Here we go again: military historian complains that no one teaches or writes about military history any more, part eleventybillion


Do we exist?

Via Patrick McCray on Twitter yesterday, I learned that Robert Neer, a part-time lecturer in military history, laments the state of military history among professional historians:

I am not a disinterested observer. Since 2011, when I received my PhD in history from Columbia University, I have taught a course called‘Empire of Liberty: A Global History of the US Military’ on and off at the university during the summers – a survey of ideas and events from King Philip’s War in 1675 to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It surprised me to discover that this was the first course on the history of the US military in many years at Columbia. It startled me even more to learn that there is little research into the history of military power at elite US universities (themselves key players, ironically, in the story: Columbia and the University of Chicago gave us atomic weapons, Harvard invented napalm, and MIT and others are major military research centres). In fact, academics nationwide often dismiss military history as the home of fetishists of suffering and antiquarians obsessed with swords, muskets and battlefield tours.

In one of history’s great ironies, when I read Neer’s article, I had just minutes earlier sent another draft of an essay I’ve written for The Routledge Handbook of Gender, War, and the U.S. Military to my editors, Meredith H. Lair (George Mason) and Kara Vuic (Texas Christian University).  Lair and Vuic are two military historians who seem to have found employment at accredited universities in a profession that allegedly refuses to recognize the legitimacy of their field.  Amazeballs!!!  But apparently Lair, Vuic, and I–not to mention our teaching and research–don’t exist, at least not according to Robert Neer.  So what gives?  Why are we completely invisible to some military historians?

As even one of Neer’s informants within the academy points out, “‘this gets discovered about every 10 to 15 years,’ said Brian McAllister Linn, a history professor at Texas A&M University, and a past president of the Society for Military History.”  Yes, it’s a perennial complaint we hear about the absence of military history, although it’s usually part of a not-very-sophisticated political attack on the other fields history departments also represent these days.  As it turns out, there are institutions that employ military historians; they have their own journals and professional societies; and they get published in premier journals like the American Historical Review (as the article goes on to say)–but Neer complains that because Columbia University and other similarly prestigious Ivies and flagship U’s doesn’t prominently represent the field, it doesn’t exist.

Neer’s lament has a grain of truth:  History departments used to be only focused on political and military history–at least, up until the 1920s or so–but that’s so long before the vast majority of living historians were born.  No one employed today as a historian can have any reasonable nostalgia for that world.  It’s a good thing that history departments also teach about labor, religion, gender, sexuality, the environment, and the many, many other subfields that enrich our work today.  That doesn’t mean that military history is non-existent; it just means that it’s only one lens through which we can view history.

About that course, “Empire of Liberty: A Global History of the US Military:”  that sounds super-familiar to me, because since 2007 I’ve taught my American history survey course as “War and Early American Society,” and I’ve used Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton’s book, Dominion of War:  Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (2005).  But that doesn’t count, I guess–Neer sneers at  “‘war and society’ courses” towards the end of his article.  Funny:  all of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets I’ve taught over the last decade seemed to appreciate the connections I made in that course.  (I wonder how many vets Neer has taught at Columbia?)

The first search committee I ever served on at Colorado State University was in part a search for a military historian.  (See below the point I make about the fact that in a department our size, we all wear a number of hats & teach in different subfields).  I teach at a university that has a ROTC program, and as those of you who teach in history departments at universities like mine know, someone’s got to teach a military history course to the officers-in-training.  My department decided decades ago that it was better taught by someone in our department than by a ROTC program officer who may or may not have any professional training in history.

If Neer were remotely curious about the world west of the Hudson River, he might discover that hundreds of state universities and colleges–Aggies, and the directionals, primarily, like North Texas, Texas A&M (two very prominent military history bastions he mentions in his article!), not to mention the University of Colorado and Colorado State University–hire in military history, teach military history classes, and promote colleagues who research and write in the field.  But none of this matters because Harvard, Yale, and Columbia don’t!

Well, the Ivies also don’t represent public history or environmental history–but do those scholars b!tch and moan in public about this?  No, they do what they do in the many other institutions that recognize and promote these cutting-edge fields.  We don’t care at Colorado State if prestigious institutions represent the strengths in our History department, because we write great books, teach excellent classes, and do what we do to serve our students and our community rather than worrying that our work isn’t recognized or represented elsewhere.

Whenever I read one of these complaints from military historians, I suspect they’re written by people who don’t recognize the ways in which military history–and yes, the recent imperial misadventures of the U.S. in the Middle East–have shaped a great deal of contemporary scholarship.  I myself wrote one book subtitled “War and Gender in Colonial New England” and a second book focused on the many eighteenth-century North American wars and the ways in which communities of women were implicated in them, but because I also teach courses on women’s history and the history of sexuality, how visible is this scholarship and teaching to critics like Neer?  (Those of us who teach in “flyover country” and at non-elite institutions usually represent more than one historical subfield!  It’s true!  You can look it up.)

Most universities don’t field History departments of 50-100 members, so a lot of us wear more than one hat:  the environmental historians also teach public history and U.S. Western history; the medieval Europeanist is our historian of medicine; the person who teaches the French Revolution is also a historian of religion; and yes, the early American historian has written a book or two about warfare as well as gender, sexuality, and material culture.

We’re not Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.  We’ll continue to do our work whether or not you think we exist, or care.  Our sense of worth doesn’t depend on whether or not our fields are represented in New Haven, Cambridge, or New York.  (It’s just too bad Neer’s is.)

73 thoughts on “Here we go again: military historian complains that no one teaches or writes about military history any more, part eleventybillion

  1. I guess our very popular classes here that I teach on WW II: A Global History, on the Civil WAr, and those other folks do on the Crusades, WW I, etc. etc. also don’t count, because we are UCCS and not Columbia. And to think, a couple of weeks ago I just spent 2 1/2 hours in a very productive class period arguing with students about how the Soviets managed to stave off and then defeat the Germans in 1942-43.

    Oh yes, then there is our adjunct, a 25-year veteran of the military and one of the first women to fly a particular aircraft, is doing our WAr and Society in the U.S. class next semester.

    These special pleadings/complaints are so tiresome, but yes, this “problem” is “discovered” yet again every decade or so.


    • I’m sorry I didn’t mention you down in Colorado Springs first and foremost! Colorado is loaded with mil hist, but we don’t count: I’m not a military historian, Fred Anderson doesn’t teach at CU, and you don’t teach military history either.


      • Sorry, but what specific training do you have in military history? Which graduate seminars did you take on the subject and who taught them?
        By your definition, I am now a gender historian, since I have long had a fascination with women. And I’m sure I would get full consideration as such if I applied for a gender historian position.

        A colleague of mine (one of Fred’s students at CU) recently had an offer to teach a military history survey with 60+ enrolled students at CU for less that minimum wage, because, according to the chair, it would let them teach several under-enrolled seminars on other topics. So, no, I don’t buy your assertion that “the University of Colorado and Colorado State University–hire in military history, teach military history classes, and promote colleagues who research and write in the field,” at least not with the same level of respect accorded to other subfields.


      • Well, I don’t care if you “buy” it or not–I’m just telling the truth from where I sit. We hired (2002) and tenured (2008) one faculty member specifically to teach our military history course (as well as public history and other courses in his field of specialization). He left us for a better job–YES! he got a BETTER JOB although teaching in that overlooked and underappreciated vale of military history!–and now we’ve got a tenured colleague who teaches mil hist, and whose next project will be centered on military history. His book on steamboats included a long discussion of their military applications during the Civil War.

        Of course, I can’t speak to the micropolitics of other deparments (CU), but I can point to the fact that their most eminent American historian is probably Fred Anderson, known as a leader in early American military history. If so many students want to take mil hist classes at CU, then that’s hardly an argument that military history is dying on the vine, or isn’t rewarded the way scholarship and teaching in other fields is. (You seem irritated that other fields exist at all–a condition I see in most embittered military historians, BTW.)

        I never took a seminar in military history, it’s true! But I also never took a seminar in Native American history, material culture, New France, or most of the other fields I’ve taught myself in order to write my books. That’s the thing about graduate education: if you do it correctly, you learn how to learn and to connect with other scholarly communities for the rest of your life. You can consult the book reviews for my first book, the earliest of which came from military historians (JAH, NEQ).

        And if you think being interested in women makes you a “gender historian,” then even I can’t help you! Keep your chin up, soldier.


      • I assume you’re referring to your History 357 class (“The American Military Experience”) instructed, it appears, by three different individuals, none of whom had formal training in military history, wrote dissertations on military topics, or earned doctorates at programs with active military history major fields. (While Greg is certainly an expert on the American West, which has a long legacy of military conquest, I don’t think he would consider himself a “military historian,” at least not in polite company!) And I suspect this would be true across civilian academia–the perception (which you failed to address in your response) that anyone can do it on the side and it doesn’t require any formal training. We certainly don’t treat our hires in other subfields that way–why is it OK for military history, especially when undergraduates are lining up by the dozens to take the classes? Shouldn’t they be taught by highly qualified and well-trained faculty who are experts in the field?

        And, thanks for dismissively assuming that all military historians are narrowly trained only in their own field and haven’t published in other subfields or introduced, for example, the first ever courses on environmental history or social dissent in departments at universities within your current home state. So, no, I’m not embittered that other fields exist. In fact, I welcome the increased and increasing diversity in a variety of subfields within the discipline. I only wish my colleagues in those fields did the same, and departments taught their mil hist courses with fully qualified faculty, with the support, benefits and job security they deserve.

