If American military historians had fur, fangs or feathers it is a safe bet that they would have a place of honor on the Endangered Species List:
Two of the last five Pulitzer Prizes in history were awarded to books about the American military. Four of the five Oscar nominees for best documentary this year were about warfare. Business, for military historians, is good.Except, strangely enough, in academia. On college campuses, historians who study military institutions and the practice of war are watching their classrooms overflow and their books climb bestseller lists — but many say they are still struggling, as they have been for years, to win the respect of their fellow scholars. John Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, first described this paradox in a 1997 essay called “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History.”….”While military history dominates the airwaves…its academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities.”The field that inspired the work of writers from Thucydides to Winston Churchill is, today, only a shell of its former self. The number of high-profile military history experts in the Ivy League can be counted on one hand. Of the more than 150 colleges and universities that offer a Ph.D. in history, only a dozen offer full-fledged military history programs. Most military historians are scattered across a collection of Midwestern and southern schools, from Kansas State to Southern Mississippi.“Each of us is pretty much a one-man shop,” says Carol Reardon, a professor of military history at Penn State University and the current president of the Society for Military History. The vast majority of colleges and universities do not have a trained military historian on staff.
….More than a decade ago, the University of Wisconsin received $250,000 to endow a military history chair from none other than Stephen Ambrose, the author of “Band of Brothers” and one of the field’s most popular figures. Ambrose donated another $250,000 before he died in 2002, but the school has yet to fill the position.
….And while some believe the profession is being purposefully purged by a generation of new-wave historians of gender, labor and ethnic studies, whose antiwar views blind them to the virtues of military history, most insist that nothing so insidious is happening.“I don’t think there’s been a deliberate policy of killing these positions,” says Wayne Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.Instead, most of the historians interviewed by U.S. News believe the study of war, like several other, more traditional historical disciplines such as political and diplomatic history, has simply been de-emphasized as the field has expanded since the 1960s. ”
Read the rest here.
It’s true that military history is not being targeted per se, though the field gets caught up in leftist faculty attitudes toward ROTC, American foreign policy and dead white guys. Economic and diplomatic history programs are faring little better and with history departments being squeezed in general, even labor and social historians are finding tight job markets. No, it’s simply a herd mentality in action, responding to the PC fetishes of academic administrative culture. It’s more important for the key decision makers in universities, colleges and departments on campuses with active women’s and ethnic studies programs to make certain that the History department is redundantly stacked with tenure track positions in these same subdisciplinary areas two or three deep.
All is not lost. It is true that students at universities are being cheated out of the opportunity to receive educations that are less slanted in terms of discipline, methodology or politics but that is a problem far larger than just the field of history. It’s a systemic and generational issue that will be remediated when alumni donors, state legislatures and Federal agencies giving grants demand greater responsibility, accountability and service from universities for the money they are given; and when the tenured radical boomers thin out with retirement and death.
Specific to military historians, things are not as bleak as they seem. To an extent, the university is a legacy institution that while important, lacks the prestige or centrality in American intellectual life it once commanded. Military history should have a place at any decent sized college or university but if making a difference is what matters, as opposed to having a sinecure to pay the bills, academia is not the end all, be all anymore.
As the article makes clear, well written military history – and a lot of it is quite good compared to other subfields -is in demand everywhere else. The Department of Defense runs it’s own service academies and postgraduate institutions as well as having staff analyst positions ranging from OSD to DIA. Think Tanks, from premier outfits like RAND to smaller foundations, will need military historians and strategic studies people if they hope to be ” in the game” influencing policy or public opinion ( the tanks are coasting now, often times with “experts” who have far less knowledge of military affairs than do I – and I’m not a military historian by any stretch of the imagination!). All of this is far more important work, with real world implications, than playing fantasy land academic games. Then there’s writing books that the normal, intelligent, reading public actually want to read and having an audience larger than, say, fifty people.
History that does not get disseminated, debated and understood is not history at all.
Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz