Friday, January 06, 2012

The Types of Military History

This was originally a two-part post, published on December 26, 2006 and January 30, 2007.

In the spring of 1979 I took my first military history course with Allan R. Millett, whom many readers will recognize as one of the most distinguished names in the first generation of academic military historians; that is to say, those self-identified military historians who began teaching and publishing circa 1970. Allan had a standard opening lecture that focused on military historiography, especially what he usefully denominated the five basic types of military history.

The first he called inspirational military history. Works in this category emphasized human qualities, sought to elicit an emotional response, and usually centered on combat. They were essentially humanistic morality plays. Many campaign narratives and military biographies (as well as some autobiographies) conformed to this type.

Next came national military history. This could be viewed as a subset of inspirational military history but merited a separate category because of its notable appeals to patriotism and nationalism. This type was more or less obviously designed to strengthen allegiance to the state by emphasizing the costs of national traditions and values: "Freedom Isn't Free" with footnotes.

Few books in this genre, however, actually announce themselves as nationalistic propaganda. The example Allan used back in 1979 was in a fact a textbook by R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Depuy entitled The Military Heritage of America (1956). This isn't a book I ever pulled from a library shelf, so I just now read a few reviews to get a feel for it. The authors, both of them U.S. Army colonels, were a father and son team -- the son a 1938 West Point graduate who was once professor of military science at Harvard University, president of the American Military Institute (the predecessor of the Society for Military History) and, intriguingly for this Buckeye, director of the Ohio State University military studies program from 1956 through 1958. The book's purpose, according to the authors, was "to provide for all Americans a military history presented from the American point of view." (ix) But its main audience was ROTC cadets and it focused heavily on leadership -- really combat leadership -- and the "immutable" principles of war. John K. Mahon, in his review of Military Heritage for the Journal of Southern History, has a criticism that anyone who writes military history should shrink from deserving: "Ninety percent of the book consists of highly condensed combat narrative. . . . Such condensed battle history is war with the blood squeezed out."

Having read the reviews, I still felt I had to take Allan's word for it that The Military Heritage of America was really a strong example of national military history. Then I discovered that the book is available online and found this mighty passage on page one:
This thing called war, armed combat between nations, is a fearsome thing. All-embracing to the countries directly involved, it can and frequently does, through the disruptions it causes, affect other nations economically, socially, and politically. There is an element of finality about war -- immediate finality, despite possible later long-drawn-out and inconclusive arguments at the peace table. The vanquished succumbs to the will of the victor, in terms of immediate loss of power, prosperity, and, at times, national existence, to say nothing of the appalling cost in the flesh and blood of its citizens.

Call war an extension of diplomacy, condemn it as a plague, thrill to its so-called glories, as you will. The fact remains that it is not just a phenomenon, something monstrously foreign to our civilization, but -- whether we like it or not -- it has been a fundamental element of man's struggle for existence. Therefore, until man's nature changes, war is likely always to be with us, in one form or another. Nor is war an act of God, comparable, for instance, to elemental cataclysms such as earthquakes or hurricanes. Rather, it arises from international relationships, from the aspirations, ambitions, successes,failures, and trickeries of the men and the governments directing the nations of the world. We as a nation pride ourselves on being a peaceful people. But our own United States was born through human conflict and rededicated through the fires of a tremendous civil war. Since the onset of the Revolution marking the birth of the nation, and down through the Korean War, the United States has been engaged in no less than eight major wars, plus an untold number of minor campaigns, expeditions, pacifications, and other armed bickerings, including more than a century of almost continuous warfare against the North American Indian. It would seem unreasonable, then, with this case history of less than two centuries of national life before us, to assert that war is something exceptional.

Today's world turmoil, resulting from the torrent of godless communistic ideology which gnaws at the dikes safeguarding all we hold sacred, should be evidence that the United States must be prepared for future wars, in which the national existence will depend upon the success of our arms. War, being no affair of mutual contract, needs but one willing party for its launching, regardless of the wishes or desires of the other party. Every American, then, should examine war -- its past, its present, and above all, the method of its waging.

National military history, indeed.

Third on Allan Millett’s list came antiquarian or hobby history, which is often not history in any real sense but consists rather of books about military uniforms and weapons, especially the latter. These are long on descriptions of, say, the M1 Garand rifle or the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault weapon and short on the political purposes these deadly instruments have served. Power might grow out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao Zedong once famously said, but readers of this genre are interested less in the power than the gun barrel.

Allan shot by the first three categories -— inspirational, nationalistic, and antiquarian —- within a few minutes. He devoted the bulk of the lecture to the remaining two, which he called “military utilitarian” and “civilian utilitarian” military history.

The former tend to be books written by and for the personnel of military institutions. Some of it focuses on the heritage of various units and is designed to instill a feeling a pride and esprit de corps among those who serve in them. Some of it is intended to influence civilian policymakers to make the “correct” choices about manpower policy or weapons appropriations. But most of it is written to support the professional education of military officers. It employs history to underscore principles of leadership, strategic and operational art, the challenges of counterinsurgencies and civil affairs, and so on: all the formidable array of issues a good officer is expected to master. The American armed forces, like those of other nations, employ dozens of career military historians, many of them quite gifted, to generate this form of military history, some of which is classified and most of which is never seen by the general public.

Last came civilian utilitarian military history, the sort that formed the principal rationale for teaching courses on the subject in a liberal arts university. Military history, Allan argued, matters for the same reason that all history matters. It affords a window into the human condition and the nature of human societies: an especially useful window because war often places extreme pressure on those societies, exposing its strengths and weaknesses.

Military history could also serve to make students better citizens. This was especially true for citizens of a superpower like the United States, whose preeminent status in world politics depended heavily upon military strength and the willingness to use it. At the height of the Vietnam War, Department of Defense consumed 70 percent of all Federal discretionary spending. In the years since, that figure has never dropped below 48 percent. Also in the years since, American policymakers have sent troops into harm’s way on numerous occasions, most notably Lebanon (1983), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-1991), Somalia (1993), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001- ) and Iraq (2003- ). Many of these have proven to be dubious ventures. Policymakers have invariably supported their rationales for war with historical analogies, some of them specious, most of them tendentious, and nearly all of them expressed in the most superficial terms. An informed citizenry, Allan averred, ought to have a healthy skepticism. Thus, an important reason for students to secure a firm grasp of military history was to be in a position to critically assess the wisdom of U.S. military expenditures and, especially, the resort to armed conflict and the conduct of military operations.


Anonymous said...

I prefer to seek an understanding of "conflict" through a mufti-disciplinary approach via the human sciences rather than just focusing upon "military history" which is far too narrow a subject to understand the full-range of conflict - ie. how, why it arises within human society.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with this classification of military history but I feel it leaves out questions of morality in war or conflict. While nationalistic approaches are still being created there is also the tendency to comment on moral decisions in war time and this can great affect the narrative that is created. Works that condemn politicans for their choices come to mind.