on the Civil War History Journal Facebook page is itself a case in point.  The resulting dynamic is worth a post in its own right–something I’ll have to place on my long list of things to blog about.  In the interim, it’s time to write part 3 of  my own response.)

The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy

The Society for Military History has just released a white paper entitled “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.”  In it, notes the SMH web site:

 co-authors Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas provide a compelling chronicle of military history’s revitalization over the past four decades and assess its current place in American higher education. In addition to the sub-field’s maturation in academic terms, its enduring popularity with the public and college students makes it an ideal lure for history departments concerned about course enrollments and the recruitment of majors and minors. Knowledge of the uses, abuses, and costs of war should also constitute a part of the education of future leaders in the world’s mightiest military power.

The SMH intends this white paper to generate a dialogue with history professors, college and university administrators, journalists, politicians, and citizens regarding the key role the study of military history can play in deepening our understanding of the world we inhabit and producing an informed citizenry.

The white paper is available here. (It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format.)

Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out? – Pt 1

Cross-posted from Civil Warriors

Recently two “think pieces,” coincidentally dealing with pretty much the same topic, appeared in the major professional journals concerned with the American Civil War:

Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era (Volume 4, Issue 4):487-508.

and

Earl J. Hess, “Where to We Stand?: A Critical Assessment of Civil War Studies in the Sesquicentennial Era,” Civil War History (Volume 60, Number 4, December 2014):371-403.

Both articles depict, to varying degrees, the increasing marginalization of traditional military history (strategy, operations, tactics, etc.) within academe. Actually, I would place the word “seemingly” immediately before the word “increasing.” But I’ll explain that in a future post. For now, I’d just like to call attention to the response to these two pieces by Historista, the nom de blog of Megan Kate Nelson, author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012), which, according to the description on the back of the soft cover edition, is “the first book to bring together environmental and cultural histories to consider the evocative power of ruination [that is to say, the destruction of cities, houses, forests and soldiers’ bodies] as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change.” Which is to say, one of the books forming part of the phenomenon that is causing Civil War military historians to freak out.

Her post, entitled “Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out,” appeared on her blog on December 10, 2014. I self-identify as a military historian, and I’m freaking out so badly that I assigned Ruin Nation as a supplemental text in an undergraduate readings course I taught last summer and as a required book in my upcoming graduate readings course (it starts next week).

For now, I simply refer you to the post, with comment to come on the articles that prompted it:

Megan begins:

Let’s imagine that you wake up one morning after many years of writing and speaking and teaching in your academic specialty. You have tenure, you have written a lot of books and articles and book reviews, and colleagues across the profession (and sometimes, complete strangers) know who you are. But you wake up one morning convinced that it has all been for nothing. Nobody cares anymore about your research topic or your methodologies or your arguments. You wake up and think, “Oh my god! My field is dying!”

So what do you do?

Find out by reading Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out

The Ethics of War

War is often perceived as completely unethical, yet the people who engage in warfare always have ethical systems and cultural frameworks that shape their military practices and individual behaviors.

Classic texts on warfare from Thucydides to Clausewitz grapple with ethical issues, and many modern historians of war, culture, and society raise ethical questions in their work.

GeneralLatiff-classroom

The New York Times has published an article showcasing Professor Robert H. Latiff’s Philosophy course on the “The Ethics of Emerging Weapons Technologies,” at the University of Notre Dame. Latiff was a major general in the United States Air Force who retired in 2006. The Notre Dame website indicates that Latiff earned a Ph.D. in Material Science at the University of Notre Dame and is currently teaching there as an Adjunct Professor at the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

According to the New York Times, “Dr. Latiff has written forcefully of his concerns about ‘emerging robotic armies’ with ‘no more than a veneer of human control.’ He has served on a committee that is producing a report on ethics and new weaponry for the National Research Council. It will be the subject of a conference at Notre Dame in April.”

