In Retreat: Why the Study of Military History Remains Essential

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The war in Ukraine should serve as a vivid reminder:  We may be sick and tired of war, but war isn’t finished with us.  Those who thought there wouldn’t be another land war or cross-border invasion in Europe – or that no war would ever take place in countries with a McDonald’s restaurant — have once again been proven wrong.  

Currently, insurgencies, civil conflicts, and ethnic violence are ongoing in Burkina Faso, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, with smaller but still deadly conflicts occurring in Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Tanzania, Togo, Tunesia, and Uganda.

Potential flashpoints include Kashmir, the Sahel, Taiwan, and between Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Yet despite this fraught reality, military history as an academic discipline is in steep decline, apparently out of the fantasy that if we don’t teach about war, it will go away.  Spoiler alert:  This pipe dream hasn’t worked yet.  

Worse yet, it has produced a leadership class that intervenes in overseas conflicts frequently, yet knows little about war’s realities. 

Whatever your politics, I’d urge you to read a hot-off-the-press essay “Uses & Abuses of Military History” by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and, yes, an outspoken conservative – but one who writes here not as an ideologue but as a historian who understand the value of military history as a discipline.

“War,” Hanson begins, “accelerates and intensifies the human experience.” It gives birth to “dramatic scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and political, economic, and cultural upheavals, as well as radical changes in art and literature.”  Like it or not, war is the hinge on which history pivots.

Yet military history course offerings are falling as are the number of major departments with military historians.  The days when such leading historians as C. Vann Woodward, wrote works of military history are long over.  No wonder we see a profusion of articles with titles like “Our Elite Schools Have Abandoned Military History,” “American Universities Declare War on Military History,” and “The Embattled Future of American Military History.”

My own department with 65 full-time ranked historians is distinctive in having two military historians, although both are US historians and neither specializes on the period before the Vietnam war. (I should perhaps add that a third historian studies violence in Algeria).  It’s noteworthy that my department doesn’t even list military history among its thematic offerings.

As Hanson quite rightly observes, the abandonment of military history at leading universities doesn’t reflect a decline of popular interest in the topic. Rather, as he puts it bluntly, “The degreed classes,” that is educated civilian elites in higher education, politics, and the media, “have deprecated military history.” – “even as they are largely the demographic that has adjudicated when and where the United States goes to war, and the degree to which Americans should aid or oppose other nations that do.”

His words are harsh and bitter, but true.   

Equally worrisome, Hanson insists, is “a parallel decline in the historical education of our military elites themselves at the [military] academies.”

Not everyone agrees that the academic study of war is besieged.  In 2021 William Hitchcock and Megham Herwig of the University of Virginia found that of 50 leading institutions studied, every single one offered at least one history course on an aspect of war – and 39 of those universities offered on average six war-related courses each year, about 7 percent of their total history offerings. Still, most of those classes aren’t on war itself, but rather, memory, art and literature, war and society, foreign relations, and specific conflicts like the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War.  As Hitchcock and Herwig acknowledge, the biggest decline in offerings is in general military history and war and society, with Harvard, notably, having among the fewest course offerings.

Hanson quite rightly worries not only about the number of military-themed courses offered, but about what is taught in those classes.  There’s nothing wrong with courses that emphasize war’s impact upon “civil liberties, race and gender relations, the environment, and humanitarian attitudes,” but, in his view, faculty need to deal more than tangentially on the “operational, logistical, tactical, or strategic aspects of armed forces on the battlefield.”  Essential topics that he fears are often overlooked not only include highly specific topics, like the impact of strategic bombing campaigns, but issues that crisscross time and space, including troop recruitment, deterrence, weaponry, reconnaissance, civilian and military morale, the political role of high ranking military leadership, and logistics and supply chains.

Hanson’s money line bears repeating:  “The more U.S. officials and the foreign-policy elite have resorted to arms, the less they seem to know about historical patterns and innate tendencies of war.”  Informed civilian oversight of the military requires a leadership class and a voting citizenry capable of avoiding the strategic errors of the past and resisting the military fallacies that too often drive policy.

It’s striking, Hanson observes, that roughly 87 campuses offer majors in peace studies and conflict resolution, twice the number of schools that offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in military history. Equally worrisome, I might add, is the fact that the military history that is taught tended to be ethnocentric, paying insufficient attention to conflicts that haven’t involved Europe and the United States. We mustn’t forget that most of the wars in our time have been intra-ethnic and take place outside the West.

Perhaps the profession hasn’t declared war on the historical study of the military, but given the fact that war is a constant presence in history and a driver of cultural, economic, medical, political, scientific, social, and technological transformation, I think it’s fair to say that our departments, especially those outside the South, aren’t doing enough to introduce students to this distressing reality.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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