        And my professional training, including a doctoral degree in history from a major state university (though, not an Ivy, I grant you) coupled with what “I’ve taught myself” in other subfields makes me at least as qualified to work in gender history as it does for you to work in military history. At least one of us can agree on that!


  2. I’d also note that right in Neer’s backyard there is a department supporting military history…NYU’s history department has a postdoc called the Elihu Rose Professorship in Military History that funds a recent PhD for two-three years. (The current postdoc is a woman, though, so Neer probably hasn’t noticed her yet.) We’ve also got two research fellowships for undergraduates writing senior honors theses on military history-related topics. So even where there isn’t a dedicated faculty line, there are other ways that universities offer courses and support for military history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this information, Historianness – I had no idea myself that NYU supported military history to this extent. (Your grad students are taking over the world & getting all the jobs in our field, though, so I don’t wonder that you’re also experts of historical strategies & tactics. . . !)


      • Good lord. Seriously? If the majority of people killed in twentieth century wars are civilians, then they ought to get some mention. If the successful prosecution of war in the twentieth century requires the mobilization of women, children, and the elderly to build a war economy then that should be as important as drum and bugle narratives.


  3. Truthfully, war is hell, any way you don’t write about it–from the perspective of traditionalists, anyway. First your field is ignored, then it gets stolen. They put civilians into it (as in war-and-society), then girl civilians, next thing you know it’s weapons system contractors, intelligence analysts, anti-war protestors, and the subject itself just swims off into the human condition, like Mao’s “army” at the end of the Long March. This cruel fate could even happen to economic history. And don’t get me started on “peace studies,” as if things happen on a continuum or something. Columbia and Princeton, among others, here in the Far East, have both had prominent scholars who made pretty good careers by moving in-and-out of the *war* part of the Civil War, as with the “three-second” zone on a basketball court. And even at the military academies, if not especially at the military academies, this linkage and blending approach to the subject has become more popular and better recognized than the walling off of war-making under the essentialist notion of military “science.”


    • HAhaha! You should know, Indyanna. Good point about McPherson’s career at Princeton, but isn’t Tigertown west of the Hudson? (For that matter, isn’t West Point?)


      • Only when I lived east of the East River did I think that west of the Hudson was “the West.” And only when I began studying war in a Revolutionary context did I learn that New England was called “the Eastern States” by Continental Congressmen, whereas I thought of them as vaguely the northern states. But I got so spatially disoriented from living on Long Island that I still sometimes think of “west” as being any direction that involves moving farther away from the Hudson River. As in Montauk is “west” of Hempstead. Or Hartford is “west” of Poo-KEEP-sie. That’s too warped for even a New Yorker cover!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Growing up in Maine, I hope you will forgive me that my impression was that military history was about who led decisive bayonet charges in critical Civil War battles (and hey, Jeff Daniels made him look good to boot). That view of military history was completely blown up my freshman year, when my modern european history professor assigned Denis Winter’s _Deaths Men_. I find it peculiar that such a recent Ph.D. has adopted an “ideas and events” view of military history.


    • I didn’t know you were from Maine, Profane–had enough Joshua Chamberlain studies for one lifetime? (I thought Matthew Broderick was a much more adorable Robt. Gould Shaw in Glory, myself.)

      It is curiously out of step with our field to demand a purer and narrower approach, but maybe that’s because this complaint is mostly revanchism rather than a serious analysis? But then, the promiscuity and interdisciplinary borrowing and cross-contamination is what some might say is wrong with professional history as it’s taught and practiced.

      Military history cannot fail; it can only be failed?


      • To be honest, I did not have enough Joshua Chamberlain studies until I had figured out why he volunteered, why he initially declined leadership of the regiment, why he was, unlike many political appointees, a competent leader, where his men were recruited from, what trades they engaged in prior to the war, who manufactured their uniforms, boots, tents, food, weapons, and ammunition, why they only went into battle with 386 men despite never having engaged in significant combat, and why they ran out of ammunition, amongst other things.

        Somehow, I survived all the promiscuity and interdisciplinary borrowing and cross-contamination that learning all of that involved, and naturally emerged from the process with a much richer historical understanding – which I transmitted to my students when they cornered me into showing them “the spot where Joshua Chamberlain led the bayonet charge.”

        Hence why I find it perplexing when this “problem” is once again “discovered.”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. And to make an international point: Michelle Moyd at Indiana University recently published *Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa*, and teaches such courses as “War and Peace in Twentieth-Century Africa,” “African Military Cultures and Conflicts,” and “African War Stories: History and Representation.” And even at Columbia, Greg Mann has written about African soldiers in the French empire (*Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the 20th century*), though he doesn’t list military topics in his list of courses.


