This week, I want to talk about the discipline of military history: what it is, why it is important and how I see my own place within it. This is going to be a bit of an unusual collections post as it is less about the past itself and more about how we study the past; it is also going to be a bit unusual in that it is mostly my own personal reflections, rather than a historical argument.
We do quite a lot of different kinds of history here on the blog. There is a fair bit of social history, some intellectual history, just a little bit of political history and an absolute ton of economic history. Obviously, I think all of those analytical lenses (and several I have not done, of course) are very important ways of understanding the past. But a lot of what we discuss on the blog fits, narrowly or broadly, into the realm of military history. And I want to talk about that.
Now I should note that I do not consider myself purely a military historian – indeed, in my experience, few historians are ‘pure’ anything and if you narrow down their specialization enough, you simply end up with, “I am a historian of things which interest me” followed by a long list of what those are. I see myself as both an economic and military historian (of the Mediterranean world, broadly construed) and my research tends to exist in the places where those two strands meet. Sometimes that means processes that read as non-military (if it isn’t evident I have active research projects on farming and metal production, you haven’t been here long!) and sometimes those projects are more narrowly military. I am a firm believer that a historian must be prepared to use whatever tools are going to provide the best answers to their research questions; for my own work, that has included (basic) statistical analysis, textual close reading, economic theory, archaeology (both traditional and experimental), social history, and even some chemistry and physics. Whatever works! But certainly, the methods of military history are one tool in my toolbox, even when I am looking to answer questions about non-military aspects of Mediterranean antiquity.
It is no real secret that as a discipline, military history is sometimes held in low regard by other historians. There are a number of reasons for this. Often it has to do with outdated views on what military history is and what military historians do. Frequently military history, because it has a large enthusiast and amateur audience, is regarded as an amateur field (something which is not helped by publishers who push quite out reams of quite frankly substandard works of this sort) lacking in sophistication, which is not accurate, but often believed. And perhaps most often, in my experience, these opinions serve as cover for a deeper conviction that studying militaries and warfare is icky and only done by people who like war (when I was a student, this opinion when it was expressed by a certain generation of scholars, now mostly retired, came with a very predictable dose of Vietnam-era anti-military sentiment). Often it seems the study of military history is neglected by other historians precisely because they find the subject matter uncomfortable.
So I want to talk about three major things here: what military history actually is and how it is done these days, why we should study military history and finally what my experience of being a military historian (both as a scholar and a teacher) has been, particularly given that I am a life-long civilian.
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What is Military History?
The popular conception of military history – indeed, the conception sometimes shared even by other historians – is that it is fundamentally a field about charting the course of armies, describing ‘great battles’ and praising the ‘strategic genius’ of this or that ‘great general.’ One of the more obvious examples of this assumption – and the contempt it brings – comes out of the popular CrashCourse youtube series. When asked by their audience to cover military history related to their coverage of the American Civil War, the response was this video listing battles and reflecting on the pointless of the exercise, as if a list of battles was all that military history was (the same series would later say that military historians don’t talk about about food, a truly baffling statement given the important of logistics studies to the field; certainly in my own subfield, military historians tend to talk about food more than any other kind of historian except for dedicated food historians).
The term for works of history in this narrow mold – all battles, campaigns and generals – is “drums and trumpets” history, a term generally used derisively. The study of battles and campaigns emerged initially as a form of training for literate aristocrats preparing to be officers and generals; it is little surprise that they focused on aristocratic leadership as the primary cause for success or failure. Consequently, the old ‘drums and trumpets’ histories also had a tendency to glory in war and to glorify commanders for their ‘genius’ although this was by no means universal and works of history on conflict as far back as Thucydides and Herodotus (which is to say, as far back as there have been any) have reflected on the destructiveness and tragedy of war. But military history, like any field, matured over time; I should note that it is hardly the only field of history to have less respectable roots in its quite recent past. Nevertheless, as the field matured and moved beyond military aristocrats working to emulate older, more successful military aristocrats into a field of scholarly inquiry (still often motivated by the very real concern that officers and political leaders be prepared to lead in the event of conflict) the field has become far more sophisticated and its gaze has broadened to include not merely non-aristocratic soldiers, but non-soldiers more generally.
