Crayons, Fraternities, and Military Historians: The Perception and State of American Military History

During his luncheon talk at the 1997 meeting of the Society for Military History, John Lynn revealed that a colleague of his at the University of Illinois had inquired if military historians write in crayon. Eleven years later, John Shy, professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan, reported at the 2008 meeting of the American Historical Association that the head of an American history department proclaimed military history “as of interest only to hormone-driven fraternity boys.”   In the world of academia, a common belief among military historians is that non-military historians tend to equate military history with popular narratives focused narrowly on guns, battles, and commanders — topics that appeal to the general public, including fraternity brothers.  Military historians also have gathered that their colleagues question the intellectual prowess and relevance of military history, hence the inquiry involving crayons.  Meanwhile, as many military historians endeavor to reverse the negative perception of the field, the presence of military history in academia has waned and stagnated for decades.  Some military historians have responded to these developments by empathizing with the field’s critics, while others have framed academics as anti-war activists who envisage military historians as crayon-wielding warmongers.  From a historiographical standpoint, military historians have added a significant amount of depth to a field that until the mid-twentieth century featured mostly battle and operational histories.  Yet military history still finds itself on shaky ground.

Over the last fifty years, academic military historians have increasingly circumvented the traditional framework of guns, battles, and commanders by amalgamating social, cultural, and political themes with military and war-related topics.  Practitioners of this “new” military history (new in that it is different from old or traditional military history) focus on themes that battle narratives typically ignore, such as civil-military relations, institutional cultures, the motivations of soldiers, masculinity and gender in the machismo-filled world of war, and the experiences of African-American and Chicano soldiers, to name a few.  Although “new” military history has existed for decades (centuries, if you consider the works of Herodotus and Thucydides), the last twenty years have seen “new” military historians fill numerous holes in the historiography.  To avoid turning this piece into a long-winded historiographical essay on “new” military history, the following represent just a few of the notable additions to the field.  Joseph Glatthaar, the current president of the Society for Military History and history professor at the University of North Carolina, published in 1990 Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers, which many if not most military historians consider the definitive work on the experiences of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.  Glatthaar demonstrates that acts of valor and heroism permeated the ranks of the 180,000 black soldiers who served in segregated units under the command of white officers.  He also shows how their bravery and sacrifice faded into the post-war milieu of racial prejudice and segregation in the United States.  DeAnne Blanton’s They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (2003) uncovers another overlooked topic of the Civil War — the wartime experiences of women soldiers who disguised themselves as men, and how their male comrades perceived and treated them.  Peter Kindsvater’s terrific book, American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam (2005) analyzes why Americans in the 20th century rallied to the flag in times of war and how they coped with the consummate exhaustion, frustration, and fear inherent in war and especially combat.  He ultimately concludes that despite the fact that the examined wars spanned several decades, and featured different technologies, terrains, climates, and enemies, the American troops of the draft-era military generally volunteered for the same patriotic reasons and shared similar wartime experiences.  Meredith Lair’s Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War (2011) examines the non-combat experiences of American troops in Vietnam, arguing that the troops in the rear-echelons (far from the battlefields) relied on “consumerism and material abundance” to maintain morale.

Typical frat boy

The study of the strategic culture of armed conflict also constitutes one of the key distinguishing factors separating “new” military history from its traditional counterpart.  Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (1973) extracts the culture of American war strategy from the War for Independence through Vietnam.   Weigley argued that wars of annihilation “became characteristically the American way of war,” exemplified most aptly in the American Civil War and the world wars.  Weigley’s provocative thesis spawned an outpouring of scholarship examining how culture has dictated particular “ways of war.”   Victor Davis Hanson labels the Greeks of the 5th century B.C. as the inventors of a “Western way of war,” while Robert Citino plots the course of what he deems the “German way of war” from the Thirty Years War to World War II.  Weigley’s influence can be seen in the titles of many other books, such as The First Way of War, The AEF Way of War, Technology and the American Way of War Since 1945, The Luftwaffe’s Way of War, and The Afghan Way of War.  “New” military history has certainly distinguished itself from traditional narratives, but the former’s publications tend to inform the social experiences of soldiers and the cultural aspects of war itself.  War clearly places immense strains on the militaries that fight them.  Yet war also has a profound impact on the social, cultural, political, and economic dynamics of nations and societies.

