Retreat, But No Surrender for Military History

Outside academia, military history appears alive and well. The shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders bookstores are coated with nonfiction works from biographies of General George Patton to analyses of Civil War infantry maneuvers. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Gods and Generals inundate cinema screens and television channels. And on college campuses in North Carolina and nationally, students line up for courses dealing with military history as soon as they become available.

But until recently, the field was on a slow march into scholarly obscurity. “While military history dominates the airwaves,” said Eastern Michigan University history professor Robert Citino a few years ago, “its academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities.” John J. Miller in 2006 wrote in National Review that military history was in fact “dead” at many universities. “Where it isn’t dead and buried,” he added, “it’s either dying or under siege.” The New Republic, U.S. News and World Report, and other publications have echoed that sentiment.

Military history is a sub-discipline of history that focuses on the strategy, tactics, methods and operations of combatants in armed conflicts throughout human history. It is a traditional component of university history departments, although its emphasis varies tremendously among colleges and universities.

Miller and other conservative writers attributed the decline of military history to the rise of “tenured radicals” in universities. That is, the students of the 1960s who became professors in later decades found the study of war offensive and too aggressive for the curriculum of a “humanitarian” university. According to this thesis, military history was deliberately supplanted by multicultural or other politically correct studies.

An alternate view is that traditional military history’s popularity waned as other historical topics began to be explored. Beginning in the 1970s, historians became more interested in social history and, specifically, formerly neglected subjects such as African-American history, women’s history, and cultural history. Most who subscribe to this view don’t think military history’s abandonment was due to an agenda against it. Wayne Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that there wasn’t a “deliberate policy of killing these positions.” The study of military strategy and tactics was deemphasized simply by default.

Data from the American Historical Review support the idea that a shift occurred. In 1975, 2.4 percent of college history departments listed a military history specialist while only 1.1 percent had a specialist in women’s studies. By 2005, 8.9 percent of history departments listed a women’s studies specialist while the percentage of departments that had a military history expert shrank to 1.9 percent. This change could mean that there was a deliberate replacement of military history by social history—or it could merely reflect the shifting interests of history scholars.

And military history itself changed. In an effort to understand the social and cultural implications of war, military history redefined itself to encompass topics tangential to the battlefield. Historians still focused on the men who traded bullets but also looked at the wives, sons, and daughters who were left behind. “Military history,” explained Andrew Wiest of the University of Southern Mississippi, “began to include examining conflicts from new perspectives and historiographies,” generating “more complete and respected programs.” It wasn’t enough, however, to halt military history’s decline.

Many scholars—both within history departments and outside—began to regard traditional military history as “old news.” The field of drums and bugles is “finished,” they argue—there is nothing more to be gained from studying Jackson’s flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville or Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Mark Grimsley, a military historian at Ohio State University, was quoted by Inside Higher Ed as calling this attitude toward military history “incuriosity.”

But the incuriosity and rejection of military history may at last be ending. The past two to three years have seen a small surge in military history’s acceptance and respect in academia.

One change can be found in historical journals. Over the past thirty years, military history has been largely absent from the top historical journals. John Lynn, a well-known military historian now at Northwestern University, points out that during that period the American Historical Review, a highly respected history journal, “did not publish a single article focused on the conduct of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the War of Louis XIV, the War of American Independence, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War, or World War II.” It did print a handful of articles about the atrocities of war, but not about the execution of the wars themselves.

But in March 2007, the Review published a fifty-page roundtable discussion of American military history that dealt with war in the context of its society. The Review has since published a number of articles directly and indirectly related to war. Other journals—including the Journal of American History—are also including more articles on the subject—even to the surprise of military historians.

It’s not just journals that suggest a revival. Other emerging trends hint that a corner has been turned.

This April, the long-empty professorial chair in military history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison was finally filled. Stephen E. Ambrose, the late historian and best-selling author, had donated $250,000 to his alma mater to commemorate his mentor, William Hesseltine. Before he died in 2002, Ambrose had doubled his initial contribution and pressured others, too, to support that professorship. Ambrose, a World War II specialist and author of Band of Brothers, was one of the most popular military historians of his generation. But the position he supported sat controversially vacant for years. The failure to find a suitable professor generated speculation that the study of military history was finished at Wisconsin.

Now the University of Wisconsin has hired the respected West Point graduate and professor John W. Hall, a specialist in unconventional warfare—wars that involve forces other than governmental armies. Hall received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. Wisconsin isn’t the only college hiring military historians this year. Duke University, Cornell University, Notre Dame University, and Sam Houston State University are searching for military specialists.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Peace, War, and Defense program, or PWAD, as it’s known on campus, has hired new faculty over the past three years as well. In fact, says Joseph Glatthaar, former head of the interdisciplinary curriculum, it is growing “like a rocket ship,” with enrollment up by 27% last year. The program focuses on the cultural impacts of war while also teaching traditional military history. It is nationally recognized, produces respected historians, and is bursting at the seams with undergraduate majors.

Military history seems to be gaining a stronghold at lesser-known universities. Many Ivy League and elite schools let their programs atrophy, creating a vacuum filled (most notably) by the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of North Texas. These institutions are leaders in the instruction of military history due to their “excellent programs,” says Wayne Lee of UNC-Chapel Hill.

As to precisely why military history is enjoying increased popularity, John Lynn thinks that it’s partly due to the fact that “the world has simply gotten nastier.” Terrorism, three wars, and international violence are all “staring you in the face” and “even humanists have to pay attention,” he says. This violence has granted military history greater traction in academia. “The past decade has been a decade of war,” says Frederick Schneid, a military historian at High Point University. “Historians are products of their environment, so the wars have, in a way, helped the profession.”

Just as surrender seemed imminent, military history has gathered unconventional reinforcements—less well-known colleges and, of all things, war and violence. These, along with broad student interest and an academy that now listens when military historians speak, may have positioned military history to climb out of the trenches and regain the field.