Friday, January 06, 2012

Beyond the Culture of Complaint

This post was originally published on December 28, 2006.

A few months ago, the executive director of the Society for Military History asked me to write a brief essay for the SMH newsletter, outlining my thoughts about the field, especially the need to dispense with the reflexive negativity about military history's status within the academy. The result has been published in the new issue, so I take the liberty of reprinting it here. It recapitulates in condensed form a lot of what I've been saying on this blog since its inception:

The Future of Military History: Beyond the Culture of Complaint
Mark Grimsley
The Ohio State University

[Published in the Headquarters Gazette,
newsletter of the Society for Military History,
Vol. 19, No. 4 (Fall 2006):2-3.]

© 2006 by Mark Grimsley

On September 26, 2006, National Review Online published an op/ed piece by John J. Miller entitled, “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retired.” It drew a picture of the field of military history having been hounded almost out of the academy by “tenured radicals.” Although highly tendentious in its portrayal, it drew strength from juicy quotes by a number of military historians, many of them quite distinguished, in support of its basic contention.

In the short run, the article may have had a positive effect. A central element in its portrait was the failure of the University of Wisconsin to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair in American Military History despite the presence of a million dollars in its endowment fund, allegedly because “tenured radicals” within its history department were actively hostile to military history. The explanation was incorrect: A million dollars is about half of what it costs to endow a chair nowadays and Wisconsin is currently in very tight financial straits, so that no funds were available to cover the difference between the endowment’s revenues and the actual cost required to pay a chair holder’s salary and benefits. Even so, six weeks after “Sounding Taps” appeared so did an announcement that a search was underway to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. It may reasonably be assumed that the bad publicity from the National Review piece had much to do with this new development.

I hope, however, that no one will draw from this the lesson that complaining about the state of the field will serve as a strategy for growing the field. Enlarging the place of military history within academe ought to be a significant objective of the Society for Military History, and we cannot rely for that purpose upon the occasional rare alignment between our own bitterness and the interests of a magazine of partisan political affairs. (Indeed, an article like “Sounding Taps” was as likely to hurt as to help, by inadvertently convincing potential benefactors that investing in military history would be a futile exercise.) We need instead to maintain a positive vision for the field backed by a specific strategy for its development, and to test the assumption of a relentless hostility toward military history by our colleagues in other fields.

We might begin by seeing the state of academic military history in less catastrophic terms, for I and others sincerely did not recognize the field as “Sounding Taps” portrayed it. I’ve no doubt that many military historians believe that the field has seen a decline in the top levels of university programs. I would be curious, though, to know exactly when we reached our high water mark. For example, it cannot really be said that the University of Wisconsin ever had a military history program to lose. Edward M. “Mac” Coffman did an extraordinary job of producing grad students -- so much that it is easy to see why one would think there was such a program, and a vibrant one at that -- but there was never a second tenure-track or tenured military historian at Wisconsin. The field did lose a program when John Shy and Gerald Linderman retired from the University of Michigan and were not replaced, but I wonder if either of them was hired as military historians and, therefore, how much of a commitment Michigan ever had to the field. Somewhat the same thing might be said for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where John A. Lynn continues to do great work, รก la Mac Coffman, but has lost a second military historian in the field.

The program at Ohio State University, on the other hand, has never weakened significantly over the past fifteen years, while programs at Texas A&M University, Kansas State University, and elsewhere have done very well. The program at Duke University did nearly disappear at one time, but in the form of a combined program with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has become quite robust, with six full-time military historians and six affiliated faculty.

According the Society for Military History web site, at present ten American universities have an MA program in military history and nineteen American or Canadian universities have an MA/PhD program. I'm not sure how long-standing are these programs, but surely some of them have grown, or even made their initial appearance, in the past decade.

As for academic jobs in military history, there have never been many so far as I can recall. Most military historians I know were actually hired as Americanists or Europeanists; they merely happened to have a research specialization in military history. Our situation is not much different from that of others: The market, especially for tenure track positions, is tight in practically every academic field. In short, military history is in about the same shape as when I entered graduate school in 1987.

What has disappeared is the optimism about the future that surfaced (rather briefly) around 1990. As “Sounding Taps” underlines, the tone among many senior scholars in the field -- including those who hold, or have held, leadership positions -- is often rather defeatist. Along with their rank-and-file counterparts, they complain about the marginalization of the field, blaming it on a blind prejudice against military history among academics in other fields.

It may be true that such prejudice exists. It is also irrelevant. We cannot change the views of some within our profession. But we can become better ambassadors for our own field. We can reach out to others who may not self-identify as military historians but whose work meaningfully intersects with the experience of war and with what might be called the military dimension of human affairs. We can invite them to our conferences and make it known that we value their work. Instead of ignoring or rejecting the conceptual frameworks of those in other fields, we can take an active interest in exploring those frameworks in a spirit of mutual intellectual curiosity. For example, Ohio State’s Mershon Center recently held a conference on “The War for the American South, 1865-1968,” that took the form of several vigorous, focused discussions between military historians and historians of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement.

As the success of this conference suggests, the thesis of an unreasoning hostility toward the field is overblown. Ask Prof. Rebecca Goetz, a Harvard-trained historian who now teaches early American history at Rice University. “After I read Miller’s article,” she wrote in a guest post on my blog, “I was willing to bet there are a lot of historians out there like me: that is, professional historians who are trained as intellectual, social, or cultural historians who have no formal training in military history but who teach military history in their courses when appropriate anyway. I’m not terribly comfortable teaching military history for that reason; no one has ever taught me how to do it, but like many professional historians, I decided to teach myself so that I could teach my students. . . . I think the question then becomes not, as Miller would have it, ‘how soon will military history be dead?’ but rather, how can we teach today’s historians how to teach military history as an integral part of their courses?”

I believe Prof. Goetz is on to something. Many non-military historians are not so much hostile to military as they are ill informed about it -- or in her case, less informed than she would like to be. This suggests that we have a real opportunity on our hands. We could, for instance, take advantage of a well-known National Endowment for the Humanities program to create summer seminars modeled upon the excellent West Point Summer Seminar, but tailored to non-military historians.

We can also begin to undertake our own fund raising efforts. Among people who have done well for themselves financially and want to give something back in return, a substantial number are interested in military history and defense affairs. We can work to identify and cultivate them, using methods similar to those employed by university development offices but intended to grow the field as a whole. Few benefactors immediately give gifts large enough to support, say, a faculty line in military history. It is best to start by giving them opportunities to help on a smaller scale; for example, by endowing scholarships for travel and research. Investing in such opportunities, and reaping satisfaction in the form of seeing their investment put to good use, will lead over time to large-scale, “transformative” gifts. But donors, like people everywhere, are attracted by good ideas, sound planning, and a confident, positive vision.

In short, we need to set aside the trope of a besieged military history. It blinds us to the presence of friends within the academy, like Rebecca Goetz; and indulges a negativity that will not serve us well in any attempts we make to grow the field. We simply cannot afford a culture of complaint.

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