Historians who research topics on “War and Society” have added welcome breadth and diversity to military and war studies.  This perceptive approach to the study of armed conflict speaks to the interconnectedness of wars, militaries, and societies.  Unlike traditional and “new” military history, the subject of war and society has garnered the interest of military historians and non-military historians alike.  I would argue that non-military historians working on war and society have released some of the best war-related works to date.  Michael Sherry at Northwestern University, who specializes in 20th century America, war and political culture, and gay/lesbian culture, has made tremendous historiographical strides for the study of war.  Sherry’s In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (1997) argues that since the 1930s, the American experience of living “in the shadow of war” has instigated the “militarization” of American society.   In The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, winner of the 1987 Bancroft Prize in History, Sherry places the evolution of strategic air power within the context of cultural and intellectual history.  Sherry explores, for example, the pervasive belief among Americans in the early 20th century that air power would make conflict “so mercifully decisive or so mercilessly horrible that it could not continue.” This illusion, according to Sherry, trickled into the post-World War II era, effectively accelerating the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.  The Rise of American Air Power is especially important for military history because Sherry outlines masterfully how researchers can make a historically popular military topic (strategic air power) conversant with larger constructs of American history, or world history for that matter.

Despite these developments, military history has failed to shed its perception in academia as a field that clings stubbornly to traditional battle narratives.   Some military historians speculate that the acute definition of military history may derive from non-military historians’ unfamiliarity with the field.  In extreme cases, military historians have professed that certain academics are “out to get us,” intimating that non-military historians have actively strategized to banish military history to the unsavory margins of academia. In any case, those who confine the field of military history to its traditional roots certainly have a plethora of literary evidence to support their claims.  Many academic and non-academic historians have individually drafted a copious amount of chronologically-sound battle narratives and operational histories, replete with military jargon and acronyms.  These books have always remained a staple of the field both within and beyond the realm of academia.  Publishers and retail bookstores, cognizant of the American public’s interest in all things war, pad their catalogues and bookshelves with an abundance of traditional military histories.

According to Wayne Lee, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, modern military history “is often found guilty by association with applied and popular military history.”  In attempting to pinpoint the reasons for the negative perception of military history, perhaps we should scrutinize the approaches and methodologies utilized in popular military histories.  While professional historians generally commence research projects that seek to fill a specific void in the respective field’s historiography, there are hundreds of books dedicated to one specific battle such as D-Day or Gettysburg.  Non-military historians conceivably could question the level of difficulty involved in synthesizing secondary sources to write yet another book on, for example, the Allied invasion of Normandy.  From their perspectives, I suppose that reading these books is analogous to watching the movie Titanic – everyone already knows what happened.  Moreover, traditional military histories typically avoid incorporating non-military topics into the overall grand narrative, which speaks to the heart of the issue at hand:  military historians often ignore the social, cultural, and political topics in which non-military historians specialize.  Mark Grimsley, a military historian at Ohio State University, deems groundless the popular claim from military historians that the academic history community intentionally bypasses the subject of war. Many social and cultural historians have shown a genuine interest in “reaching across the aisle” to research war in some capacity.  Grimsley notes that while the history community has actively sought to blend war and military affairs into their research, military historians “were too busy writing about our subject in a way that did not connect with the concerns of non-military historians.”

