Collections: Why Military History?

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 Often it has to do with outdated views on what military history is and what military historians do.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.

83 thoughts on “Collections: Why Military History?

  1. “these opinions serve as cover for a deeper conviction that studying militaries and warfare is icky and only done by people who like war” and “Rather military historians study conflict in the same way that doctors study disease; no one assumes that doctors like diseases, quite the opposite” resonate with me to a degree, but I think they still concede too much to the crowd disdaining military studies. War a huge multifaceted concept that can be approached from many directions. You can like some of these aspects while disliking others. This does not make you callous. You can find fascination in a well laid battle plan or admire a masterful system of supply. You can even appreciate individual demonstrations of bravery or prowess. That is not the same as liking the human suffering that inevitably goes along with them. That medical researcher can likewise marvel over a bacteria’s ability to hide from the immune system or at how a virus tricks a cell into making copies of it. Conflict is a basic part of human experience. War is physical conflict taken to the largest scope. It’s no wonder and no shame that it should be so attractive despite also being so terrible.

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    1. A better analogy might be a biologist studying disease because the military historian is not on the practical side. (And also requires more rigor.)

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  2. The idea that military history shouldn’t be studied is perhaps one of the most bizarre ideas I could conceive of. War may be called theoretically bad, or it may be called theoretically good, but in either case the theory is rather irrelevant. War exists, has always existed as long as humans have (or longer), and presumably will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It tests all human societies, generally in a multifaceted manner, at some point in time. And effectively any and every aspect of society may be understood through the lens of war, or in relation to it. That doesn’t mean it is the only perspective, but trying to obtain a deep understanding human history without a deep understanding of war would leave even the most erudite of scholars standing about in mute confusion as to why or how events came about.

    Finally, of course, one can, and probably should, reply that the study of history doesn’t really require a reason in the first place – nor does any history.if the sciences have any purpose, it is to understand, and to study what is, what was, and what may be. If anyone decides they dislike it, well, why shouldn’t we go on studying it anyhow?

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    1. I believe that this rejection and opposition comes from the idea (discussed in Dr. Devereaux’s article here) that military history exists to promote and glorify warfare. Since most human societies seem to have, on average, problems caused by *too much* war, it seems reasonable that we should strive to avoid glorifying and promoting it.

      This perception is unfair to the field of academic military history, though- again, as discussed. The root of the problem seems to come from the interaction between the “cult of the badass” and the antiwar movement. The antiwar movement sees little distinction between academic military history and amateurish glorification of the cult of the badass. The latter is of course opposed to their purposes, so the former ends up seen in an unfavorable light by association.

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    2. I am more interested in science history than military history but all history overlaps. I understand that people have different interests and specialties and biases but I have never understood the mentality to disregard any art of history.

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  3. It was a warship, after all. It was built, designed to glory in destruction, when it was considered appropriate. It found, as it was rightly and properly supposed to, an awful beauty in both the weaponry of war and the violence and devastation which that weaponry was capable of inflicting, and yet it knew that attractiveness stemmed from a kind of insecurity, a sort of childishness. It could see that—by some criteria—a warship, just by the perfectly articulated purity of its purpose, was the most beautiful single artifact the Culture was capable of producing, and at the same time understand the paucity of moral vision such a judgment implied. To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy.
    ― Iain M. Banks, Excession

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  4. For amateur vs. professional history a whole lot of amateur history is storytelling. A lot of it can be really annoying in that it never engages in analysis of what’s happening. On the other hand what can be annoying about reading academic history as an amateur is how much work gets shown. I remember reading a history of sub-Roman Britain and now I never want to even think about pot shards ever again. I often like those big door-stopped “A Blah Blah University History of Blah Blah” because they’re academic and long enough to explain things but so broad that they can’t really get into the weeds and assault my poor brain with pot shards.

    That’s also why I like this blog enormously, you avoid both the “strung together biographies of great men” and “let’s talk about pot shards” extremes in a way that teaches me a lot.

    The issue I’m having these days is I’m gearing up for an ultra marathon next year and have been doing a lot of loooooong sloooooow trail runs which are slow enough that I can listen to stuff and understand it but can’t handle really dense stuff while hauling my ass up a mountain. I’ve been bingeing on a lot of history podcasts and much they mostly focus on biographical storytelling and how little analysis they have has been maddening with only a few exceptions. Really need to find some history stuff I can listen to that gets away from purely biographical storytelling.

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      1. Well I play D&D so I do a bit of world building and find that the sort of storytelling biographical-based history is probably the LEAST useful for worldbuilding. Hell you can probably trace back a lot of common goofs in worldbuilding to the limits of that kind of history.