    • Well, TBH it’s very much a view from where I sit. I didn’t research the existence or extent of military history courses or programs. But then, neither apparently did Neer!

      I wasn’t trained in military history, so it wasn’t particularly on my radar until I arrived at CSU 15 years ago, but it’s been pretty unavoidable from then on. And I think this is the case at more unis than not, esp. those of us at non-selective public unis. We’re the places where military history not only exists but thrives. (Just look at every other campus in Texas, for example!)


  6. I actually thought military history had underwent a bit of resurgence of late, because it feels a bit like every gender historian out there is doing something with the word ‘military’ in it, from military fashion to military marriages to military masculinities to soldier-civilian relations. And in the UK and Europe more broadly, there is the backwash from the Battle of Waterloo and other Napoleanic war anniversaries in 2015, at the same time as we work through all the WW1 100 year events. Every journal worth its salt seems to have at least WW1 special issue on the go and you can’t move for falling over war-related conferences. And I know a huge amount of research grants and PhD funding that have got up because they’re tying it into these war anniversaries and their contemporary relevance.

    I mean it’s almost like Neer thinks it doesn’t count if it isn’t done by a bunch of white men arguing about exactly where on the frontline a particular piece of artillery was placed. But that couldn’t be it…


      • CSPAN3 and the cable history channels carried a lot of Civil War programming last year. I was pleased that many mentioned and sometimes focused on the role that black people played leading up to and in the conflict, instead of parroting the “the white North swooped in and magnanimously freed the passive and grateful slaves” attitude that so many people still seem to buy into.

        Maybe you professional historians can enlighten me on something I find baffling. So many of the overwhelming white male historians who populate the cable shows practically salivate when they speculate that if only [fill in battle maneuver] had gone differently, the South could have won! It’s not just the military historians. I watched a lecture on Reconstruction from a Lincoln symposium yesterday, and I heard the same tone when the lecturer posited that the shift of a few thousand votes in several states could have given the 1864 election to McClellan.

        Just as it appears mandatory to use brave or gallant when describing Confederate soldiers, but that accolade is rarely granted to Union fighters. Is it too many viewings of Gone With the Wind?


      • Hi, K: I have to admit that I don’t know much about these corners of Civil War military history. I will note the fact that it seems like there are more military historians and military-history heavy History departments in the Southern part of the U.S. That, plus the fact that I think it must be boring to write about the military history of the Civil War, given the North’s insurmountable advantages in men, money, and materiel. (That is, it all seems to be so inevitable, and historians like to think about counterfactual history, especially when the odds seem so stacked in favor of the way it all turned out.)

        Trust me on the boredom of thinking about certain historical problems. I’m pretty much done with teaching about the American Revolution, not because it was so inevitable, but because American historians and students don’t really want us to think about the counterfactual on that event. The flag-waving and bromide-spouting is just too much. I don’t respect the Lost Causers, but at least their school of thought exists in the U.S., whereas there is no pro-British/anti-Whig school of interpretation of the Revolution, not since the death of Lawrence Henry Gipson nearly 50 years ago.

        But, to your larger point about the Civil War: it seems unseemly, if not immoral, to get all worked up about the possibility for a Southern victory in public, considering all of the families’ fates and lives that were at stake among the enslaved population.


  7. This might have been mentioned before, but military history and the history of war is indeed still taught at Ivy League institutions. Yale is a case in point. I am just baffled by the whole argument. There has been a shift from military history to the history of war, but even left wing social historians like me do teach – and take – military history v. seriously.


    • Thanks for your comment–I didn’t realize that Yale represented military history, so good for Yale. (My apologies.) You’re saying that Neer’s comments make even less sense than I thought?


      • Bluntly, yes. Neer’s piece is a cultural (and political?) lament that belies the health of the field. Military history suffers from political and intellectual prejudice in the academy but far less in the US or the UK than in France for instance. The decline is real but relative: there are fewer academic jobs for historians overall and history as a field is much more diverse than it used to be even 15 years ago. I think he also does a disservice to those great military historians who proved to erstwhile skeptics like me that military history could be as sophisticated, as rich and vibrant as any other sub-field. Even the most technical operational history can be fascinating when treated by true scholars. It can also be and still often is dreadfully boring. But the same could be said of any kind of history.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for your follow-up thoughts, Pierre. It’s also interesting to hear your comparisons of Anglophone vs. French scholars (or at least the U.S. and Britain v. France).

        I was thinking earlier today that History departments–mine included–have in fact shrunk. The humanities are not serving the numbers of majors we were 10-15 years ago. If I may say so, it seems tactically dubious for any historians to have a circular firing squad rather than banding together and protecting the discipline collectively. My main tribe, in women’s & gender history, argues for greater representation of our field/s, but it doesn’t do so by complaining about the existence of older fields or by insisting that we get their slice of the pie. There’s more strength in sticking together to insist on the value of all historical studies, and trying to bake a bigger pie. (Or at least resist the shrinkage of the pie!)

