Friday, January 06, 2012

Military History: Past, Present, and Future

A guest post by John Maass, a graduate student at The Ohio State University

This post was originally published on February 23, 2006. John has since completed his PhD and is now a historian at the US Army Center of Military History.

In the twentieth century, there have been three separate and somewhat distinct strands of military history, although in the early part of this period, the distinctiveness of each was not nearly as pronounced as it is today. These three strands are popular military history, academic military history, and military history as used by professionals in the field of national security/defense, uniformed officers, academy instructors, etc. I will outline the characteristics of each and their current trajectories below.

Popular military history is characterized by an emphasis on battles and campaigns, on the heroics of military leaders, and “grand narratives.” In the first half of the twentieth century, almost all military history was written in this fashion, by academics and popular authors alike. Notable examples of non-academic works include Douglas Southall Freeman’s R.E. Lee and Lee's Lieutenants, Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, and novelist Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume narrative of the Civil War. There were also numerous studies of Napoleonic and World War II battles, campaigns and leaders, including David Chandler’s work on the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler biographies written by John Toland, Alan Bullock, et al.

Academic historians also employed the narrative technique to provide a solid framework for their stories and for good reading, such as Douglas Edward Leach, Samuel E. Morison’s multi-volume narrative on the US Navy in World War II, and James I. Robertson’s Civil War books. These works used stirring narratives, focused on the combat and the drama of events, and usually portrayed somebody as the readily identifiable hero. They were largely celebratory or laudatory in tone, even while depicting the “losers” of wars like the Confederacy and its heroic generals.

Some of this largely uncritical tone may have been influenced by the consensus school of history that dominated academic writing from the WWII years through the mid-1960s, and before that the proper subject of military history was seen as focusing on the leaders and their battles: War, this generation seemed to be saying, is after all about fighting. Military historians also tended to conceptualize warfare as progressing toward greater sophistication. As academic historian Dennis Showalter has expressed it, military history remains the "last stronghold of the Whig interpretation" of history.

Popular military history and its emphasis on combat and leaders today remains, well, popular. It also sells very well in the bookstores, and as Jeremy Black has pointed out in his recent book Rethinking Military History (Cambridge, 2004), much of what gets written about military history is dictated by what publishing houses are willing to bring out to the market. Traditional “trumpet and drums” military studies sell, not an unimportant consideration to publishers and authors alike. This is the type of military history the general public wants to read—chronological narratives that tell stories about war and the men (rarely women) who fought them.

For many years, writers both in and out of the academy were happy to oblige them, particularly regarding the U.S. Civil War. One can also see the lure of the popular history market in two ways. First, the history sections at the big box bookstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million) are dominated by military titles, including battle books and biographies of generals. People buy that kind of book, plain and simple. Second, unlike many other fields of history, one can see quite a significant crossover of academics writing solidly researched work meant in part if not in whole for the popular military history market. Examples: David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing; James McPherson’s recent book on Antietam; Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War on the French and Indian War; Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer; and almost everything by Gary W. Gallagher. It is likely that as long as people have money to spend on books, popular history (in all forms, not just military history) is going to be with us. And, as noted above, it will likely always be part of academic military history as well.

Another trend in professional/academic military history has been the writing of and use of this brand of scholarship for the professional military officer or national security professional. These people are usually military/defense professionals either in uniform or civilians, who want military history to be a part of their professional development. This usually means that they place great value on "lessons learned" type of books, that is to say scholarship on very specific events, time periods or aspects of war (including logistics, planning, civil/military relations, etc.) to help them do their jobs. Members of this group do not want cultural history overlays to their military history books, nor do they want to see race, class and gender as the focus of a book. It's not that they object to this kind of scholarship; rather, they do not see that they have a use for it in their jobs. For these professionals, studying campaigns and battles means seeing what actual people did in real situations in the past and trying to extract lessons from the past as to what worked and what did not. This is what staff rides are all about; that is to say, the practice of taking military officers on guided tours of actual battlefields and figuring out what happened and why, what decisions commanders made and what the effects were, etc.

The use of military history as a tool of professional military education has a long history, and in the United States goes back to Alfred Thayer Mahan at the US Naval War College, who in the late 1890s (and afterward in retirement until his death in 1914), instructed naval officers in doctrine and theory through the use of history to learn lessons from the past.

Over the past two decades, historians (particularly in the academic word) have moved away from battles and leaders to more nuanced studies of warfare in general or previously ignored topics within the field. This has been called “The New Military History”, although given its roots in the late 1960s one might argue that it really isn’t new any longer. Nevertheless, scholars continue to delve into this area. For instance, a greater emphasis on the experience of the common soldier and his conditions, motivations, and post-war memories has been healthy for the field. While these deal with war, they do not focus on the generals, and many give a gritty, inglorious counterweight to top-down, grand narratives of campaigns. These include works by Joseph Reid, Gerald Linderman and James McPherson on common soldiers of the Civil War; studies by Charles Royster, Mark Lender and Gregory Knouff on Revolutionary War soldiers’ motivation; and works by Carol Reardon, Paul Fussell and David Blight on war memories. Additionally, the field has seen from academia some studies on war itself, with an emphasis not on battles but on ideas, on meanings, and revisions of previously held myths and fables. Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War (1995), for example, provides a convincing revision of the oft-repeated tale of Sherman’s March and its wanton destructiveness. He finds that Sherman’s men were not nearly as destructive as legend has come down to us, and that pillaging, burning, etc., was kept largely under control in Georgia and was directed at military and logistical targets for the most part.

An interesting debate, still very much part of military history, has centered on the issue of Confederate nationalism. Gary Gallagher (The Confederate War, 1999) has taken the side that the South was indeed a nation whereas Paul D. Escott in After Secession (1989) argues the opposite. A similar debate has centered on the effectiveness of the militia in early American warfare, with scholars such as Don Higginbotham, Lawrence D. Cress, and John Shy providing significant academic, non-battle oriented scholarship to the field.

Academic military history in recent years has also expanded to include the influence of social, cultural and gender history. As noted above, research on the lives of the common soldiers has been a healthy subject of inquiry in the past several decades, as have studies on war and its effects on society. Royster’s work (A Revolutionary People at War, 1979) on the Continental Army as a reflection of society and character during the American Revolution is another notable example of this scholarship. Gender is the lens through which Belinda J. Davis looks at the German home front during WWI (Home Fires Burning), in her study of the role of unruly women and food shortages. This work not only looks at noncombatants in military history, it also focuses on events behind the lines and not the battles. Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti is another gender study, in this case, masculinity and the Marine occupation of Haiti in 1915-1916. Again, no battles take place nor is it told from the generals’ perspective, yet it is clearly a military history. Cultural history too is now part of military history as two books exemplify. Wayne Lee’s Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina (2000) places wartime violence in a cultural perspective, to show that cultural norms dictated the levels of violence in North Carolina during the Revolution. Jill Lepore’s 2001 study of the Pequot War (In the Name of War) gives a cultural study of what war meant to the Puritans, how they wrote about it, and how the Pequot leader Metacom has come down to us over the years.

What have been the effects of the two developments, that of popular history and the use of military history for professionals? The sheer magnitude of the market for popular histories of war in the “trumpet and drums” genre has to some extent prevented the publication of military history written in other ways. If one looks at publishing as a zero-sum game, in that publishers have only a limited amount of books they can each produce, then the more books we get these days on Napoleonic naval history (do we really need another book on Nelson?) and Civil War generals (enough on Lee already!), the less we will see on other less explored areas. Financial pressures on both publishers and authors will drive this trend to a large degree. As noted above, the vast majority of people who read military history (and thus buy the books on the store shelves) want books about battles and leaders, especially with a dramatic, fast paced narrative. The resultant de-emphasis on issues of race, class, gender, memory, etc., has caused non-military historians to look on military history, even the academic kind, as antiquated, narrow, and unengaged with modern methodologies. Similarly, the desire of military professionals of various stripes to look to military history for lessons learned and professional education has led to a pronounced presentist approach by these types of students, in that they do not look at the field in terms of methodology, approach, interpretive challenges and epistemological issues, but rather in a “what can this so for me right now” kind of way. Scholars producing work for this purpose can easily be led to a superficial analysis of the past in which they tend to extract from history that which is relevant to today in today’s terms, which may not always or even often be accurate.

What are the major challenges confronting military historians in the twenty-first century? Military history is still far too narrowly defined. I agree with John Lynn, Jeremy Black and several other current military historians who have noted recently some major problems in military history today. There is a prevalent “Eurocentricity” in our military studies, especially in our emphasis on Western Europe and the U.S. We have to branch out to other regions, eras and cultures to get a true picture of world military history, which will tell us things about our own typicality, biases and gaps in scholarship. Even when most military historians do include in their work non-western societies and how they wage war, it is almost always in relation to western methods of war, not studies of non-western groups alone. In a similar vein, we currently have too great of a focus on the leading powers and dominant military systems, including the U.S., the Soviet Union and the warfare each practiced. In studies of earlier times the emphasis is on Greece, Rome, and their enemies. Do most military historians know anything about, say, African warfare in any era? Our understanding of nonwestern warfare is usually influenced by stereotypes we hold of other cultures and peoples, e.g., that Asian warfare is based on subterfuge and trickery. Really?

Technology has biased many scholars (as Jeremy Black notes) in explaining military capability in what he calls a “fascination with technology.” The general public too is partly to blame for this emphasis on the new and exciting, since that sells well in stores. The emphasis on technology is too great and there has as a result been a presentist primitivization of non-western combatants, which hardly seems accurate and may be explained in part as our own cultural bias. There has also been a trend to simplify the non-western military history. Care should be taken to avoid focusing too much on resources and technology, especially weapons systems.

I also see an overemphasis on state to state conflict rather than studies of the use of force within states (except of course for major civil wars, like that of the U.S., and England in the seventeenth century). Military history can include the violence of the North Carolina Regulator movement of the eighteenth century, pan-Indian resistance to white encroachment (as detailed by Gregory Dowd in A Spirited Resistance), and non-battle topics such as militia, peacetime preparedness or memories of warfare. Or as Jeremy Black has called for, a focus on political tasking in the setting of force structures, doctrines and goals, and in judging military success. Given the current war in Iraq, and the “war on terrorism” which does not seem to be going away any time soon, the history of asymmetrical warfare may be well worth exploring. This would include looking at these types of conflicts in our own time, but also in the distinct past as well-including the war in the South during the American Revolution, and the partisan warfare of the US Civil War.

Much work needs to be done, especially in the area of world military history, in an important effort to free military history of its western biases and its emphasis on the operational and “battle-focused” nature. Military history can be many things, and while studies of combat and battles shouldn’t be ignored, the field is much larger than just narratives of Napoleon vs. Wellington, or what technical lessons soldiers can learn from past conflicts.

1 comment:

Keith Harris said...

Given that the original text is nearly six years old, have you noted any significant changes in the state of military history?