The battle over U.S. military history: intellectual limpieza de sangre versus intellectual hybridity

rowlandsonbogusSome of you may remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a response to Bob Neer’s article in Aeon, “The U.S. military is everywhere, except the history books,”  arguing that military history courses were in danger of disappearing from American university curricula.  Paul Huard, a writer for War is Boring, picked up the conversation and has written a nice summary of our points of view in “The Battle over U.S. Military History.”

Interestingly, both in Huard’s article and in recent private correspondence between me and Neer,  we probably agree on more than we disagree.  Neer is not interested in strict definitions as to who qualifies as a military historian, and neither am I.  (Nor am I interested in imposing purity tests on historians whose work engages women’s history, the history of gender and sexuality, or North American colonial history.  I’m a big-tent kind of gal.)

Check out Huard’s article, which seeks to bring us all to a truce in which we agree on the importance of both military history and understanding the role of warfare in North American society over the past 400 years or so.  And yet some military historians seem very determined to draw boundaries and police the borders of their discipline in ways that seem to me to be distinctly against the mainstream of historical practice.

I shared this link with my colleague who teaches our U.S. military history course and whose third book will also be in military history.  (I referenced his teaching and research in my earlier blog post.)  He responded sardonically, “I see that, according to [a commenter] who posted on your blog, I am unqualified to teach military history. A noted military historian (Charles Royster) was my dissertation advisor and I was the TA for his military history and Civil War courses for several years and, as you noted in your response, I am actively doing research on the Civil War.”



Indeed.  So who counts as a military historian, and what is military history?  Do you know of other subfields whose practictioners are also invested in patrolling and purity tests, or is military historians unusually touchy about incursions over their borders?  The only possible other subfield I can think of is the history of religion, in which there are still some partisan sectarians who don’t believe those outside of the faith tradition in which they write can be trusted (but this may very well be an outdated impression on my part.)  Are there others?

16 thoughts on “The battle over U.S. military history: intellectual limpieza de sangre versus intellectual hybridity

  1. I think there is probably a lot of boundary-patrolling in a wide range of disciplines and fields if you start looking for it under that rubric, but that military history is perhaps one of the more “unusually” touchy of these. As recently as a week ago the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ published another of those fraught “Church in Danger!!!” pieces entitled “Bring Back Military History,” (April 24), which made no acknowledgment of or reference to the abovementioned post and thread. The first and only time I ever set foot at the site of an important military history event that I many years later wrote extensively about for its war component, was for a *Peace Rally* And the new “Peace Studies” enterprise in academia is being circled warily by military traditionalists. Human behavior is human behavior. It doesn’t need so much coherent boundary delineation as it does recognition of its unrepentant interconnections.


  2. “Do you know of other subfields whose practictioners are also invested in patrolling and purity tests”

    Do you know of subfield whose practitioners AREN’T invested in patrolling and purity tests? This seems like a pretty fair description of every academic field I know…


    • Shane, I think it depends on whether or not you believe your subfield is at the center or periphery of your discipline. So, for example, I think women’s historians welcome any attempts to engage women as historical subjects and the historiography on women & gender seriously, because we were and still are very much at the margins of traditional historical practice. Same goes for environmental history, I think, and for queer history, for example. People who are or perceive themselves as marginal rather than central therefore are more latitudinarian and encouraging of outsiders experimenting with their subjects and methodologies.

      Military historians believe they once held a more central portion of historical practice, which (perversely, in my view) makes them defensive about incursions into their subjects and methods. This is a reaction that is bound to further diminish the hold of military history as it’s historically been practiced.

      But clearly, I think hybridity and experimentation are the way to go. I say let anyone who wants to claim that they’re military historians, and/or that their work should be regarding as making a strong contribution to the field, and then declare victory! Don’t wallow in defeat because historians have broadened their visions beyond where they were in 1900 or 1945.


  3. Historiann, I’m glad you’re staying with this story. Forgive the long post!

    The hand-wringing over neglect of military history strikes me as misplaced.