Instead of the ‘great generals’ orientation of ‘drums and trumpets,’ the field has moved in the direction of three major analytical lenses, laid out quite ably by Jeremy Black in “Military Organisations and Military Charge in Historical Perspective” (JMH, 1998). He sets out the three basic lenses as technological, social and organizational, which speak to both the questions being asked of the historical evidence but also the answers that are likely to be provided. I should note that these lenses are mostly (though not entirely) about academic military history; much of the amateur work that is done is still very much ‘drums and trumpets’ (as is the occasional deeply frustrating books from some older historians we need not discuss here), although that is of course not to say that there isn’t good military history being written by amateurs or that all good military history narrowly follows these schools. This is a classification system, not a straight-jacket and I am giving it here because it is a useful way to present the complexity and sophistication of the field as it is, rather than how it is imagined by those who do not engage with it.
(I should note that campaign studies have not been entirely abandoned either. What distinguishes the modern campaign or battle study from the old ‘drums and trumpets’ style is a broader use of historical causality that reaches beyond just upper-level command decisions. Our recent recommendation, Shattered Sword is a good example of how what might have been a ‘drums and trumpets’ narrative of admirals and captains can instead be developed, using more sophisticated historical methods, into a much more complete and compelling historical argument about organizations, doctrines, technologies and so on. And of course campaign histories will never go out of style – they are the essential foundation on which all other kinds of analysis must be laid)
The technological approach is perhaps the least in fashion these days, but Geoffery Parker’s The Military Revolution (2nd ed. 1996) provides an almost pure example of the lens. This approach tends to see changing technology – not merely military technologies, but often also civilian technologies – as the main motivator of military change (and also success or failure for states caught in conflict against a technological gradient). Consequently, historians with this focus are often asking questions about how technologies developed, why the developed in certain places, and what their impacts were. Another good example of the field, for instance, is the debate about the impact of rifled muskets in the American Civil War. While there has been a real drift away from seeing technologies themselves as decisive on their own (and thus a drift away from mostly ‘pure’ technological military history) in recent decades, this sort of history is very often paired with the others, looking at the ways that social structures, organizational structures and technologies interact.
Perhaps the most popular lens for military historians these days is the social one, which used to go by the “new military history” (decades ago – it was the standard form even back in the 1990s) but by this point comprises probably the bulk of academic work on military history. In its narrow sense, the social perspective of military history seeks to understand the army (or navy or other service branch) as an extension of the society that created it. We have, you may note, done a bit of that here. Rather than understanding the army as a pure instrument of a general’s ‘genius’ it imagines it as a socially embedded institution – which is fancy historian speech for an institution that, because it crops up out of a society, cannot help but share that societies structures, values and assumptions.
The broader version of this lens often now goes under the moniker ‘war and society.’ While the narrow version of social military history might be very focused on how the structure of a society influences the performance of the militaries that created it, the ‘war and society’ lens turns that focus into a two-way street, looking at both how societies shape armies, but also how armies shape societies. This is both the lens where you will find inspection of the impacts of conflict on the civilian population (for instance, the study of trauma among survivors of conflict or genocide, something we got just a bit with our brief touch on child soldiers) and also the way that military institutions shape civilian life at peace. This is the super-category for discussing, for instance, how conflict plays a role in state formation, or how highly militarized societies (like Rome, for instance) are reshaped by the fact of processing entire generations through their military. The ‘war and society’ lens is almost infinitely broad (something occasionally complained about), but that broadness can be very useful to chart the ways that conflict’s impacts ripple out through a society.
