Friday, January 06, 2012

Crocodile Tears for Military History: An Open Letter to John J. Miller, National Review Online

This post was originally published on September 27, 2006.

Dear John,

Thanks for nothing.

"Sounding Taps," your September 26 article in National Review Online, is on the surface a sympathetic lament for the supposed marginalization of academic military history. But it is constructed so tendentiously, and overlooks so many relevant facts, that it is really quite misleading.

So misleading, in fact, that you may have done more to harm academic military history than any bunch of "tenured radicals" has managed to do in many years, if ever.

Take, for example, your starting point: Wisconsin's failure to run a search to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. You say that "more than $1 million" sits in the endowment. That sounds like a lot, but it isn't. At Ohio State, the minimum needed to fund an endowed chair is $1.5 million, and even then internal funds are routinely needed to top off the chairholder's salary. Two million dollars is a more realistic figure nowadays.

You could have started with Ohio State. We do have $1.5 million sitting in a bank to fund an endowed chair in military history, and guess what? My department, which includes numerous historians of gender, class, race, and culture -- and even a historian of fashion -- voted unanimously to run a search to fill the position at the earliest possible moment. To do less, everyone understood, would have been an insult to the benefactor, General Raymond E. Mason.

Got it? Not just an endowed chair in military history, but one endowed by, and named for, a retired Army general.

That's how radical my "tenured radical" colleagues are.

Oh, I nearly forgot: a second endowed chair in military history is coming online over the next five years, through the generosity of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. Not because they're ashamed of military history, I feel obliged to add, given your genius for subtle distortion of anything that doesn't fit your agenda, but because they're modest. Fancy that.

It will not surprise you to know that many wealthy people who wish to give something back to their society are both politically conservative and often fascinated by military history. But they didn't become wealthy by making bad investments, and your article conveys the distinct message that giving money to support academic military history would be a bad investment.

Again, thanks for nothing.

My field's professional organization, the Society for Military History, has plans afoot to approach benefactors and "marry them" to receptive history departments in order to create more military history positions.

I sure hope those potential benefactors don't read National Review Online. You've given them good reason for pause. We'll urge the opportunity, they'll wave "Sounding Taps" in our face.

Thanks. For Nothing.

You concede that a few military history programs do exist, but their existence hurts the point you want to make, so you blat out the names and hurry on. One name you don't blat out is Duke University. Another is the University of North Carolina. I wonder why not? Could it be that Duke and UNC are too well known as bastions of liberalism? It's kinda awkward for your thesis that Duke and UNC have jointly created -- actually revived -- one of the best military history programs in the country. In fact, since unlike you I like to be honest in my presentation, the Duke-UNC program is as good as ours at Ohio State and arguably even a little better.

But it gets no mention at all from you. I wonder why?

Happen to have heard of COL H.R. McMaster, the Army officer who during Desert Storm won the battle of the 73 Easting and nowadays regularly makes headlines for his tough-minded, innovative approach to the Iraqi insurgency? He got his PhD from UNC, after study in the Duke-UNC military history program.

I could go on, and believe me, I will. That's the great thing about blogging -- I could never win an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel, but I have access to as many electrons as National Review Online.

Let's face it, pal. You don't give -- as my drill sergeants used to say -- a lusty crap about academic military history. Yours are crocodile tears. You'd love to see us disappear, because it would make a nice talking point in the increasingly stupid culture wars.

Well, sorry to disappoint you. Our graves ain't dug yet. And right now, the only one I see wielding a shovel is you.

Thanks. For. Nothing.

Update, January 6, 2012: "Sounding Taps for Military History" had an instructive sequel. It sparked a series of exchanges between John and myself (as well as a very pleasant visit with him in Washington, DC in December 2006); a letter to the National Review signed by the entire OSU military history faculty taking issue with John's thesis; and an article in Inside Higher Ed.

Most importantly, within a few weeks the University of Wisconsin authorized a search to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair, which resulted in the hiring of John W. Hall. Coincidence? The question answers itself.

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