    I was just at the annual Society for Military History conference in Ottowa, and the president of SMH, Jeff Grey, announced that the meeting had the largest attendance in recent memory (and it wasn’t even in a big American city). I was on a panel there that SMH and the AHA sponsored — a “presidential panel” — on new approaches to military history, with Jeff Grey, Jim Grossman (AHA), Beth Bailey and Lisa Brady. The room was large and mostly full, and the conversation was so convivial and consensual, both among the panelists and the audience, as to be a bit anodyne! No controversy at all. Privately, too, we had long discussion the night before the panel, and it’s clear Jeff Grey is totally welcoming of any and all approaches to military history. To boot, I talked to several instructors from the military war colleges who assigned my book as well as Beth’s or Lisa’s — and those of many other historians whose work is not “drums and trumpets.” They clearly see all the work as relevant not only to military history but to training officers.

    And these instructors and all of us will have a great deal more to assign soon. I know many young scholars working in military history, broadly construed. This year I’ve been contacted by three separate groups of them who are publishing edited volumes, academic texts for undergraduates, and histories-with-documents in addition to their own very innovative monographs. Major academic publishers are lining up to publish their work.

    I’d add that my department at a major research university recently drafted a five year hiring plan that includes hiring a “historian of war” (our incredibly esteemed military historian is planning on retiring soon). Perhaps that term alone — “historian of war” might provoke some of the border-patrollers as the title isn’t “military history.” But that’s their problem. I have the impression that people like Jeff Grey would be really happy about it.

    And finally, it strikes me that the hand-wringing among a few in military history reflects a certain blinkered quality that fails to see how ALL fields have changed remarkably the WAYS the purported subjects are studied. Just think of labor history: used to be purely institutional, with emphasis on intra-union issues of leadership, negotiating strategy, relationships to employers. Now it’s gendered, raced, global and transnational; sometimes — no mostly — divorced from studies of unions entirely. Historians in many fields have broadened the questions they ask and thus the sources they use and the framing of their topics. Military history is no different.


    • Thanks for your comments & report on the recent SMH conference in Ottawa! It sounds like a productive presidential panel.

      I think you’re right that all fields have changed, not just mil hist. Your example of labor history strikes me as really useful–a broadening from institutional histories to social and cultural histories that encompass more different people and ideas.


  4. I got to occupy the fun space of doing social history of the military with my dissertation on women’s integration into the military during the Cold War. I sensed that on the academic job market, it put me in a weird in-between place – not maybe enough of a women’s historian, but not a “military” historian. I did attend the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History (which was fascinating, by the way), and they seemed to not know what to do with me – and certainly, they weren’t interested in talking about social history of the military. I know some fabulous military historians. I don’t really count myself as one of them, but I don’t think many military historians would count me as one either.


    • I remember your report on your summer at West Point, Tanya–didn’t you report on that on your old Tardis blog? It’s good to hear from you again!

      Ah, who knows what Secret Sauce they were looking for back then (2009? 2010?)


      • Thanks! I read often, but comments go few and far between, I’m afraid. (But I’m back in the writing seat, working on my book). One of these days I might even get back to blogging regularly (when I’m not teaching research methods to sophomores in high school…..).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve corresponded with the (civilian) archivists at West Point over the years, and they have very good stuff, much of it that inevitably skews toward the social history of what it is they do there, and they are very responsive and helpful. The e-mails come embedded in electronic signage and signifiers that seem straight out of a Pentagon dark room, but that’s just organizational infrastructure. I need to get up there someday.


  6. Long ago, it occurred to me that more than a few of those referring to themselves “military historians” were often simply men who were really 13-year old boys with advanced degrees writing for other 13-year old boys. As such, their thin skins, fragile egos, and Aristotelian world view made it difficult to grasp that their topic area, military history, was not the Alpha and Omega of scholarship to everyone else. Any hint that it was not the topic of Prime Importance was greeted with shock, dismay, and (often hysterical to observe) fits of pique.