        As Benjamin Franklin once said, we must all hang together, or else we will hang separately!


  8. We do war in religious studies, too, as I had to remind our history chair just recently when they put a new course on the Crusades through our curriculum committee and noted that “no one else teaches this” – the very week that I was teaching it. Because God forbid anyone should pay attention to the religious aspects of war; clearly they haven’t been important historically or in the modern era.


    • af, your comment calls to mind something another historian said after hearing me talk about my first book. She stood up and said, “We know this about every war–we know that women as well as men are involved. And yet we forget it every time,” speaking to the ways in which we as a society conspire to ignore women’s labor, women’s presence, in order to maintain the old fantasy that warfare is a men’s proving ground, and that national heroism is built about upon it alone (thus excluding women.)

      I wonder if your experience here is a result of some of this selective commemoration – wanting to preserve a particular, pure version of military history/history of warfare that’s not “contaminated” or complicated by religion, etc. And/or maybe (if you are a woman?) a tendency to ignore women’s work!


  9. Hmm, I imagine Jenifer Van Vleck at Yale would find this critique odd. Then there’s Jennifer Mittelstadt at Rutgers, but of course *The Military-Welfare State* is probably too “society-ish” to count. Jonathan Ebel’s *GI Messiahs* is presumably too religion-y. Masuda Hajimu’s Cold War Crucible too foreign-relations, I suppose. A number of newly minted PhDs (Emily Swafford, Ronit Stahl, John McCallum, John Rosenberg all come to mind) deal with the military and will presumably get books out soon-ish (albeit on topics relating to the social, cultural, religious, gendered, and political aspects of the military, which may not be good enough–not enough gun battles, I guess, even if there were battles of many other sorts). Perusing the OAH program turns up even more people — grad students, postdocs, not to mention quite a few venerable scholars — also working on numerous dimensions of the military, albeit often the socio-cultural or transnational elements thereof. Woe is not the subfield of military history.


    • Thanks for your informed shout-outs to some important historians!

      I meant to mention my pal Jennifer Mittelstadt’s recent Harvard U. Press book in the post above, The Rise of the Military Welfare State. I know from conversations with her that most military historians accept what she’s doing as military history, but that some have objected very vehemently to the notion that “welfare state” and “military” belong in the same sentence, let alone the same title.


      • I was under the vague impression that war was the original welfare state: prevent poor hungry male adolescents from wreaking mayhem at home by sending them off to fight and be fed. Is there any truth to this?


      • What are you, some kind of Marxist, Comrade?

        Check out Mittelstadt’s book–I think you’ll totally dig it. From the review in The Nation:

        In The Rise of the Military Welfare State, Jennifer Mittelstadt offers a disturbing view of the armed forces as a high-value target in political clashes over public assistance. Investigating the military is “vital to any full history of social welfare in the United States,” Mittelstadt writes, because politicians have pitted the military against civilians in the battle over social benefits, while barely attending to the needs of service members and their families. The battle over support dates back to the shift to an all-volunteer army in 1973 and continues to roil our politics. Among the recurring issues are the size and scope of government, the applicability of market principles to social policy, the determination of just benefits for military families and ordinary citizens, and the role of women in the military. The decisions taken in those years have radiated out like the halo of a chronic migraine, undermining our nation’s delivery of welfare and education and its support for gender equality.


  10. What Neer is nostalgic for might be summed up, I think, by the success of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. A eye-poppingly dull read for this non-historian but an Important Work ever since it was published. I bet a few nineteenth-century readers joined me in bailing before Grant got to Appomattox, and maybe some number of them shared my doubt that Grant really remembered every blade of grass he ever stepped on in the Mexican War. But back in a golden age Grant had an entitlement to create what he called his memoirs as he pleased, remembering his military years as narrowly as he wanted. A former president wrote about his life sans context, sans family, sans presidential and electoral politics, sans almost everything. Neer wants that entitlement back.


    • I’ve actually been thinking that I need to give U.S. Grant his due–I’ve never read what are supposedly the masterpiece of presidential memoirs! (I’ve also been thinking that I need to give Henry Adams another read too, but maybe I’m just in those insane last 7 weeks of the semester and having fever dreams about what I’ll accomplish this summer?)


  11. Thanks, Historiann, for writing a post that’s continued to help me think about the sort of historian I want to be when I grow up. A couple months ago, when I was wrapping up the introduction to my book manuscript, I felt the need to clarify that what I’d written was not a military history, though I’d used military sources extensively. As I’m sure you know, you can’t study, write, or teach about Native American history without getting into documents produced by British and American military entities. Yet I’d felt like I had to say that my book was not a book of military history to avoid disappointing anyone looking for lengthy discussions of battles and strategy.