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          1. I’m not David, but have similar experience with world building for roleplaying games. Tabletop, not computer.

            (I do actually like the story telling style of history. One of my favourite history books is “A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman, which covers 14th century Western Europe by following a French nobleman who had a long and interesting life.)

            The wonderful aspect of tabletop and other entirely live action roleplaying games is that since they’re run by a human being rather than a computer program, the players can ask to do anything they can imagine. And the human GM can be equally creative in responding rather than “Unknown input. Please choose your response from the numbered list.”

            The not so wonderful aspect for the GM is that the players *will* ask anything they can imagine. Plate armour from the village blacksmith. War horses. Stone blocks to wall up the entrance to the dragon’s lair. And, oh so very often, ingredients for gunpowder. (I’m really looking forward to Bret covering the actual manufacturing process.)

            Players ask, but if the GM can say “No because…” they don’t mind. So history books that cover the underlying mechanisms and constraints and economic structures are very handy for a GM who wants to run a flexible open-ended (“sandbox” in computer game terminology) RPG game in an ancient/medieval setting.

            And this knowledge helps the GM in the same way that fantasy authors, at least good ones, talk about all the world building that doesn’t make it into the final text. Good foundations make your world more convincing even when you can’t seem them.

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      2. I’ve referenced material from this blog more than once when my wife says things like “I don’t understand the political structure in Fodlan.” (Fodlan being the setting of the most recent Fire Emblem game)

        Without the essays quite a ways back about what makes a military aristocracy a military aristocracy, I wouldn’t have been able to make sense of it either.

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        1. With my BA in economics, I like to look at the logistics side, too–in one of my books, a camp nearly dissolves into mutiny when the food runs short (and the countryside has already been pretty much cleaned out). If you look at some of the things that went on during the Thirty Years’ War with mercenary companies, the way that the Baron tries to save money on paying one mercenary company was sadly a standard maneuver for people short on cash flow during that time, and in Italy as well. The company survives but is *not* appreciative of their former employer…

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    1. Don’t tell the archaeologists, but I found pot analysis to be profoundly boring. If I never have to identify another Dressel-type amphora, it will be too soon. That said, pot analysis provides wonderful dating and trade data, so I will happily let the archaeologists do that sort of stuff and read the results.

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      1. There’s also maybe a middle ground. I don’t necessarily want super technical detail, but I’ve recently read things where I really wanted to have some clue of how we know, and how confident that knowledge is. I don’t have a handy example, sadly, but it was something like bold assertions of how things were, for which I would like to have some idea of the evidence path. I guess “because pots” rather than “because spectroluminescent analysis of pot oxygen isotopes.” (Actually that would be cool too, but not paragraphs of digression.)

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        1. Personally I think that this blog hits that middle ground well, I feel like it gives us a lot of information without getting too far into the technical detail. The only time I had a hard time following anything was the chemistry in the first steel article. Just wish I could fine more like it, especially podcasts. Some history podcasters are great story tellers but they’re mostly so tightly focused on biography that I get frustrated (also analysis is much easier for me to remember than names).

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  5. You make a compelling argument for civilians to gain a better understanding of war and since our decisions (votes, etc) ultimately determine how involved our country gets into conflict, or not. Is there a book or two (accessible to the non-academic public) that might approximate the course you teach? I’ve love to find something written in your writing style (please write something, I’d be in on a Kickstarter :)) as I’ve really connected to the way you talk about history… it’s very engaging with references as needed, yet feels very hands on and practical. I would never guessed logistics could be fun to read about.

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    1. I think the best broad introduction to military history is probably W.E. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture and Innovation in World History (2015). It’s intended as a textbook (so it’s a bit drier than what I write here) that presents global military history as a series of case studies in particular innovations, but those case studies are well chosen to introduce the major features of military history and strategic thinking. It’s the textbook I use when I teach my Global History of Warfare course (in no small part because my version of that class is heavily modeled off of Lee’s version and he made the textbook to match what he teaches).

      As for my own writing, I am working on a book project, but it is – for career reasons – more of a technical for-scholars project. I will, however, announce when it gets closer to press (likely still a year or two out, these things take time) and I expect after that to have some more public-facing book projects in the future.

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  6. Great write-up as usual. One question: where does economics fall into the three-classification scheme?

    I imagine the financial engine behind a peacetime/wartime society plays a massive role in how war begins, operates and ends.

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  7. I see studying military history as somewhat comparable to the parable of the blind men describing the elephant. The more different perspectives the better the description. Which means that you see an evolution of analysis as Brett describes in his post. I think that the trend now is toward seeing warfare as a competition of systems. From Brett’s description of Shattered Sword, that seems to be where the authors are coming from. (I really need to read Shattered Sword, it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite awhile.) I first encountered the system view in “Understanding Defeat” by Trevor N. Dupuy some 10-15 years ago. The system approach seems a better description than the Great Man view. Which was the more prominent view previously.

