Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Charleston SMH: A Reconnaissance

I leave in a few hours for the annual meeting of the Society for Military History.

I've looked over the program with as much care as I could. If I counted correctly, there are forty-two sessions. Of these, fifteen deal directly with the conference theme, "The Rise of the Military Profession."

Nineteen sessions, by my count, are exclusively concerned with the United States military experience.

Eleven sessions deal exclusively with the European military experience.

Seven sessions have papers that involve U.S. and European subjects.

One deals with the Canadian military experience.

Two sessions deal with the South African military experience, and although these deal extensively with British and Boer actors, I'll accept them as non-European.

One session deals with Egypt.

One session deals with a topic that seems to have race at its core.

No sessions, as far as I can tell, involve women or gender.

No sessions are devoted exclusively to non nation-state actors, though I counted three papers that seemed to examine their subjects principally through the lens of non nation-state actors.

It also seemed to me that terms current in the defense establishment were frequently used to describe sessions that dealt with other historical periods; e.g., "Amphibious Warfare in the Early Modern World;" "The Continental Army: Insurgent Peace-Keepers?;" "Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Southern Africa, 1900-1902;" "Counter-Insurgency from Cuba to Castile . . . 1895-1936;" "Asymmetrical Warfare during the American Revolution's Southern Campaign;" "Professionalism and Peace Operations [in the U.S., 1830-1860]."

Here is an excerpt from Tom Bruscino's post, which I highlighted yesterday:

Military historians have at times been far too caught up in the traditional end of our field--discussions of battles from the perspective of generals. We have not done the best job in explaining how the importance of military affairs extends far beyond the battlefield. But the effort is underway, and has been for twenty-five years, to broaden military history to include all manner of discussions on race, class, gender, social life, cultural issues, memory, and politics.

Look at the program for yourself. You will indeed see some attention to social life, cultural issues, memory, and politics. But if these concerns honestly strike you as being as much a part of the field as European-style command, military institutions, strategic-policymaking, and warfare, I would love to be enlightened.

The problem is not that the papers that will be presented are not good papers. In my experience, most of the papers given at the SMH display the same quality you see at other major conferences.

The problem is not that the presenters should quit doing research on these topics, which plainly interest them, and instead research topics that do not.

The problem is not one of achieving academic cachet. Military history will be, for a long time, a bastard child of academe. For political reasons, not intellectually-defensible ones.

The problem is that military historians have themselves painted the field into a corner that is far too small and is intellectually indefensible. And they have done it for political reasons. They have made little effort to reach out to the many historians who examine war and military affairs through the lens of gender, race, and class; from non-European perspectives; or from the perspective of counterhegemonic actors. That is why so few of these historians present their work at the SMH, or are even aware of its existence.

They say that eighty percent of people in academe are Democrats or in some way politically left-of-center. That argues for some form of political gate-keeping--in my view most likely an accidential gate-keeping whereby most people who self-select into academe are already left of center to begin with.

Within the field of military history, I would argue that a similar form of gate-keeping prevails, perhaps accidental, perhaps not. The gate-keeping takes this form: Be a military historian who deals with questions, agendas and conceptual frameworks congenial to the defense establishment, or do not call yourself a military historian. We don't don't want your scholarship, don't want your participation, don't want your voice, don't want you.

Because if we did want you, we'd make an effort as an organization to reach out to you and include you.

When I attended the last SMH, I looked very hard for evidence that anyone--be they leadership or rank-and-file--wanted to enlarge the tent. I didn't see much. I'll be looking again at the Charleston SMH. I'll let you know what I find.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You left out the middle of the holy trinity: class.

And I think you're right in a lot of ways, which casts an interesting note on Thomas Bruschino's earlier note about the lack of military historians in the academy. If this is the best we can do with up-to-date modes of analysis, why should other historians let us have valuable space in the sandbox?

But there's something else. Some of the titles are likely deliberately vague about their topics so as to be acceptable to the widest ranging audience. People may well have not put provocative titles ("A Gendered Reimagining of the Professionalization of the Army Officer Corps, 1919-41") to avoid being pigeonholed by more traditional historians. I know that the title of my paper is somewhat neutral, despite being a full-throated class analysis of its topic.

Are you presenting?