    Now I’m rethinking that. I’ve spent the last half decade claiming I’m not a diplomatic history, and have only recently admitted that maybe I sort of am. Maybe I AM a military historian too, and maybe my book is in part a book of military history (though clearly not the kind that would earn Neer’s approval).


    • Rachel, that’s really funny! I think we have to think of ourselves like improv actors or comedians: never say “no” to a premise introduced by your partner–always say, “yes, AND. . . ” So never decline expertise someone wants to credit you with–say “yes, AND I’m an ethnohistorian and an enviornmental historian and I do material culture, too!”

      I have a similar story. Believe it or not, it took me a few years to admit that I was in fact a women’s historian. Sometimes other people can see us more clearly than we can see ourselves.


  12. So, I’m only a Shakespeare person, but why would anyone do their PhD in Military History at a place where there haven’t been military history courses taught in “many years”? Who would you study/work with that hasn’t been teaching any courses?

    We have a smallish history department, very strong in public history, with a quite vocal and interesting military historian.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. but Neer complains that because Columbia University and other similarly prestigious Ivies and flagship U’s doesn’t prominently represent the field, it doesn’t exist.

    As others have noted, he’s not even right about the Ivies/elites. Here’s what’s being taught at Cornell and Stanford:

    ASIAN 3302 – Art of War in Ancient China
    HIST 1571 American Military History from the World Wars to 9/11
    HIST 1581 America at War to 1898
    HIST 1137 Vietnam War in Film
    HIST 2543 In the Crossfire of Empires: Africa and World War II
    HIST 2321 Introduction to Military History
    HIST 2590 The Crusades
    HIST 3580 State Violence: Germany 1870-1945
    HIST 3630 History of Battle
    HIST 3710 World War II in Europe
    HIST 3790 The First World War: Causes, Conduct, Consequences
    HIST 4661 – Contested Continents: The Great War for Empire in North America and Beyond, 1754-1763

    HISTORY 103E: The International History of Nuclear Weapons
    HISTORY 103F: The Changing Face of War: Introduction to Military History
    HISTORY 202G: Peoples, Armies and Governments of the Second World War (HISTORY 302G)
    HISTORY 208D: Pre-Modern Warfare (HISTORY 308D)
    HISTORY 227: East European Women and War in the 20th Century (FEMGEN 227, HISTORY 327)
    HISTORY 231C: The Great War: WWI in Literature, Film, Art, and Memory (FRENCH 258, FRENCH 358, HISTORY 332C)
    HISTORY 235: The Renaissance of War: Politics, Technology, and War in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy
    HISTORY 259E: American Interventions, 1898-Present (HISTORY 359E, INTNLREL 168A)
    HISTORY 291G: Pre-Modern Chinese Warfare (HISTORY 391G)

    Those were the two I checked.

    A few more random points:

    1. These are an echo of the debates that went on in military history in the 1970s and 80s, when historians focused on operational military history (the battlefield, essentially) resented the rise of the “new military history” which focused on much larger social and cultural issues.

    2. “History departments used to be only focused on political and military history–at least, up until the 1920s or so–but that’s so long before the vast majority of living historians were born”

    This is not quite right, and in an interesting way. History departments used to produce military history, but not by military historians (nor were they training them). In essence, if you go look at the subfield as a distinct one that produces historians trained in it, military history doesn’t really start to appear until the 1960s. In a sense, I think some of this is a definitional fight of what that sub discipline looks like.

    3. “Maybe I AM a military historian too, and maybe my book is in part a book of military history.” Oh, you are, absolutely. The only tiny nugget of truth in Neer’s piece is that I have sometimes encountered a reflexive sense among other historians that military history is only about the battlefield. That may be driven more by the popular military history (Yet Another Book On Gettysburg/Midway/D-Day).

    4. Despite 1, there is a lot of value in operational military history (if not done to extremes). Understanding how wars and battles actually went informs, I think, about larger issues (understanding how the United States fought World War II tells us a lot, for example, about why America has such trouble with unconventional warfare).

    But not as the only thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To follow on from point #4, while teaching Modern Britain several years ago, I let a student question about Infantry Squares dominate the entire class, as it served as an excellent nexus for most of the important issues of early 19c. history. (I never thought that “How can we connect this to Infantry Squares” would come out of my mouth so many times!) It was such an effective class that I shredded the next exam as I had it planned, and asked an essay question on the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, David–it looks like you did way more research than Neer did for his original article. (I specifically refused to do that myself–part of it was a time issue, but another part was my refusal to do the work the affirmative case debater refused to do himself!)

