Friday, January 06, 2012

What Happens When Non-Military Historians Teach Military History?

A guest post by Rebecca Goetz

Rebecca Goetz is a professor of history at Rice University. This post was originally published on November 1, 2006.

(answer: students and instructor alike learn a lot from the experience)

I’ve followed Mark’s ongoing reaction to John J. Miller’s September 26 article in the National Review about the supposed death of academic military history. Underlying Miller’s claim that military history is on its deathbed was the not-so-veiled insinuation that those left-leaning liberal moonbats were responsible for military history’s death. Here’s one excerpt from the article:

"Other types of historians also came under attack — especially scholars of diplomatic, intellectual, and maritime history — but perhaps none have suffered so many casualties as the “drums and trumpets” crowd. “Military historians have been hunted into extinction by politically active faculty members who think military history is a subject for right-wing, imperialistic warmongers,” says Robert Bruce, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas.”

I thought this was rather an odd claim. As an undergraduate, I took a modern European history course from one of Miller’s "tenured radicals." In the class we read about strategy and tactics of Europe’s continental wars, Queen Victoria’s dirty colonial wars in Africa and India, and of course we also read about World War I and World War II. In addition to this reading, our professor lectured on aspects of the social history of European warfare: I was deeply moved by his lecture on the experiences of soldiers during World War I. As a college senior I also took a course on the American Revolution, in which the military history of the Revolution was a major topic. I suppose one could call my professor in that course a tenured left-winger as well, yet we finished the course well-versed in the reasons for the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Quebec, and for Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. Neither of these liberal professors rook the stance that military history was bad, or that learning military history somehow makes students become militarists.

I never took a course that was purely about military history, but I like to think I graduated from college with a tripartite understanding about military history: 1) that military history is an important branch of historical learning, 2) that military history involves not only the “traditional” topics of strategy and tactics, weaponry, training, supplies, etc., but also the social history of the military experience, and 3) that military history can be comfortably and logically included in courses that aren’t explicitly about military history.

I learned this lesson from my tenured radical professors so well that as I prepared to teach my own course this fall about the American Revolution that I resolved to spend at least two weeks (six class periods) on the military history of the Revolution. I opened the mini-unit with a lecture titled “Citizen Soldiers” which was about the formation of the Continental Army: how soldiers were enlisted, how officers were selected, the virtues and vices of irregular forces, and the (attempted?) professionalization of the army under the auspices of Washington and von Steuben. Students then had to read the portions of Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause that deal with the war (in fact, I chose Middlekauf’s book over other undergraduate-suitable surveys of the Revolution precisely because it discusses the war in detail). We then had two class periods of discussion about the war in the North—basically a discussion of strategy and tactics from 19 April 1775 through Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga on 17 October 1777. Then, since the theater of warfare shifted southward, we spent two class periods discussing the war from the British invasion of Georgia in the winter of 1778-1779 through Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown on 19 October 1781. We concluded with a class period discussing the experiences of the Revolutionary soldier, using James Kirby Martin’s edition of Joseph Plumb Martin’s 1830 memoirs. We also spent a class period discussing the Revolution on the homefront, and later in the semester I’ll do a lecture on the dissolution of the Continental army, on soldiers’ pay and pensions, and the controversy over the Order of the Cincinnati.

I think my students could discuss with any military historian questions such as “why were the cannon the rebels captured at Ticonderoga and Crown Point important to ending the siege of Boston?” or “in what ways were irregular forces important to the defeat of Burgoyne in 1777?” or “how did French naval support help the American Revolutionary effort?” They could also discuss major figures from the war: Gage, Clinton, Burgoyne, Cornwallis, and the Howe brothers for Britain, and Washington, Lee, Lincoln, Greene, Gates, and others for the American side.

After I read Miller’s article, 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. It took a lot of extra reading on my part, and even some rehearsals of my discussions, before I taught the war. I searched high and low for decent maps, memorized dates, and asked my senior colleague for advice on reading. Even with all this preparation, one of my students caught me in an error about cannonball size—I looked it up afterwards and my student was quite right.

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? We’ve done this with other aspects of history (for example, many historians simply now include women’s history in college classes as a matter of course, even if they aren’t actually trained to do women’s history). Mark is at work on a solution to this problem, which I believe he’ll be posting about shortly. I’d also like to entertain readers’ thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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