Sunday, February 12, 2006

Follow Up

The "Blaming the Victim" post from Friday has garnered a bit of attention and has encouraged me to add an addendum to my point. Mark Grimsley has put up multiple responses to the post on his blog. The latest comes from Nicholas Palar, a very well-read junior history major at Purchase College SUNY.

Mr. Palar is a self-proclaimed victim-blamer, because military historians have not developed a "coherent “military theory” to explain wars and battles." He continues: "I say this because the center of the canon of military history needs to be a model through which military victory, defeat, and change can be explained." The problem, Palar writes, is that,

There is a primacy given to major battles and negotiations between leaders that is important but fundamentally at odds with everything we have learned from social history in recent years.

History is made through many actors, not just the elites, and history as a process must be examined in a comprehensive manner. Some works indeed have tackled the question of Confederate defeat in a more sophisticated manner; e.g., Why The South Lost The Civil War by Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, and Still. However, the prevailing notion by military historians is to simplify military history into major battles and diplomatic relations.
Well, we can certainly disagree about whether or not more theory will help us understand the outcomes of wars. It seems to me that it is pretty easy to poke gaping holes in most theories that purport to offer standard explanations to complex topics involving humans (see, for example, Marxism). Perhaps that is why the myriad studies on the theory of war, including Clausewitz, Mahan, and both volumes of the Makers of Modern Strategy, have ultimately failed to satisfy. Let's turn the question around: how has any comprehensive theory (on the order of the one Mr. Palar is calling for in military history) been applied to make other historical fields so definitive compared to military history?

In fact, I would venture a guess that more theories have been floated and shot down in military history than in any other field. That is because theories inform good historical study, they do not guide it.

It is interesting, also, that Mr. Palar brings up the example of explaining the defeat of the rebellion in the Civil War, because it refutes his point. Sure, most books on the Civil War focus on battles--I'll get back to this point in a second--but there is a sizable literature on the fall of the rebellion that looks into all aspects of both sides. The titles include Why the North Won the Civil War, How the North Won, The Confederate War, and Why the Confederacy Lost. Remember that several of these books are collections of essays, which means that many of the themes therein have been expanded upon in larger studies. And guess what? Almost every one of the authors is or was an academic military historian with a Ph.D.

Which brings me to my more important point, something that is explained a bit more clearly in another one of Professor Grimsley's replies. He quotes Kenneth P. Werrell, writing in the preface to his book on the bombing of Japan:

[M]ilitary history is regarded with suspicion by a segment of the public and by some academics. Certainly, it reveals man at his worst, with much blood and brutality, and despite the 'new military history' that emphasizes non-combat aspects, military history is still basically about wars and battles. To make matters worse, the good guys do not always win. Nevertheless, military history continues to be of interest to the public. As the English writer Thomas Hardy put it so well, "War makes rattling good history; but peace is poor reading."

If the content of military history is a problem, so, too, is its writing. Unlike other fields of history, it is written mainly by journalists, who tend to sensationalize, and by former military men, who tend to justify. Most academics shy away from it, since they are uncomfortable with the content, unfamiliar with the technology, and unsympathetic with the military ethos. To be perfectly honest, academia's intellectual bias is not only against war, but also against the warriors and the study of war. As a consequence, a lower percentage of books in the field of history are written by academics, and myth-making, hero worship, romance, and glory are more the stuff of this branch of history than of any other.
That may be true, but it has little or nothing to do with military history as an academic field. Since when do we judge an academic field by the standard of work produced by people outside of the academy? Why should academic military historians have to suffer for bad or limited books written by non-academics? When I was talking to my friend Derek about this the other day, he was horrified by the idea that as an academic historian of civil rights his field would be in some way responsible for the limitations in all the nonacademic books out there on civil rights. It is a good analogy--I'm not a civil rights historian, but it seems to me that Taylor Branch, Juan Williams, and Diane McWhorter are a whole lot more famous than Steven Lawson, Clayborne Carson, and Anthony Badger. (I've got a feeling that when I mention the name David Chappell, you don't think of this guy.) That is not to say that non-academics cannot write excellent, informative, even definitive books, but I've taught all sorts of advanced military history courses, and with the exception of Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace, (which has its problems) I've always assigned books that were written by academics or those with terminal academic degrees.

The point is that popular histories written outside of the academy might inform the academic field, but they do not define it. If academic military historians write five percent of the thousands of books on military history published in any given year, then the field must be judged on that five percent. Here is a rule that academics seem able to apply to every field but military history: when you see a new military history title, pick up the book and look at the binding and the author's bio. If an academic press published the book and/or the author is a professor or Ph.D. in history, then the book is probably an academic title. It's not tricky. If well-educated folks are unable to make the distinction, then I humbly suggest that it isn't military historians who have the problem.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mark G. said...

I've been moving the blog, so the link to Palar's guest post is now here.

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