Blaming the Victim
Some time ago, I wrote a blog entry about military history and the academy. The overall idea was entirely self-serving: military history is important and therefore universities need to hire more military historians. I hoped my cri de coeur would lead to a flood of job offers from America's most prestigious universities. I work for the U.S. Army, so we see how that worked out.*
But ever since I wrote that entry, there have been a few points about it that I thought needed elaborating. A recent request on the message boards of H-Net has inspired that elaboration. On January 30, Professor Victor Macias-Gonzalez of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse queried the members of H-LatAm (Latin America):
I'm a fish out of water . . . help! I am teaching my historiography seminar, and two of my 8 students want to work on Military History. My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to object, but I want the students to work on topics that are close and dear to their hearts . . . any suggestions for germinal works on military history?The request was cross-posted on H-War (War), and Professor Macias-Gonzalez received all sorts of replies. On H-LatAm, he elaborated on what he was looking for:
Thanks to everyone for their many, many suggestions. I may not have been clear on my comment, however.... What I would like is a historiographical article on US military history, as in, moving beyond strategy, guns, uniforms, and the like. Dare I think there may be something in U.S. military history similar to what we have witnessed in our own field over the last 15-20 years with the influence of cultural history and gender?***
In my entry, I wrote about the efforts of academic military historians to broaden their field beyond battle narratives, to show why military history is relevant to other fields. In the midst of that explanation, I threw in a parenthetical note:
(Still, since when has the standard for fields addressing issues in the past in an academic setting been how well the practitioners of one field explain the importance of that field to all other fields? That is a pretty high standard to which to hold military historians, especially considering that it is patently obvious how important wars have been to history without even broadening the field.)I did not draw out this point because it seemed contentious in a post that was meant to build bridges. But no one has ever sufficiently answered the question. Battle narratives, strategy, tactics, why one side lost and another won--all of these are incredibly complex issues, as complex as, say, defining who the progressives were, explaining why the New Deal failed to end the depression, or figuring out which side of the women's suffrage movement was more important in getting the 19th Amendment passed.
Here's an utterly not random example to illustrate the point: whether or not you think we are winning or losing in Iraq, the primary explanations will come from strategy, tactics, weapons, logistics, and battle accounts--all topics that are in the traditional province of military historians. It will be military historians who ultimately sort out the issues of the Iraq war. That is no small thing--look at all the smoke and fire and confused and confusing first drafts of what is happening right now.
Another example, one that should resonate with folks who teach modern U.S. history: how much time do you spend in your classes on the war in Vietnam, not the protests at home, after the Tet Offensive in 1968? How much time does your textbook spend on the war on the ground in Vietnam after 1968? The Tonkin Resolution was in 1964, Tet was less than four years later. The American portion of the war went on until 1973, another five years after Tet, and the war went through all sorts of changes in that time. But most accounts go something like this: Tet, Cronkite, LBJ doesn't run, protests at home pick up, Nixon bombs Cambodia, U.S. withdraws. You know why? Because only recently have military historians started to sort out what happened on the ground in the last half of the war.
Military history, even the traditional stuff, shouldn't have to prove anything to other historical fields to be considered a viable part of the academy. That said, academic military history has expanded, as I wrote, to "include all manner of discussions on race, class, gender, social life, cultural issues, memory, and politics." It is right and good that this is so. The inclusion of these considerations makes the study of military affairs even more complex and more interesting. It must continue apace.
Lots of military historians, usually those outside the academy, just throw up their hands at their field being tossed from academic departments. But many who actually engage the issue all too often resort to blaming the victim. These blamers fall into two groups: the enablers and the ignorant (dear God, I'm starting to sound like Dr. Phil). The enablers are military historians themselves. I was one of them in my entry. They are usually people in the academy who want to reason with their colleagues. Enablers make comments disparaging the supposed narrowness of their field so that they can get conversations started with the ignorant. "Sure, there has been too much drum and bugle military history." "Who needs another study of Napoleon?" "Of course in part it is our own fault. Military historians have at times been far too caught up in the traditional end of our field--discussions of battles from the perspective of generals." It is pathetic and we know better.