Finally, the youngest of Black’s categories is organizational military history. If social military history (especially of the war and society kind) understands a military as deeply embedded in a broader society, organizational military history generally seeks to interrogate that military as a society to itself, with its own hierarchy, organizational structures and values. Often this is framed in terms of discussions of ‘organizational culture’ (sometimes in the military context rendered as ‘strategic culture’) or ‘doctrine’ as ways of getting at the patterns of thought and human interaction which typify and shape a given military. Isabel Hull’s Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2006) is a good example of this kind of military history.
Of course these three lenses are by no means mutually exclusive. These days they are very often used in conjunction with each other (last week’s recommendation, Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword (2007) is actually an excellent example of these three approaches being wielded together, as the argument finds technological explanations – at certain points, the options available to commanders in the battle were simply constrained by their available technology and equipment – and social explanations – certain cultural patterns particular to 1940s Japan made, for instance, communication of important information difficult – and organizational explanations – most notably flawed doctrine – to explain the battle).
Inside of these lenses, you will see historians using all of the tools and methodological frameworks common in history: you’ll see microhistories (for instance, someone tracing the experience of a single small unit through a larger conflict) or macrohistories (e.g. Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization (2008)), gender history (especially since what a society views as a ‘good soldier’ is often deeply wrapped up in how it views gender), intellectual history, environmental history (Chase Firearms (2010) does a fair bit of this from the environments-effect-on-warfare direction), economic history (uh…almost everything I do?) and so on.
In short, these days the field of military history, as practiced by academic military historians, contains just as much sophistication in approach as history more broadly. And it benefits by also being adjacent to or in conversation with entire other fields: military historians will tend (depending on the period they work in) to interact a lot with anthropologists, archaeologists, and political scientists. We also tend to interact a lot with what we might term the ‘military science’ literature of strategic thinking, leadership and policy-making, often in the form of critical observers (there is often, for instance, a bit of predictable tension between political scientists and historians, especially military historians, as the former want to make large data-driven claims that can serve as the basis of policy and the later raise objections to those claims; this is, I think, on the whole a beneficial interaction for everyone involved, even if I have obviously picked my side of it).
So military history has long since ceased to be just about battles and generals. And yes, we often talk about food.
Why Military History?
But as noted, complaints about the supposed lack of ‘sophistication’ in military history often seem to disguise a belief that the field shouldn’t be studied at all and that people who study it must do so because they ‘like’ war. And it must be admitted, especially in the amateur space, there are folks who get caught up in the ‘cult of the badass’ (two forms of which we have discussed) and the notion that warfare is formative or essential (a claim which gets tied up, almost immediately, with notions of ‘manliness’). But I can say with some confidence, I have never encountered this ‘war is cool’ attitude from my professional colleagues.
So why do we do what we do? There are a few main reasons.
The first is simply the obvious observation that war and conflict deeply shaped societies in the past and to the degree that we think that understanding those societies is important (a point on which, presumably, all historians may agree), it is also important to understand their conflicts. I am often puzzled by scholars who work on bodies of literature written almost entirely by combat veterans (which is a good chunk of the Greek and Latin source tradition), in societies where most free adult men probably had some experience of combat, who then studiously avoid ever studying or learning very much about that combat experience (that ‘war and society’ lens there again). Famously, Aeschylus, the greatest Greek playwright of his generation, left no record of his achievements in writing in his epitaph. Instead he was commemorated this way:
Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian lies beneath this marker
having perished in wheat-bearing Gela
Of his well-known prowess, the grove of Marathon can speak
And long-haired Mede knows it well.
If a scholar wants to understand Aeschylus or his plays, don’t they also need to understand this side of his experience too? I know quite a number of scholars who ended up coming to military history this way, looking to answer questions that were not narrowly military, but which ended up touching on war and conflict. For that kind of research – for our potential scholar of Aeschylus – it is important that there be specialists working to understand war and conflict in the period. Of course this is particularly true in understanding historical politics and political narratives, given that most pre-modern states were primarily engines for the raising of revenues for the waging of war (with religious expenditures typically being the only ones comparable in scale).
The second is that the body of knowledge military history creates serves as the foundation for political and military (two separate but related things!) thinking about war and conflict. This is not new, of course; as I noted above, the field of military history emerged out of a desire to train military leaders. What has changed is that this is no longer an exercise for training (often hereditary) aristocrats for battlefield command in societies where political and military decision-making was generally restricted to men born to the job. Instead, all citizens in a democracy have a role in shaping decisions about war and peace.
At the same time, something has not changed, which is the human propensity for conflict. And so the most obvious reason to study the history of human conflict remains: to prepare for the conflicts of our day which, despite our best efforts, are sure to occur. And since political decision-making is no longer confined to a small elite, it makes sense that both the target and scope of military history has changed. This is part of why the focus on the broader ‘war and society’ lens is important: if average citizens need to (through elections) make choices on the security posture of their country, they are going to want to know “what is conflict going to be like for me and my family?” Thus the greater focus on the experience of the common soldier (what is sometimes called the ‘Face of Battle’ school of military history, after J. Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976)) and on the experience of the ‘homefront’ as well as on the victims of conflict. I know that last focus sometimes frustrates the ‘cult of the badass’ adherents, but frankly, no matter how many reps you can do, you were always more likely to be one of Alexander the Great’s victims than one of Alexander’s soldiers (much less Alexander himself).
Which brings us to the third reason why we study war and conflict: so that we might have less of it. It should be little surprise that, more than most other areas of history, the study of war is replete with veterans of conflict (if I had to guess very roughly, I’d say about half or so of academic military historians seem to have military experience? perhaps a little bit less?). In speaking, arguing and writing with them I find the common refrain that, as people who experienced war, they do not study it because they like war. Rather military historians study conflict in the same way that doctors study disease; no one assumes that doctors like diseases, quite the opposite. Though I have not experienced combat, I share this view. By understanding the costs of conflict, we can learn to try and avoid it (especially as modern technology drives the cost of conflicts higher and higher than the potential benefits). By understanding the causes of conflict, we can try to ameliorate them. And by understanding conflict itself, we can effort to keep the necessary wars as short and confined as possible, empowering our decision-makers (civilian and military) with the tools they need to find the peace that is always the goal of war.
Military History as a Civilian
In addition to the low regard that military history is sometimes held in from outside of the field, there is also an odd tension in being a life-long civilian who studies and teaches on military history. It often means teaching military topics to students (or readers) who have personal military experience. I have, of course, heard it suggested that military history ought not be studied by non-veterans, or that a civilian academic simply cannot provide any useful perspective on military activity without military experience (though I should note, I have never heard that opinion expressed by someone I knew to be a combat veteran themselves). And while obviously I do not find this argument persuasive, or I wouldn’t do the job I do, I also have to admit that on a fundamental level I will always be on the civilian side of the ‘civilians do not understand’ gap that is discussed so frequently, particularly in the experience of veterans coming home.
At the same time, in the context of the discipline of history, this complaint is patently absurd. No Roman historian has ever bought garum at the market with sestertii, nor voted in the Roman comitia centuriata, or any experienced any of a nearly infinite number of the daily activities of life in ancient Rome. The same is obviously fundamentally true of literally any history that takes place before living memory. The closest we can ever come is something like experimental archaeology, trying out historical methods and objects and while that method is an important tool, especially for the pre-modern period, it is far from the only way to do history and not necessarily the best. So of course historians study things they have no personal experience of. That’s what history is.
Teaching military history to students either bound for the military or who have military experience is actually one of the most rewarding things I have gotten to do as an academic. In this sense I have been remarkably fortunate in a lot of my teaching, which has been at large state universities in North Carolina and Florida. Both states are well above the United States population-adjusted average for the percentage of veterans in the state and I get the sense that – though I have no hard data on this (so I may be wrong) – veterans tend to matriculate through public universities at higher rates than at smaller private liberal arts college. Moreover, every university I have taught at this far has a significant ROTC program.