Both Grimsley’s and Lee’s arguments aptly apply to what I call “A Company, B Company” military histories.  A major propellant for the popularity of traditional military history, “A Company, B Company” books offer day by day and in some cases hour by hour accounts of battles and operations, often intermixed with dialogue between soldiers.  In retelling the sequence of events, the authors entertain readers with stories such as how one company (“A Company”) of soldiers collaborated with a fellow company (“B Company”) at 0630 hours to outflank and ultimately annihilate a detachment of deeply-entrenched enemy troops equipped with 17 machine guns, 12 pistols, 1 bazooka, and 694 rounds of ammunition.  After the regurgitation of troop movements and tactical maneuvers, the “A Company, B Company” writer usually provides casualty statistics and perhaps an explanation in strictly military terms as to why the battle or operation ended as it did.  This process is repeated consecutively until the anecdotes eventually coalesce into a potentially bestselling product that flows like a 300-page war movie script.

The war on originality continues

Works of the late Stephen Ambrose, who received his PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin, epitomize “A Company, B Company” history.  Since the 1990s, Ambrose’s Band of Brothers (1992), D-Day (1994), and Citizen Soldiers (1997) have each sold millions of copies.  After the release of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning Saving Private Ryan (1998), a film for which Ambrose served as a consultant, and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001), ­D-Day and Band of Brothers (the book) became standard reading for “hormone-driven fraternity boys” across the nation.  Ambrose was best known for his inspirational and intimate stories about American soldiers in the European Theater of World War II overcoming overwhelming odds to emerge victorious over Nazi Germany.  Ambrose’s narratives have incited or solidified feelings of patriotism, faith, and American exceptionalism from his American-based audience.  A commenter on the goodreads.com page dedicated to D-Day conveys that the book “was a testimony to me that Heavenly Father was with those soldiers that day.”  Another commenter writes, “This book made me feel sorrow for the young men forced to go and fight people they have never met.  They were forced to sacrifice their blood and lived for their country.”  Ambrose clearly ignited a patriotic spark in millions of Americans, and most of his fans presumably would support the claim that Ambrose was “a leading historian of our time.”  In the early 2000s, however, numerous investigations found Ambrose guilty of plagiarism in several of his books, including phantom interviews with Dwight Eisenhower and “copying and pasting” lines of text from other books sans quotations.  While Ambrose’s reputation in academic circles worsened considerably, his books continue to dress private and public bookshelves across the nation.

After briefly reviewing the different sects of the field, I think it is important to shed light on the reasons for the relatively scant presence of military history in academia and how the military history community has responded.   In investigating the impetus for the de-emphasis in academic military history, we cannot simply point the finger at traditional military history.  Nor can we blame only history departments or non-military historians.  The meager existence of military history in academia has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the midst of the widespread social unrest in the United States during the Vietnam War, military history and its professional practitioners began to gradually diminish from departments, as social, cultural, and political topics that had gone largely overlooked forged ahead as the new “cutting-edge” of historical scholarship.  In the decades succeeding the Vietnam War, history departments began filling faculty positions once held by military historians with scholars whose research centered on African-Americans, the plight of American laborers, and women’s history.  In 1975, 2.4 percent of college history departments carried a military historian, while 1.1 percent featured specialists in women’s history.  By 2005, the number of military historians dropped to 1.9 percent, but the figure for women’s historians jumped to 8.9 percent.

Although the decrease in the number of military historians is far from dramatic, the de-emphasis on military history loomed larger in the major American history journals.  By the 1997 meeting of the Society for Military History, John Lynn had sifted through twenty years of American Historical Review articles to find military history conspicuously absent.  Lynn voiced his disapproval of the AHR when uttering that “the death of at least 60 million people, the Holocaust, and the reshaping of the world by warfare from 1937-1945 fall short of deserving a single article in nearly two decades because apparently more important matters had to be discussed.”   Lynn then charges that “they are out to get us, and military history has been compelled to receive the ‘cutting edge’ like a bayonet in the guts.”

