Sunday, November 9, 2014

War! What is It Good For?: The Study of Military History


I am a redheaded stepchild. Not literally, of course. No, I am a military historian by virtue of my graduate training and my personal interests. Technically, I am also a redheaded stepchild because I am a lowly adjunct professor considered by many to not be a “real” professor. They are just jealous. I’m a better teacher than they are. But that particular topic will have to wait for another day. Military history has fallen out of favor among professional historians and instead it is the purview of the “amateur” historian or the “popular” historian. I loathe such terms as they were invented by the “professionals” to make themselves feel more important and superior to the lowly minions. After all, only a person with a PhD can know anything, right?

So why do the academics often look with disdain on military history as a discipline? To be honest, I don’t know. I have some hunches, but that is all. First, there is a tendency to think that people who specialize in military history are somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun on the political spectrum which puts them at odds with the predominantly left wing college faculty of today. That stereotype is not necessarily true. I know other military historians who lean to the left, or like me, to the middle. None that I know are right wing warmongers. Second, some think that to study war is to glorify war. Only a moron would glorify war. Getting shot at isn't really fun. At least not the times I've experienced it. Third, in this age wherein if you do not specialize in race, class, or gender you will not get a job, much less tenure, some argue that military history has no place in our more “enlightened” narrative of the past. I call bullshit on that for the reasons contained below. Consider it my defense of military history as a discipline.

 I cannot address the first two points as they are just false. I think Jefferson might say that their absurdity is “self evident.” I can, however, speak to the third point. The historian John Keegan said “The written history of the world is largely a history of warfare.” Perhaps he was being hyperbolic, but I do think he had a point. Humans learned to kill each other long before we learned how to read, write, or probably even speak. If you are a Bible reader, examine the Old Testament. It is one bloodbath after another. And it just got worse. First we used our hands, then rocks, then bronze, steel, guns, tanks, planes, and now unmanned drones. Given the fact that at just about any point in the panorama of world history there was a war going on somewhere, leaving it out of the broader historical narrative is ridiculous.

Since the modern day academic historian focuses on race, class, and gender, I think it is important to note that those subjects also fit within military history. Consider the brave African-American soldiers who fought for their own people’s freedom during the Civil War. Or the Buffalo Soldiers who served gallantly on the frontier. What about the Tuskegee Airmen during World War Two? Or the Code Talkers? Or any other minority who fought for a country that discriminated against them and then came home and fought for equality. How can you talk about women’s history without discussing their contribution to the war effort on the home front? Rosie the Riveter, anyone? Class matters too. How many wars have been a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight? Most probably.

 While the military recognizes the importance of the study of the history of warfare, and for good reason, those outside of it often cannot grasp why anyone would want to study weapons, tactics, and warfare. Wars don’t solve anything? Do they? Even an avowed pacifist would have to admit that it is a good thing that we fought against Hitler. Clausewitz said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. It is what countries or people do when negotiations break down. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to try and negotiate first and just attack. Why this happens is important. We have to understand what draws countries into a war if we ever hope to be able to prevent it.

The Great Man school of history fell out of favor a long time ago. That said, I think that looking at great figures from the past still has some relevance, so long as we also talk about “the little guy”. How can you teach about the French Revolution and not mention Napoleon? Conflict is where you see what people and countries are made of. Warfare brings out the best in people/countries and also the worst. Countries pull together or the break apart. We have heroes and villains. We see great leadership and we see tyrants. The full range of emotions that make up the human soul are laid bare for us to examine. Perhaps some don’t like what that tells us about the human condition. Nations and causes need leaders. Warfare is the crucible of leadership. Anyone can be a leader when times are good but when things turn south, we find out what leaders are really made of. Sure, the study of military history does run the risk of devolving into jingoistic nationalism, but not if it is taught or studied correctly. Frankly, I can think of no better subject than history to honor those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf because we, as historians, can put those sacrifices in the proper context.

 I’m not advocating every teacher talking about nothing but warfare in their courses. That would be just as insane as not mentioning warfare at all. I’m a military historian, but I still touch on matters of race, class, and yes, even gender! But I do so within the broader context of conflict and how it has shaped us as a country and a world. We should all teach to our strengths. But we also must recognize that military history has a place in academia and those of us who specialize in it should not be considered redheaded stepchildren but rather professionals with just as much to contribute to our national discourse as anyone else.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Military Historian. And a lover of redheads as well. Or at least the one I married to, that is. I would like to wish a Happy Veterans Day to all the men and women who are or have served our nation and also to the police officers, firefighters, and EMS workers who keep us safe here on the home front. As Rudyard Kipling would say “I have eaten your bread and salt. I have drunk your water and wine. In deaths ye died I have watched beside. And the lives ye led were mine.”

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