||Last Updated: May 3rd, 2007 - 08:43:24
Ask most Americans about important subjects in history, and it's a good bet that "war" will rank near the top of the list. Certainly, it holds a commanding position in the history marketed to the general public. Among the "hot books" currently listed on the website of the History Book Club, fully one-third--ranging from straightforward, popular titles like Battles of the Dark Ages to a new collection of essays by the esteemed Civil War historian James McPherson--fall into the category of military history. Viewers tuning in to the History Channel on a recent weekend could choose from at least seven hours of military history programming, including an hour devoted solely to cannons. Popular taste, in other words, bears out the judgment of Edmund Burke, who quipped--long before the horrors of modern mechanized warfare--that the annals of good deeds would "not afford matter enough to fill ten pages. ... War is the matter which fills all History."
Yet the discipline of history, as it exists in major U.S. universities, seems to have forgotten Burke's lesson. At Harvard this spring, for instance, only two of 85 history courses focus mainly on war. This is not surprising, because Harvard does not have a single specialist in military history among the 58 members of its history department. Neither does my own history department at Johns Hopkins; just two of our 61 spring courses are principally concerned with war. And so it goes across the country. The current issue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the profession, includes reviews of no less than 194 new history books, only 15 of which, by my count, qualify as military history.
The subject does remain entrenched in some small corners of the university world--notably at the service academies and in publications like the Journal of Military History. At major research universities, a few specialists, such as Omer Bartov of Brown or Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State, have continued to do marvelous work integrating the study of armies and military operations with such topics as the Holocaust or the "world crisis" of the seventeenth century.
Yet most historians pay scant attention to military history, particularly the part that concerns actual military operations. And so, even in the midst of the Iraq war--the fifth major U.S. deployment since 1990--professors are teaching undergraduates surprisingly little about this historical subject of rather obvious relevance. To take just one example, the problem of how societies have historically evaluated their adversaries' intentions and capabilities remains understudied and rarely taught at a university level.
How can we explain the academy's odd neglect? One frequently mentioned reason is that few contemporary historians have any personal experience of the military. Today, a historian has to be in his mid-fifties (and male) ever to have faced the possibility of the draft, and most American historians come from the privileged strata of society that managed to avoid military service during Vietnam. But this answer doesn't really work. Historians routinely teach and write about a great many subjects absent from their own experience: slavery, plague, feudalism, industrial labor, human sacrifice. Why should war be different?
Another frequently given reason is that historians tend heavily toward pacifism, and this is probably true to some extent. For one thing, repeated surveys have shown that historians' political beliefs skew considerably to the left of the general electorate's. And, just this winter, the membership of the American Historical Association passed, by a three-to-one margin, a resolution urging historians "to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion." But this explanation, too, is unsatisfactory, since historians routinely write and teach about many phenomena they detest.
A more important reason, I would argue, can be found in the development of the modern social sciences. As sociologists like Hans Joas and Michael Mann have observed, the origins of these sciences lie in liberal, Enlightenment-era thinking that dismissed war as primitive, irrational, and alien to modern civilization. Canonical thinkers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant, believed fervently that, as human societies grew more rational, and as commerce bound nations closer together, war would disappear. "We have reached the age of commerce, which must necessarily replace the age of war," Constant wrote in 1813.
Even Karl Marx did not fundamentally depart from these assumptions. He saw class conflict, not international conflict, as the motor of historical change, and he treated the latter as an artificial distraction. Nor did he ever exalt violence as cleansing and redemptive, the way some of his twentieth-century followers would do. In short, to most social scientists, conflict between societies simply has not been as worthy of theoretical interest as conflict within societies. True, one strain of nineteenth-century social scientists did take war more seriously, arguing that, without it, societies would weaken and wither. But they primarily lived in Germany, mostly grounded their thinking in starkly racialist views of human nature, and largely disappeared from the scene after World War I. There have been other significant exceptions--Carl Schmitt and Raymond Aron, to name just two--but the fact remains that the social sciences have mostly avoided giving war the attention it deserves.
Historians did not always fall into this pattern. In the nineteenth century, history was still predominantly a literary, narrative art, and the past offered no more dramatic or compelling subject than military conflict. Masters like Ranke, Macaulay, Michelet, and Parkman all took military science seriously and put climactic battles at the heart of their stories. In the twentieth century, however, history moved away from this tradition and toward the social sciences. The leaders of the influential "Annales school" of history, which developed in France in the early twentieth century, explicitly downplayed "event history"--by which they particularly meant military history--in favor of "deeper" geological, social, and economic factors. The most important annaliste, Fernand Braudel, held to this principle so strongly that he drafted much of his masterpiece, The Mediterranean, while in a World War II POW camp in Germany! Historians of the twentieth century resisted these tendencies better than others (not surprisingly, given the cataclysmic impact of the world wars). So did historians of Civil Warera America. But, in accounts of most other periods, war lost its formerly commanding position.
In a narrow sense, neglect of military history is easy enough to justify. Surely scholars should have the freedom to pursue those subjects they find most intellectually compelling, and I myself, as a paid-up member of the guild, would look askance at any outside authority trying to tell me what sorts of courses I should teach or what books I should write.
But then, in the real world, nonintellectual concerns constantly impinge upon what professors teach and write, while the question of the university's civic--as opposed to intellectual--obligations is not easily put aside. During the cold war, the government and private institutions like the Ford Foundation provided impressive funding for various sorts of "area studies," so as to increase American understanding of the regions in which we might find ourselves confronting the Soviets. It was not a question of forcing existing professors to teach or write on new subjects, but of encouraging movement into the desired areas. The years after September 11 have seen a welcome surge in the number of faculty positions and courses devoted to Islam and the Middle East, without producing any charges of a distorted intellectual agenda. Members of wealthy ethnic groups routinely endow professorships to spur research and teaching on their own particular history.
It seems to me that, at the very least, the study of military history could use more encouragement of this sort. With the United States facing a long-term terrorist threat--not to mention numerous rogue regimes, and the likelihood of having to send our Armed Forces to end genocide or protect vital interests in locations yet to be determined--our nation is almost certain to remain in the shadow of war for a long time to come. Given this fact, surely a broader, more rigorous intellectual knowledge of war itself is a matter of some civic interest.
Of course, promoting such historical knowledge does not mean subsidizing more books on subjects like cavalry tactics at the Battle of Antietam--which the public itself already subsidizes quite nicely. Nor does it mean--despite the knee-jerk fears of some of my colleagues-- promoting politically conservative forms of history, as if only conservatives are driven to the study of war. It simply means studying and teaching about war in ways that historians find intellectually persuasive and important. But it also means asking historians to do something that scholars all too often shudder away from: putting some trust in the instincts of the general public. On this subject, at least, those instincts are quite correct.