Some have insinuated that anti-war activists-turned-historians intentionally marginalized military history.  One military historian wrote in 2011 that tenure-track positions in history departments “are held by the Vietnam generation of stay at homes.”  According to John Miller of the National Review Online, “tenured radicals” instigated the “death” of military history.  Politics certainly could have played a role in the post-Vietnam decline of military history, but it is too simplistic to cite “tenured radicals” as the primary culprits.  As military historian Robert Citino has observed, “history itself splintered into a number of different approaches.  Suddenly, if you were a history department that had pretensions about being world class, you had to cover a lot more bases.”  In other words, military history became just one of many more specialties offered by history departments.  Furthermore, as Mark Moyar rightly points out, the U.S. military’s educational institutions have “offset” the declining number of military historians in academia.  Places such as the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS, and the Marine Corps University in Quantico, VA have been formidable sources of employment for military historians.  This means that military historians either opted for government employment after failing to land a job in the highly-competitive academic job market, or they actively ignored academia in hopes of working for “Uncle Sam,” a quest that today presents its own set of obstacles.  Still, many military historians with PhDs have proven unsuccessful in their attempts to land any of these jobs.  While there are numerous explanations for the modest existence of military history in academia, many military historians have “stuck to their guns” in their steadfast refusal to surrender the “they are out to get us” argument.

In the fall of 1996, then University of Chicago graduate student Eleanor Hannah probed H-net’s military history network, H-War, in search of pedagogical advice for her newly assigned U.S. military history survey course.   In her original query entitled “teaching military history,” Hanna admitted to possessing only a “self-taught” knowledge of the field.  While a seemingly innocent post, her revelations sparked outrage from H-Warriors.  Granted, many military historians on the network gave her constructive advice and reading suggestions.  Others, however, scalded the University of Chicago for recklessly giving a non-military historian full command of a military history course.   Joseph Fischer, then of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command, History and Archives, wrote the following:

I find Dr. Hannah’s posting somewhat troubling not because of her request for assistance but rather because of the University of Chicago’s decision to have someone who is apparently not a military historian teach the subject. Again, I mean nothing personal in this, but few history departments would shy away from hiring a specialist in labor history to teach about labor, women’s history to teach about women, environmental history to teach about the environment, etc.  Why is it that the University of Chicago, one of the most well respected institutions of higher learning in the country, assumes that it’s OK to assign or have faculty volunteers teach a course not in their field?  There are large numbers of military historians working beyond the ivory towers of academia because the jobs are simply not there. Departments of History have shown a recent trend toward not replacing military historians who are retiring.  Now a colleague is asking those of us who apparently are academia’s “untouchables” for assistance in teaching students in our field.

Fischer’s comments, which blindsided an unsuspecting Hannah, completely changed the direction of the online thread.  Subsequent postings called for “a wider academic acceptance” of military history from social, cultural, economic, and women’s historians.  After agreeing with Fischer’s comments and then briefing readers on the plight of military history in academia, one H-Warrior revealed, “I am a doctoral student that will be searching for a career in the near future.” In Mark Grimsley’s response to the temperamental comments, the highly-regarded military historian addressed the graduate student’s statement about searching for a job:

You want to get hired by a history department? Learn to talk about something besides military history.  Learn what other historians care about, and show them how an understanding of the military dimension can illuminate the issue.  DON’T expect that just because a lot of students are interested in military history that that should be a credible reason to have military historians on the faculty.  A lot of students are interested in beer, too; it doesn’t mean we have to offer courses in the subject.

Eleanor Hannah went on to earn her PhD in history from the University of Chicago.  She currently serves as Visiting Associate Professor of History at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne, and has published several articles and a book on U.S. military history.  As of the fall of 2011, Hannah was still teaching U.S. military history courses.

Comments similar to the aforementioned seem to be counterproductive to the progress of military history.  According to the general line of thought in these posts, social, cultural, and political historians should never be given the opportunity to teach a military history course.  On one hand, military historians berate academia for ignoring military history, and on the other they oppose an academic institution’s willingness to add military history to its schedule of classes.  Why should history departments pay more attention to military history if military historians view the majority of college faculty members as prospective impostors?