It is refreshing to see a major news organization report on the teaching of ethics in warfare. Historians and philosophers have been actively researching and teaching ethical considerations of war since the 1960s, integrating ethical issues into military history, peace studies, political philosophy, and related disciplines.

The New York Times reports on the ethics of war.

Reposted from the Center for the Study of Religious Violence, led by Professors Brian Sandberg and Sean Farrell at Northern Illinois University.

One book, 2013

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn’t happen more than those that didn’t. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There’s much more in here, reflecting Sabin’s years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it’s an essential book if you’re interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).

So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

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In the next history war

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

The election of Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would ‘re-prioritise’ another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed ‘wasteful’. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody’s bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation’s self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called ‘black armband view of history’. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia’s past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of ‘black armband history’ suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history — my areas of expertise — may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools ‘must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales’. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past […] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War […]

He’s right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn’t mean it’s unproblematic — as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can’t erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.

The Professional Historian and Popular History

I was a writer before I was an historian, and a “pop historian” long before I became an academic historian. I started publishing in magazines like Civil War Times Illustrated when I was twenty. I enjoyed it. I researched and wrote it as well as I knew how, and I naively supposed that people in the groves of academe would respect what I had done.

lee-issue-1985 (2)To a considerable degree they did. When I applied to graduate school the writing sample I provided was a 25,000-word special issue on the life of Robert E. Lee. While no one mistook this for a scholarly article, it did convey to the graduate studies committee such useful bits of information as the fact that I could write effectively, that I had sufficient organizational skills and follow-through to complete a manuscript of that length, and that I had a certain amount of savvy in that I’d learned the ropes of publishing.

Even so, I was lucky, because there’s an undercurrent of disdain for popular history within the academy and if my application had landed in a different department I would have been far better off turning in the usual undergraduate research paper.

Just now I used the word “undercurrent.” It might have been more apt to use a word like “cloud” or “fog,” because as with many of the less savory aspects of academic culture, you can rarely point to a faculty member who will explicitly and openly denigrate history written for the non-specialist. And yet the undercurrent/cloud/fog exists, and every graduate student with an ounce of perception learns it very early in her career.

For instance, in 1994 a quartet of graduate students at Indiana University used precisely the term “undercurrent of disdain” when giving their perception of the profession’s view of history written for non-specialists:

Despite avowals to the contrary by a profession whose democratizing impulses led to “people’s history,” our professional culture still contains an undercurrent of disdain for works written by amateurs or for public audiences. There is a hierarchy implicit in our definition of ourselves as professional historians, and it is, not surprisingly, reinforced in our professional training. As graduate students, we hear this in the classroom, where popular works may be credited as “good narratives” but ultimately derided as lacking “sufficient rigor.” We absorb it through hallway conversations and professional newsletters, where we find our colleagues more readily acknowledging one another’s presence on prestigious conference panels than their infrequent addresses to county historical societies or rare columns in the local newspaper. We rehearse it by learning to write historiographical essays in a style that favors subtle distinction and academic jargon at the expense of accessibility. We read it in the book review sections of scholarly journals, where academic reviewers of popular works so often feel compelled to add the curious disclaimer–“this work is meant for nonspecialists”–as a gesture of forgiveness for some perceived lack.

— Chad Berry; Patrick Ettinger; Dot McCullough; Meg Meneghel, History from the Bottom Up: On Reproducing Professional Culture in Graduate Education, Journal of American History Vol. 81, No. 3, The Practice of American History: A Special Issue. (Dec., 1994), pp. 1137-1146. You will need J-STOR to access this article online.)

Despite the baleful way that the academy regards “popular history,” however, I have met many historians who do in fact write in order to engage with a general readership. My colleagues in military history do so as a matter of course, because the level of popular interest in our subject area is so great they would have to actively loathe and despise non-academics to avoid it.

