In all the discussion in recent months about Edward Snowden, intelligence, and NSA – blog posts, op-eds, media spots galore – it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that I’m actually a historian. I’ve talked abut Eddie so much that I’ve needed to periodically remind myself about the history thing.
I’m not just a historian but a military historian by education and inclination, which is a really passé thing to be, generally speaking. Among scholars, that is. Among the public, military history is a huge seller. We’ve got documentaries galore (before the History Channel was taken over by alien shows and junkyard merchants, it was jokingly called the Hitler Channel with good reason) and just walk into any chain bookstore while you still can and check out the size of the military history section; it’s usually as big as all other history topics combined.
But the sad reality is that military history has been in terminal decline in the academy my entire life. Few top universities still teach it, much less produce doctorates in it. Despite – or perhaps due to – the fact that it’s a big draw among students, most history departments, which are deeply involved with post-modernism, demur from the topic altogether. And when military history is covered in universities it’s generally with an eye to social trends more than strategy and tactics: more Rosie the Riveter than Marshal Zhukov.
I’ve got sympathy for what was termed the “new” military history about the time I was born, since those who study war ought to include key aspects of politics, economics, and sociology in their work, lest they reduce war to just battles – which it certainly is not. I’ve used a lot of ethnic studies in my military history, since you can’t write meaningfully about the Habsburg military without a deep understanding of ethnic, religious, and cultural matters.
In response to the “new” military history, the hardcore element of the brass buttons brigade has retreated to focus on smaller matters of little interest to any but hobbyists. (Let me state that I have more than a little sympathy for the BBB, since my first history job was at a military museum, and I’m skeptical of any military historian who doesn’t know a bit about uniforms, guns, and kit.) This resulted in the recent smackdown at a Civil War history conference in St. Louis over what exactly is the place of military history in the study of the U.S. Civil War.
It seems to me we’re pretty far gone if historians actually question the role of military history in serious analysis of the Civil War. That said, it would help matters if military historians started to branch out and speak to more than their core audience. We know the public likes military history, so give it to them, and eventually some of the academy will pick up. Of course, given that the humanities are going the way of the dodo in American universities anyway, the neglect of military history in post-secondary education may matter little in the long run.
Military historians need to get back to basics and focus on war without forgetting that it never happens in a vacuum. We must understand battles but much more than that. This is especially important as we rapidly approach the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, the great seminal catastrophe of the modern age, as an eminent scholar and writer once put it. The half-decade ahead offers historians a superb opportunity to reassess what happened during that most significant of wars, and why.
As a historian of the First World War, I deeply hope that scholars can get the public to look beyond the cliches of oversensitive war poets and get past the Western Front to see that terrible conflict in its true fullness. For that, we need innovative military history.
I’m fortunate enough to teach a course on the Great War at the Naval War College, which gives students a new perspective on that struggle that is broad, global, and interdisciplinary. I’ll be sharing some of that with you, dear readers, here and in forthcoming books I’m working on. By late 2018, as we reach the hundredth anniversary of the guns falling silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I hope the Great War will have been fundamentally reassessed by scholars and the public at large. I’ll be doing my part.
A few years ago I exhorted my fellow historians “to dispense with shopworn stereotypes and head for the sound of the guns, archives and memoirs in hand.” I see some signs of progress that are encouraging. I’ll be walking point if you care to follow me back to the battlefields of 1914-1918 …