A colleague of mine recently declared that “military history is dead.”  At some point in most military historians’ careers, they will hear or read something similar.  John Miller’s National Review Online piece, “Sounding Taps: Why Military History Is Being Retired,” is an ominous description of the state of military history in academe.    Although I absolutely detest the song, the lyrics to the chorus of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” seem more appropriate than “Taps,” which is most often heard at military veterans’ funerals.  The Society for Military History website presently lists twenty American universities that offer MA/PhD programs in military history.  Another twelve have MA-only military history programs.  Duke University and the University of North Carolina have constructed a joint military history graduate program, which features eleven faculty members from both universities, including non-military historians, who collaborate to offer numerous courses on American and World military history.  The website for the Ohio State University history department associates eleven of its faculty members with the field of military history.  Kansas State University houses the Institute of Military History and 20th Century Studies, which aims to “foster scholarly and educational alliances between Kansas State University, the Eisenhower Foundation in Abilene, Kansas, and the United States Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.”  Both the University of Tennessee and Southern Mississippi University possess institutes dedicated to the study of war and society.  The Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University is the largest archive on the Vietnam War outside of the National Archives.  The Center funds study abroad trips to Vietnam, where graduate students visit historical landmarks, interact with urban and rural civilians, and hear Vietnamese veterans speak about their experiences in their American War.  Smaller American universities also have paid more attention to military history.  Rogers State University in Oklahoma recently began offering undergraduate degrees in military history.  In the February 2011 issue of Perspectives in History, Dewey Browder, chair of the department of history and philosophy at Austin Peay State University, reveals that “military history is alive and well” at the institution. In addition, over the last ten years The Journal of American History has published numerous military and war-related articles, and roundtable discussions on the state of military history.  Even the American Historical Association, which John Lynn lambasted in 1997 for ignoring military history, has for the last eight years hosted the George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History at its annual meetings.

Military history is far from dead, yet it also is far from prosperous.  Most American history departments possess no more than one or two tenure-track faculty members who consider “military history” a major field of interest.  The former president of the Society of Military History Carol Reardon likens each military historian in academia to “pretty much a one-man shop.”   In 2011, the American Historical Association released its findings from a survey that had asked AHA members to classify themselves as historians.  The survey revealed that the number of historians who listed military history as a field of study had increased 39% over the previous ten years. On the surface, this appears to represent a surprising shift in favor of military history.  However, 39% is a misleading figure.  Previous AHA surveys had requested that its members list three areas of interest, whereas the 2011 version asked for five.  This simply means that “military history” appeared somewhere on 39% of the participants’ survey forms, likely as a fourth or fifth field of interest.  On mindingthecampus.com, KC Johnson contends that “Under the AHA’s new survey guidelines, I could, therefore, identify women’s history as my fifth area of research interest.  But – and for good reason – I never would be considered for any women’s history positions on the basis of that research.”

When the various online outlets post new job openings every fall, military history plays a minor role.  More attention, albeit relatively slim, has been given to “war and society.”  For example, as of 24 September 2012, H-net features one job under the military history heading – a war and society position. Yet many war and society specialists do not consider themselves military historians, which begs the following question: what is military history?  Does military history include every topic that even remotely deals with the military or war?  Or do we reserve the title of military historian for the scholar who panders exclusively to military and war-centered topics and audiences?  Both questions, which warrant a wide range of answers, speak to the complexities involved in defining modern military history.

Military historians have never and probably will never agree on a congruent strategy for how to write, research, and teach military history.  Amid the growing popularity of “new” military history in the 1970s, the prominent military historian Dennis Showalter made “A Modest Plea for Drums and Trumpets,” arguing that military historians should not dismiss the battles and operations that have formed the “essence” of military history.  “It is as though historians of science,” Showalter suggests, “chose to disregard Newton’s laws, or students of modern political history overlook the conduct of elections.”  Since the study of combat is what differentiates military history from other fields, military historians should continue to focus on battles and operations, because these subjects do comprise the “essence” of military history.  Yet we also should embrace a willingness to at least entertain non-military history topics, and present the actions of “A Company” and “B Company” within the broader context of American and World history.

John Southard received his PhD in History from Texas Tech University in 2011 and is currently a visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Georgia State University.

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