      Thanks also for your correction re: 1920 vs. 1960. I was guessing, based on some research I did on the early 20th C History curriculum at my uni, as well as general knowledge about the evolution of the field.

      Your comments reinforce my sense that military historians are launching yet another rear-guard action, complaining about how others aren’t doing it right, rather than looking to build a big tent by seeking out connections to the work of other historians. (Forgive the reflexive military metaphors!)

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks! I got so annoyed that I had to go take a look at what was actually being offered. Those fake impressive stats (“only six courses!”) really bother me.

    Your comments reinforce my sense that military historians are launching yet another rear-guard action, complaining about how others aren’t doing it right, rather than looking to build a big tent by seeking out connections to the work of other historians.

    Some military historians. A lot of military historians (including me!) find the “woe is me” narrative extremely frustrating. The discussion of Neer’s article over on the Society for Military History’s facebook page has *not* been complimentary to it.


  15. Thanks for your comments Historiann, I appreciate them, and your blog. I’ve used Dominion of War also in past years. If you could point me to your syllabus for “War and Early American Society” I’d be grateful. The point I was trying to make in my piece for Aeon is that there are relatively few history courses that “directly examined the US military” at the schools I listed — by which I meant, courses that specifically teach the history of the U.S. military. I think that is true. I agree that there are many history courses that address that subject at other schools. I admire them, and many of the works of scholarship cited above. I also agree there are wonderful history courses in related fields at the institutions I mentioned, as David noted above in the case of Cornell and Stanford — for example, surveys of military history, the military history of other countries, courses on war and society, courses about the Crusades, and others, all of which are included on his list. As I wrote, the range of contemporary scholarship in the field — I cited Carol Reardon, Denise Davidson, Christine Haynes, Jennifer Heuer as exemplars, but there are many — should be celebrated. And as I wrote, I agree that it is a good thing history departments teach about labor, religion, gender, sexuality, the environment, and other subfields (“neglected areas of the past, from gender relations to urban history, and many others”). I have taught many veterans, and my experience has been similar to yours: they appreciate connections of the kind you describe. I have the highest respect for “war and society” courses, I just distinguish them from “military history” courses and my proposed “history of the military.” Perhaps one confusion in the piece was the headline. I didn’t write it, and was surprised to read it because I didn’t think it reflected the content of the piece. In any event, thank you for your instructive criticisms, and those of your fellow commenters.


    • Thanks for your comments here, Bob. It’s true: when you write for a commercial publication, you don’t get to write the headlines!

      What do you think is the particular contribution of historians of the U.S. military vs. those of us who write and teach about warfare and society that should interest students at universities in general? I guess I’m not seeing what this narrow focus would do for students who are not at service academies. Your article seemed to me, and to many of my commenters here, to be a complaint that the rest of us aren’t “doin’ it rite,” and to offer a definition of military history that seems very narrow, when (in my view) history’s power is when it engages other fields and subfields.

      I’m not against institutional histories–in fact, it seems like they’re making kind of a comeback. But I’m just not getting what the value for my students (for example) would be to take a course on the history of the U.S. military, vs. the kinds of courses I and my colleagues teach.


      • I admire courses like the ones you teach. I try to learn from them. I think there should be more of them. In general it is an excellent thing, as I wrote, that “diverse historians now consider military events in the context of social, cultural, environmental, economic and other fields of inquiry.” What I thought was missing at the institutions I cited were courses like yours and others specifically focused on America’s military past — but more general than tactical studies taught at the service academies — that could help students at those schools put the specifics of contemporary U.S. global military activities in historical context. There are wonderful courses like that at many institutions, as you and others here have emphatically observed. I agree. But they are rare at the institutions I was writing about. My suggestion was to consider a “history of the military.” Another approach, as David suggests below, is to broaden “military history.” Both are means to similar ends.


  16. I think Robert Neer might be missing the point. There are scholars who research military history—and they are not being hired—but neither are any other historians. And then there are scholars who teach military history, and we are doing an increasingly good job. Archives are making material available online, books are being written apace, and students are more interested than I can remember. This term at CU-Denver I am teaching three courses that deal with war: a class on the World Wars, a class on Weapons of Mass Destruction, and a class on Postwar Germany. All have benefited from wonderful new scholarship that I found on H-War (a listserv), New Books in History (a podcast with related channels), various blogs, popular reviews, and specialty journals. In addition I am hosting a symposium on WMDs, the visit of a filmmaker who documented the effects of war in the Sudan, and a public historian who has written a screenplay on the end of WWII in the Pacific. Everyday I interact with students who are veterans, volunteers who interview survivors, and colleagues who work on invasion, conquest, memory, trauma, PTSD, memorials, brain injury, famine, nationalism, and genocide. If anything, it seems like I am drowning in war studies.