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  8. As usual, I enjoyed reading your post, Bret!

    Here are a few more fixes for you to consider:
    who push quite out reams of quite frankly -> push out reams [delete first instance of quite]
    reflecting on the pointless of the exercise -> the pointlessness
    (hyperlink) don’t talk about about food -> don’t talk enough about food
    technological, social and organizational, -> this is a case for the Oxford comma to follow the word social
    why the developed in certain places -> why they developed
    go by the “new military history” -> go by the name or designation or term
    share that societies structures -> share that society’s structures
    we can effort to keep -> we can make an effort

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Apropos of very little, one of the best books I’ve read in military history is Timothy Moy’s War Machines:
    Transforming Technologies in the U.S. Military, 1920-1940. It’s an analysis of the relations between technology, innovation, and organizations by case studies of the US Marines’ reinvention as an amphibious force and of the development of strategic bombing.

    (Yes, this is just pure advertising. No, I don’t get anything from it. I just think it’s a book that deserves more notice.)

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  10. I think it’s interesting to realize that the role of civilian military historian is relatively new compared to the length of time wars have occurred–isaac D’Israeli (yes, Ben’s dad) appears to be one of the few people in the early 19th century to have made a living at it.

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  11. US veterans fought for the best supplied outfit in history, usually with overwhelming force on their side. A perspective from veterans on the underdog side, e.g. Viet-Cong fighters would probably be as illuminating and probably under-represented in American academia. Also most modern conflicts are irregular, whether civil wars or guerrilla warfare, and it’s hard to understand, say, the Second Congo War with the perspective of someone who served in a highly structured and formalized nation-state military (special forces veterans may be more able to relate).

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    1. There’s a very natural tendency for societies, and institutions within societies, to be more interested in their own history than that of anyone else. It becomes harmful when the study and teaching of history becomes one sided to support the preferred narrative of the rulers.

      As an amateur civilian who reads a lot of military history the US/Anglosphere seems to be doing quite well in getting perspectives from other sides and from irregular conflicts. Two examples on the shelves of my local bookstore: War From the Ground Up by Emile Simpson, The Dragons and the Snakes by David Kilcullen. Can’t say anything about accuracy of the content but they both appear to be serious examinations of the motivations and actions of non-Westerners / irregulars.

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      1. On the other hand, there are experts who assume that present day knowledge confers more historical knowledge than it does. I once saw a discussion in which someone explained to a doctor that in the early 1940s, if someone had surgery, it meant that the doctors were fairly certain that the patient would die if they didn’t operate. (Because while they had aseptic practice and aesthesia, if something went wrong and you got an infection, you died.)

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  12. ‘…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…’

    Citizens in a democracy screw up when it comes to decisions about war and conflict. And political leaders anxious to pander to them screw up even more spectacularly.
    See voters in the 1930’s UK and Stanley Baldwin who managed to incubate a global war with a death toll in the millions between them.

    And I don’t know that even if you force half a dozen years of military history as a compulsory subject onto the curriculum of every secondary school (or whatever non-UK equivalents there are) that that would improve the ability of the citizens of a democracy to make the correct calls about war and conflict.

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    1. Further to my previous post, I add that I agree that military history is useful to those who have to fight wars, or who have to worry about the possibility of wars being fought and are in a position of responsibility regarding doing something about it. If they pay attention, they can make mistakes which are entirely original of their own, instead of repeating someone else’s from the past…
      War is full of mistakes, it seems to me, but to paraphrase Kipling, it is a lot more forgiving of anything short of utter idiocy, if your side has the Gatling Gun and plenty of ammunition for it and the other side ‘do not.’ (Or an equivalent/better, to be pedantic.)

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      1. I would argue that the study of military history is useful to civilian decision-makers for the same reason it’s useful to military officers: as a tool for avoiding the repetition of old mistakes.

        The British and French of the 1930s “allowed” Hitler to rise to power and mobilize for war in large part because the entire situation was nearly unprecedented. Their whole civilization had been through a disastrous convulsion of warfare. They had fought in a type of war that had never happened before. One that had shattered minds and nations in ways that in 1913, no one even *knew* they could be shattered. The combination of this shock, and of fascism being anew and unfamiliar ideology, caused a lot of people throughout the world (not only in democracies!) to disastrously misread the situation and make very poor strategic choices.

        [Among these poor choices was Hitler’s decision to go to war in the first place. Remember that the war ended very badly for Germany!]

