Monday, February 21, 2005

The Charleston SMH

The flagship organization for military historians, at least those who work in North America, is the Society for Military History. I sketched some background about the SMH in an entry composed after attending its last annual meeting, which was held last May in Bethesda, Maryland.

The next meeting will be held later this week in Charleston, South Carolina. I'm looking forward to it. The meetings always give me a chance to meet old friends and make new ones. I get an opportunity to see what's going on in the field. And because I've somehow managed never to visit Charleston before now, I'll finally get to visit Fort Sumter, the only significant Civil War battle site I have yet to see.

I've not yet taken time to look systematically at the conference program. If I had to guess, however, I imagine that it will look similar to last year's program. The question I have for you--and for that matter, me--is this. Supposing that I were a history department or college dean willing to consider creating a military history position? Suppose that I knew the most likely objections I would receive would have to do with protests about the lack of intellectual vigor in the field; that people would wonder if military historians had anything of consequence to say to those in other fields; that they would wonder if military history were in meaningful conversation with those in other fields. Would the program, overall, help or hinder my case?


Rich said...


I pains me to say that I think the program overall would hinder your case. Too much tanks, tactics and battles that military history critics see as lack of intellectual vigor. That being said, given the emphasis on big draw courses in the university in order to increase revenue, one could make that case rather easily, especially using examples like Duke, Calgary etc. At Calgary, the Military History program put together the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies which has grown from 10 graduate students when I was there (I left in 2002) and is now over 50 and growing. The Fellows attacted to the Centre frequently appear on television as expert commentators which gives positive exposure to the university. More positive exposure means more students, means more money, means more donations. It seems to me that these are issues administrators understand, especially when you can quantify it with hard data. Would that be enough to overcome their prejudices? I am not sure, but I do know that a lot of our colleagues in the academy would sneer (rightly or wrongly) at some of the panels and presentations. I myself raised an eyebrow at a couple. If I were to make a case I would try to quantify it in a way so that it benefits the university as a whole, but I would keep that program out of sight.

Mark G. said...

I wish I were as sanguine as you are about administrators "seeing the light," even if faculty do not. And in fact I agree that if the SMH were to think strategically about growing the field, an adroit approach to college administration would be part of the mix. But administrators must expend political capital every time they take a step, and were they to champion creation of a new faculty line in military history, they would have to expend a lot of capital to do it.

Each of the arguments you advance could be made concerning the military history program here at Ohio State, yet the program remains perennially vulnerable. I would also add that any program that cannot justify itself intellectually deserves all the adverse scrutiny it gets. There is a hostility toward military history based on ignorance. That kind I can fight. It's the kind based on a knowledge of the field's limitations that is much harder to defend against.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. The program looks just fine to me. Clear focused presentations free of jargon (in the titles at least). But then again, I am a knuckle dragging conflict studies guy, so maybe I am not the best source for evaluating academic culture. :)

I would ask you this: what topics would you add to the SMH presentation list to give it that academic respectability?


Tom said...


I'm quite sure that the panel on which I am participating will change hearts and minds and usher in a new golden era for all military historians.

*SESSION E (1400-1545)*
*E-2 Calhoun Room*

*The World War II American Soldier in Myth and History*

Standing room only.

Seriously (although I actually do think my panel deals with some interesting topics), I think as military historians we are becoming a bit susceptible to an unhealthy dose of self-loathing. I alluded to this a while back in a post about military history in the academy on Rebunk (here.) Please read it, I would love to hear your thoughts here (that post is sufficiently buried to preclude useful comments.)

By the way, I posted a comment about one of your co-bloggers posts on Big Tent, and I was wondering if you could pass the word along. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

How can we try to make 2006 in Manhattan, KS a better SMH?