    But Neer is correct. I’m not a military historian.


    • But Neer is correct. I’m not a military historian

      Sure you are! Or, you’re doing military history. Don’t listen to Neer and his idea of what military history is. We really are a broad church, and everything you described strikes me as military history.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your support.

        If Historiann permits, please allow me to post this shameless plug for my filmmaker friend Hubert Sauper:

        Denver: 5-6 April (screening 6 April, 7:30pm, Student Commons 2600, CU-Denver)
        Colorado Springs: 7 April
        Boulder: 8 April

        Free to all. Shortlisted for an Academy Award. Supported by CU President’s Fund for the Humanities. Contact me for details.

        Liked by 2 people

      • (I thought Gabriel was snarking!)

        Robert Neer not only wrote a lengthy comment (above), but also emailed me personally to thank me for continuing the conversation here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi David. My idea of what military history should be is the same broad church you describe, and I think Gabriel’s work should be celebrated. My observation that many academics dismiss this field as narrow and antiquated was a lament. As I wrote, the field has been energized by new scholars working in new fields to the point where a “new” military history is now the norm, which is all to the good.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Excellent! We hope to see you both at the Society for Military History annual meeting next month in Ottawa! (….crickets….crickets…) After all, if you’re going to “do” military history, then why not support the society that promotes it? Why not present at conferences and publish in the subfield?

        And, what’s the difference between the ROTC officer who “may not have any professional training in history” teaching the survey course and “someone in our department” (likely an adjunct or GTA!) teaching the course, if they both lack professional training in military history? I mean, if you value standards and formal training as the barrier for entry into the profession, then why wouldn’t you want formal training IN THE FIELD for those who are teaching it? Would you hire a colonial historian with no coursework in the field? An applicant for an environmental historian who had no formal training but “enjoyed hiking?” I think this is the beef most un- or under-employed military historians have–their training isn’t valued within the academy, and too many departments operate under the assumption that the field is so simplistic or easily mastered that anyone can teach it if they simply “read up” on the subject. And it smacks of hypocrisy within a discipline that allegedly places a premium on professional training.


      • Not sure if Chris is addressing me or Bob Neer–I’ll just step in to offer a correction to his misperception. When I said that my department didn’t want an untrained person teaching our mil hist course, that’s an upper-division history course, not an intro course, and our concern was that it was a course that offered upper-div credit & therefore should be taught by someone trained as a historian. (And BTW, all of our adjunct faculty have Ph.D.s in history–we don’t let grad students or even ABDs teach even intro courses on their own. Sadly, there are far too many un- and underemployed people with their degrees.)

        I sympathize with your frustration, Chris. But believe me: it’s all historians who feel the crunch, not just the military historians. You seem convinced that your situation is purely due to your field of specialization, but it’s not. I’d encourage you to make connections with other subfields and demonstrate that you can teach in other fields. The fact is, as I’ve said a few times in the post and in the comments, we all have to wear a variety of hats these days.

        Sadly, I won’t be at the military history conference. My work moved on long ago after I published Abraham in Arms, although my second book is set amidst the wars of the 18th C. But now I’m totally done with guys and guns. You can have that all to yourself!


  17. Note that an amicus brief by military historians apparently got the attention of Justice Sotomayor, who asked the first, and very challenging, question of one of the counsel for the petitioners in the recent hearing on Zubic v. Burwell, the latest in the line of cases targeting the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). So it’s not only the drums-and-battle stuff that can make the study of the military past relevant to the complicated and interesting times that we live in.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Following this thread from the UK, I would add that we’ve got a range of universities offering Military History/War Studies, ranging from our ‘Ivy League’ (Oxbridge and Kings College London) to my own institution, the University of Kent (which is the equivalent of a good state university), to teaching-focused institutions besides. Nearly all undergraduate programmes are described as ‘War Studies’ except Kent’s which is BA Military History. I work on Spanish and Latin American civil wars, so I would count as a Hispanist as well as a social and political (even gender) historian in addition to a military expert and I consider the titles to be mutually reinforcing.


  19. Here we go again, again. EleventyBillion.oo1… I see that the _Chronicle_ is running an article in the new issue out today (d. April 29), titled “Bring Back Military History” to the academy. It proceeds in pretty nearly total, or actually total, ignorance of this post or of the diverse and extensive comments in the thread above. Same old tired grievance about marginalization by the “continuing culture wars begotten by Vietnam…”


    • Uh, weren’t the kulturkampfen going on before Vietnam? As in, the Red & Lavender Scares and the blacklists? I love how the only culture wars some see are those initiated by the Left.


  20. Pingback: The battle over U.S. military history: intellectual limpieza de sangre versus intellectual hybridity | Historiann

  21. Pingback: “I am an investigative journalist, please take me seriously.” | Historiann

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