I suppose, however, that a prudent graduate student might object that one should take up popular history only after achieving the safety of tenure. Maybe so. But I remember a discussion in a graduate course I took during my first year as a PhD student. The subject of popular history came up, and the professor and grad students batted it around briefly in exactly the way you might imagine from reading the block quotation above. Finally a student next to me said, with an eagerness balanced by a certain professional smoothness, that he had a real interest in writing for a general readership and after he got tenure someday he would like to try it.

The student never got to try it. He never got tenure. He never even got his degree. He died less than a year later.

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Cohesion and division in Wellington

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

The Australasian Association for European History XXIII Biennial Conference — ‘Faultlines: cohesion and division in Europe from the 18th Century to the 21st’ — lived up to the high standard set by its predecessor. Wellington was much colder and windier than Perth, but the locals were friendly, the locations historic and the history stimulating.

Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of airpower history on offer (apart from my own effort). However, James Crossland (Murdoch) mentioned during his discussion of Britain’s participation in the Geneva convention process, noted that as late as 1948 the Soviet Union proposed banning aerial bombardment altogether. A real throwback to the days of the World Disarmament Conference in the early 1930s! There was a tiny bit of aviation in the account given by Andrew Webster (Murdoch) of his intervention as a historian into a matter of law and policy — well, an aeroplane was mentioned. The question was whether Nationalist Spain was a combatant in the Second World War; at stake was compensation for the family of a Wellington pilot who had been shot down over France but escaped over the Pyrenees only to be interned by Franco’s security apparatus. Surprisingly, history (and the family) was the winner. And, as part of her argument that universalist ideals of human rights are being eroded by a reversion to us vs. them thinking, Joanna Bourke touched on the rhetoric used by western air forces about ‘accidental’ bombing of purely civilian targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere, noting that when you look at concepts such as CEP (circular error probable), the probability of not hitting the target is built in. In other words, accidents are not accidental. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the (no-fault) admission of mistakes now is precisely because the weapons have become more accurate; they are much more likely to hit where they are aimed, and so if the wrong target is hit then that requires an explanation, an admission of error.

While the conference was not explicitly about war, there was plenty of it to go around. In fact, one of the speakers — unfortunately I can’t remember who — criticised its continuing prominence in our narratives. It’s not the only thing going on in European history. But so often, even when we’re talking about peace we’re still talking about war as well (or vice versa). For example, Maartje Abbenhuis (Auckland) looked at neutrality and humanitarianism in the Franco-Prussian War, arguing that it was seen as having been successfully limited, with little risk that it would spread. Separately, Neville Wylie (Nottingham) and Christine Winter (ANU) examined the role of third-party powers in protecting civilians of belligerents in wartime, the former in terms of the big picture and the longish durée, the latter using Swiss oversight of German internees in Australia during the Second World War. Wim Klinkert (Amsterdam) gave a fascinating paper on the Dutch-Belgian defence relationship in the early twentieth century, which was far more complicated than you might think: in 1919 and 1923 there was even serious talk of war. Marjan Schwegman (NIOD) explored the public controversy over a seemingly slight change in the status of her home institution, the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, which originally started out in 1945 as a state archive for documenting the German occupation of the Netherlands. Chloe Ward (Melbourne) reassessed the Left Book Club’s intervention in British politics, particularly in post-Munich by-elections. Bodie Ashton (Adelaide) looked at the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War, specifically the little-known, and ultimately doomed, attempt to create a Federation of the United States of Southern Germany to counterbalance the Prussian surge. And Andrew Graham Watson (Adelaide) discussed Anglo-American press reactions to the rise of Gorbachev and the disaster at Chernobyl, a topic which bemused those of us who are old enough to remember the late Cold War!

There was much else going on, including a roundtable in honour of Richard Bosworth (Oxford), contributions by Omer Bartov (Brown) and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chicago), and keynotes by Peter McPhee (Melbourne) and Geoff Eley (Michigan). And that’s just the stuff I got to see. Hopefully I can make it to Newcastle in 2015 — at 390km away, it will be practically next door to Armidale.

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