    Thank goodness, these sorts were definitely a minority, even when I first wandered into the field over 40 years ago when beginning grad school after serving in Viet-Nam. Fortunately, with the exception of the thankfully few 13-year old boys with degrees, those I have met and worked with in the field over the years have been top-notch historians who happen to also be “historians of war” — a term that really like. That, thank goodness, women finally began to move into the field — to the utter horror of those 13-year old boys — has only made it infinitely better. For instance, I greatly admire the work of Meredith Lair at George Mason University not only because it is solid work, but also because she is also a fellow Army Brat (and literally the same age as my daughter!). Indeed, the first female military historian whose work truly knocked me for a loop was Rowena Reed with her Combined Operations in the Civil War (Naval Institute Press,1978).

    War, conflict, and unrest/resistance are all parts of the historical fabric, elements of the context necessary to develop our interpretations. That some “military historians” are a bit thin-skinned and more than a bit touchy and parochial is unfortunate, but Life Goes On…


    • Thanks for your comment here–I’ve contributed an essay to a collection that Meredith Lair is compiling along with Kara Dixon Vuic on Gender & the U.S. Military, as a matter of fact. I’m pleased to get to know what some of the more modern historians of the U.S. mil & warfare are up to.


  7. A delightful consequence of my piece for Aeon was the opportunity to virtually meet Ann and to interact with Historiann readers. I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment that we “probably agree on more than we disagree:” broad definitions of military history, the value of research and teaching about “the complexity or ambiguity of warfare” (as Ann put it in Paul’s informative piece), and respect for work that advances our understanding of this shared aspect of our past no matter where it is produced — among other points. Long may the blogosphere flourish as a venue to discuss the past, present, and future of history.


  8. I have followed this post and the comments with great interest because I am struggling with the question of what kind of historian I am becoming. I started out grad school doing nineteenth and early twentieth century cultural history of the Habsburg Monarchy and Central Europe (Carl Schorske Vienna 1900 type stuff, not very original). By the time I finished my dissertation I was researching photography and popular culture or mass culture. But now I find myself working on photography during World War One, but this has required me to go out and learn a lot more about the operational history of the Austro-Hungarian (k.u.k) Armed forces and the conduct of the War. So am I now a military historian because I have been digging through the general staff handbook?

    But here is the kicker, when I was working on the dissertation, I knew I had a project that probably spanned 100 years, from 1848 to 1948, but I cut it off at 1914 to make in manageable. Besides, its pretty typical for historians to regard August 1914 as the big break, or discontinuity, in European history (even though there are lots of reasons to try and pick up on the continuities before and after WWI). But by simply following the logic of my topic, the sources and the social context it makes sense to try a different periodization. So am I a military historian by virtue of just asking the questions and following the sources, even though the larger questions driving my research mean I am equally focused on peacetime and the civilian dimensions of photography and national self-image in East Central Europe?


    • IDK, Matt, but I think you should be encouraged to follow your nose and not to worry about how to categorize yourself or whether or not military historians will accept your work. It sounds like most will appreciate it, and the naysayers can talk to one another in their small club.

      I had a colleague and good friend at another university who was a historian of American Religion, and in particular of 20th C Protestant Evangelicalism. He was also a big leftist, and regularly gave talks and demonstrated against wars and the death penalty, for example. (He was also a very committed Christian, although a member of a peace church rather than an Evangelical one.) Interestingly, he also was regularly invited to talk to Evangelical churches about his research. When I asked him how he was received there, he said, “they’re very nice to me, because I take them seriously. We disagree, and they tell me where they disagree with me, but it’s always a good conversation because they know I think they’re important and that their movement has cultural and political meaning in modern society.” (Or something like that–I’m paraphrasing.) So it seems like members of most historical subfields are like this: take them seriously, engage the scholarship in their field, and only a minority will complain that U R not doin’ it Rite!

      I was very encouraged by Jennifer Mittelstadt’s comment above on the presidential panel at the Mil Hist meeting in Ottawa recently–seems like the leadership of the organization wants the field to attract more scholars who see openings for incorporating or contributing to military history in their work.


      • Thanks for the encouragement Historiann! I will go check out Jennifer Mittelstadt’s work as well as the SMH. The experience of your colleague who works on 20th Century Evangelical religion is a point well made. Maybe my best audience is not the Regional Specialists in Central and Eastern Europe, but the historians working on visual culture, art history, or military history.

        Liked by 1 person

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