Take my sentence: "Military historians have at times been far too caught up in the traditional end of our field--discussions of battles from the perspective of generals." First, as I explained already, there is nothing wrong with being caught up in the complexities of the traditional end of the field, at least when it comes to military history being a viable part of the academic world. Second, and more troubling, is that the spirit of what I wrote is not true. Sure, "at times" military historians (implying military historians as a whole) have been caught up in the traditional end of the field, if by "at times" I meant "at times prior to thirty years ago." Maybe I seem like I'm being too hard on myself, but this sort of quasi-diplomatic nonsense only enables the ignorant. And reinforcing the ignorant, especially this ignorance, does not create knowledge.
Take Professor Macias-Gonzalez: "What I would like is a historiographical article on US military history, as in, moving beyond strategy, guns, uniforms, and the like. Dare I think there may be something in U.S. military history similar to what we have witnessed in our own field over the last 15-20 years with the influence of cultural history and gender?"
First off--I'm getting repetitive--there is nothing wrong with strategy as an area of historical study. Second, academic military history has never been about "guns, uniforms, and the like" in the sense that he most likely means. Academic military history journals like the Journal of Military History and War and Society and even official military journals are not for gun collectors and guys whose primary concern are the buttons on a nineteenth century cavalryman's coat. Aw heck, check the current contents for yourself.
Third, Professor Macias-Gonzalez wonders whether there have been changes in U.S. military history over the last 15-20 years. The answer is "Yes! For the love of God, Yes!" Only it began more than 15-20 years ago. Check out the titles of these military history historiographical essays cited by Professor Mark Grimsley. There are two articles about the "new military history" from 1984. For the uninitiated, and put simply, the new military history is what military historians called the effort in the field to get off of the battlefield and into other issues of military affairs. (As a corrollary, there is also the new combat history, which looks at war from the bottom-up, that is, from the soldier's perspective.) Lest you think the two essays on the new military history sprung from the aether in 1984, note that in 1975, Professor Dennis Showalter wrote an article entitled "A Modest Plea for Drums and Trumpets." Professor Showalter was worried about the trend in academic military history away from important studies of generals and battles--over thirty years ago. The late Russell Weigley expressed the same concern in the preface to his 1981 book Eisenhower's Lieutenants.
I'm being harsh toward Professor Macias-Gonzalez. At least he asked. But the way he asked says so much. Say I were to have a job interview for a position teaching American history with a focus on women's history, and I had to give a lecture on the passage of the 19th Amendment. I would go to women's historians for help. I would not say, "I've been asked to give a lecture on the 19th Amendment. My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to object, but I want departments to teach subjects that are near and dear to their hearts. Is there a historiography on women's history that goes beyond burning bras?" I would not make unsubstantiated implications about the field. No, I would go hat-in-hand, honestly announcing my own ignorance, and assuming that there was a well-developed and serious academic literature.** I have no problem with honest ignorance and an honest effort to learn.
Here is the problem: military historians have been doing the enabler thing for decades now. Obviously, it doesn't work. It only emboldens the ignorant to be offensive about their ignorance. It only reinforces their stereotypes and keeps them comfortable with all their false assumptions. Military historians continue to struggle in the academy--in large part because the ignorant think that anyone can teach advanced courses and write academic books in military history. It's time to educate the ignorant.
What should military historians do?
For one thing, I don't know what the statute of limitations is on calling something "new," but the new military history was new long before there was a New Coke. It was new when "That 70s Show" was just "That 70s." A modest suggestion: it's not new anymore; come up with a better name, or better yet, just call the field military history, and assume that it covers these other issues.
More importantly, stop enabling. Military historians have no need to apologize for the history and historiography of their field. When other academic historians say or imply that military history is for History Channel buffs, gun collectors, and reenactors, correct them. Point them to the Journal of Military History and War and Society and the graduate reading lists in military history from Duke and Ohio State (the Ohio State one is being updated).
Academic military history, from the traditional works to the latest topics of study, is a dynamic, complex, interesting, and important field of study. Stop playing the victim. If we won't stand up for ourselves, no one will.
* I like my job.
** True story.