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.)