Consequently, I am pretty accustomed to having both veterans back from abroad in my class, as well as students who expect to commission at the end of their college experience, along with some students who are active-duty military personnel while they are taking my classes. This is especially true (no surprise) in military history classes, as one might guess. It was not uncommon, in a 45 or 55 student section of a Global Military History survey to have the complete military-career-cycle present (though of course the ROTC students would be commissioning as officers, while the active-duty and veteran students were enlisted personnel and that is a meaningful difference). Of course those students were then side-by-side with students who have no plans to ever be in the military.
It is true that there is sometimes a higher bar of ‘proving’ yourself to the students in those situations before they begin to trust you (as anyone who so much as looks at me knows I have never served in a military), though I would note that the hardest students to reach in this regard have always been the ROTC students (rather than active duty or veteran students), who ironically have no more experience of combat than I do. At the same time, those students are choosing to be in your class because they think you have something to say on the topic and clearing the bar of “this guy knows what he’s talking about” has never been a real problem for me. If you know your business and show that you take the subject seriously, the matter resolves itself.
On the flip side, teaching military history in that context is different in a way because many active-duty and veteran students in particular are not just interested in learning things generally in the course, but often have strong desires to learn or communicate very specific things based on their experiences. I think the most arresting interaction I have ever had with a student was towards the end of one semester teaching that global military history survey, when a veteran student told me (I am paraphrasing, it has been a few years) that he thought the value in my class was that he had taken it to understand the broader context of his own service – not just that war, but war more generally – and that he felt he had achieved that; it was a profoundly humbling, honoring experience to have facilitated that.
And, frankly, I have also taught veteran students who came to a class on military history because they had things they wanted to say or wanted to hear said. What has struck me most consistently is that veteran students tended to appreciate and understand more keenly the value of having a course on military history. The fact is that, while only some of us go to war – because at least in the United States, we have a professional all-volunteer force – all of us are involved in the decisions that choose if we go to war, where and how. Again and again, I have had veteran and active-duty students (and colleagues) express a deep desire to have the general public understand (in the necessarily limited way lifelong-civilians can understand), both their own experience but also to take seriously the broader ramifications that conflict and thus decisions about conflict have.
When it comes to research and scholarship, of course many of my colleagues on military matters have military experience, but there is a broad consensus that the field is made significantly stronger through the interaction of both veteran and non-veteran perspectives. The experience and perspective of having been in combat is extremely important, of course, for the study of military history. It can lead to a deeper understanding of the experiences of people in past conflicts.
But at the same time, the experience of military life and combat are – as you might imagine – deeply formative experiences. After all, that is a good deal of what military training is supposed to do: shape perspectives in a uniform matter. Consequently, there is real value in having scholars without that shaping worldview, because while it can be focusing, it can also be limiting. This is especially true because conflict both is and isn’t a universal experience; there is a tendency to stress the commonality of military experience (and there is a good deal to this) but at the same time being in a single-day medieval pitched battle is not the same experience as being under fire for two weeks at Verdun and the kind of courage that lets soldiers withstand artillery barrages is not the same kind of courage that withstands the push of pike.
What I would say is that while there is sometimes a tone in the amateur military history space that contends that non-veterans ought not have opinions (even about wars long past living memory), in academic military history I think this symbiotic relationship between veteran and non-veteran military historians works well to produce a field that both values the perspectives that come out of the experience of combat, but is also prepared to challenge those perspectives, as any good historian would.
In any event, as George Santayana (and not Plato) said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” This is the sad truth that makes military history a necessary, important discipline. It is essential both for understanding our past and our present. Consequently it is not to be neglected merely because it is uncomfortable.