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.

The emergence of the SMH more or less coincided with the beginning of my life as a professional military historian. I can tell you very briefly my impression of how the SMH has looked over time. First, it was and remains a hybrid organization. That is to say, it isn’t an exclusively academic organization but also includes members from other realms, particularly the professional military education community (PME for short)—professors and instructors from the impressive archipelago of academies, schools, and war colleges maintained by the armed forces. Candidly, I used to regret this, thinking that the utilitarian concerns of PME retarded the development of the military history field in terms of bringing it into full conversation with other civilian fields. This was exacerbated by my perception that many military historians viewed the proper concerns of the field in fairly narrow terms—chiefly as the history of military institutions, strategic policy-making, military campaigns, technology, and so on—and resisted broadening the field.

I’m no longer concerned. Perhaps my worries were always misplaced. But in any event military historians seem by and large to have adopted a “big tent” view of the field. I’ve seen this reflected, to some extent, in the articles published by the Journal of Military History; to a greater extent in the papers presented at the annual meetings of the SMH; and perhaps most of all in conversations with fellow military historians, few of whom now exhibit a “circle the wagons” mentality that a decade ago was still not uncommon. In short, in terms of intellectual health I think the field is in good shape. Military history has certain traditional or perennial subjects that will always remain important, but the field shows an openness to new subjects, questions, and conceptual frameworks comparable to other academic fields.

Moreover, I’ve come to appreciate the alliance between civilian academe and the PME community in three respects. First, historians who work in PME have every bit as much intellectual lift capacity as those who work in civilian universities. Second, the alliance tends to ground the field in a healthy way: it’s a little more difficult to indulge in novelty for the sheer sake of novelty. Finally, in most fields, newly minted PhDs have few options outside academe. And as all of us know, academic positions are becoming increasingly scarce. In contrast, PhDs who specialize in military history have four viable career tracks: civilian academe, to be sure; but also PME, public history (where there is considerable demand for expertise in military history), and national security research institutions such as RAND Corporation. I once pointed this out to a colleague of mine, who shrugged it off with a jibe about the “military-industrial-academic complex.” The colleague, safely ensconced in a tenured berth, could afford to take such a view. My students can’t. Consequently, nor can I.

As the anecdote suggests, in my view it remains a fact that military history lags badly in terms of its acceptance within academe. This does not mean that tenured radicals are driving military history out of the academy, as the National Review asserted in 2006; much less that it has been “purged” from the academy, as the Wall Street Journal declared in 2009. In fact, there are more graduate programs in military history that at any preceding time. However, I continue to find that historians outside of military history frequently look askance at the field, usually on the basis of unexamined assumptions. I don’t think that there is anything to be done about this. It is plain, however, that historians in other fields often discover research problems that have a military dimension and, consequently, find their way into ours. To me the only sensible course is to welcome such historians and assist them as cordially and effectively as we can.

I have just one more observation to make, and I’m not exactly sure what it means. At the moment I’m completing a review essay of three textbooks on American military history, which will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Military History. It’s probably significant in its own right that there are now three such textbooks on the market, for when I took my first undergraduate courses in the subject around 1980, there weren’t any. All three textbooks are very well done and, within the topics they choose to explore, have interesting commonalities and contrasts. But it was striking to me that there was a great deal of shared agreement concerning what was central to telling the story of the American military experience and conversely, that all three textbooks gave little or no space to topics that one might justifiably deem important. None, for example, gave much sustained attention to what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, much less the “military-industrial-academic complex.” And yet, shorn of the ominous overtones, the linkages between American business and military interests have always been a key dimension of American military history. Among other things, these help to account for the rise of the modern U.S. navy in the late nineteenth century. None of the textbooks looks much at veterans and veterans’ organizations, either. Yet the land grants given to veterans of the War for American Independence were an important aspect of western settlement during the National Period, the pensions given to Union veterans and their families accounted for 30 percent of the U.S. budget in 1900 and became a de facto foundation of the American welfare state, while the World War II GI Bill vastly expanded and democratized higher education in this country. I don’t believe for an instant that the textbook authors would contest these points or argue that they somehow lie outside the proper concerns of military history. I simply note that they are not part of the story as it is currently told. I suggest, tentatively, that this may convey something about the concerns we regard as central to American military history and those we regard as ancillary or peripheral. If so, then it may be worth asking why we make such choices, and whether we are likely to make different ones in the not too distant future.

Powered by WordPress