        But by familiarizing ourselves with the history of how wars take shape, we insure ourselves, not against new and unprecedented classes of problem, but against compounding our new problems by repeating the steps that created old problems (“never commit to a protracted occupation of an unprofitable territory where the population hates you,” for instance)

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        1. All the leaders of countries such as the UK and France had to do to understand Hitler was to read that book he wrote (or at least a translation of it.) But apparently they either couldn’t be bothered, or were short-sighted enough to think it wouldn’t matter, and hey, they had an election to win in however many months time, and pacifism and disarmament sure went down well with the voters…

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          1. A lot of people thought he had outgrown his earlier anti-Semitism.

            Some continued to maintain it after he came to power: he was being forced to by political considerations, other Germans were the problem. It was prevalent enough that G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay on it, pointing out that it hardly mattered WHY — if he was forced to do it, whatever was forcing it would hardly just stop.

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          2. Or perhaps they thought that surely, SURELY, some force within his own country would STOP him, at least force him to settle for territorial gains and great personal power rather than world conquest, before the rest of his own people would allow him to plunge all of Europe into madness and horror.

            It was in some ways a more naive time, before the Nazis set a new world record for the “maximum evil speedrun.”

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          3. Simon Jester:
            Stanley Baldwin was hardly naïve. Churchill (who hardly had reason to like or casually compliment the man) describes him (writing in the late 1940’s) as: ‘…the greatest party manager the Conservatives ever had. He fought, as their leader, five General Elections, of which he won three…’ (‘Peace at its Zenith 1922-1931’ (The Second World War, volume I))
            And again on Baldwin: ‘…Moreover, as a profoundly astute party manager, thinking in majorities and aiming at a quiet life between election, he did not wish to have my disturbing aid…’ (‘Hitler Strikes 1936’ (The Second World War, volume I))

            Although I suppose it might be possible for Baldwin to be a latter day metaphorical Machiavelli when it came to British politics and politicians, and hopelessly out of his depth when dealing with a foreign (i.e. German) culture and politicians.

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          4. Hindsight is a wonderful thing when you’re judging the efficacy of someone’s decisions, or the thought process in coming to them.

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          5. Indeed, they might have thought the book was unrepresentative. People do change, and Hitler’s response to jail was to so seriously tone down the rhetoric that after he took power, people literally said that he was being forced by other people in power to make the anti-Semitic measures. Enough of them that G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay on the topic, pointing out that if someone else was forcing the measures, that someone else would continue to force them so it hardly mattered where they originated.

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  13. War has never been less relevant than today. What superior insight does its study cause? To waste lives for the wars of America’s political elite, do we need that many Kagans?

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      1. I look forward to Joe Biden proclaiming in his Res Gestae that under his watch for the first time in decades were the doors of the Temple of Janus shut.

        Um, reference for everyone on that joke: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Augustus/Res_Gestae/2*.html (look down at section 13).

        And also, yes, I know Biden won’t do this but will instead send drones everywhere. But honestly, if we had a Temple of Janus, the doors wouldn’t have shut since at least the early 90s.

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        1. Perhaps they never shut after ‘41. IIRC Korean police action started in ‘50 and then there was Greece. We got involved in ‘Nam under Eisenhower and it just kept on flowing. 😏

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        2. in 1979, looking ahead to the election, Jimmy Carter’s people began touting the fact that he was the first president since the 1920s not to lose a single American soldier in combat. That talking point was dropped when the Iranian students stormed the embassy.

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    1. With due respect, are you living on the same planet and in the same historical era I am?? Are you seriously saying the US faces no threats?

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      1. Or, for that matter, that the US is the only place in the modern world worth studying?

        Or, for a more subtle interpretation, that the US is the only place worth studying for people within the US?

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  14. > all of us are involved in the decisions that choose if we go to war, where and how

    I don’t know if things works differently in the US, but here in France I don’t recall being asked my opinion when we went to war either in Lybia, Sahel or Syria. Yes, I had voted at the elections of one of those governments (I was too young for the first one), but I don’t think either campaigned on military intervention abroad and both governments came from opposing political parties. I just think you overestimate the capacity of the voting base of an average democracy to influence the military policy of a country.

    Still this was an interesting post on how and why study military history.

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    1. That’s a fair point. In information theory terms, voters have very little formal input. You choose out of 2 to 8 options, that’s 1 to 3 bits, every few years. In the extreme case your choice is “keep the incumbents or try the other guys for a while”. Even with 16 choices, that would be just 4 yes-no questions, and people usually pay more attention to domestic policy than foreign.

      There’s informal input, but as we’ve seen, mass protests have unreliable control over a determined legislature, in changing a particular law, treaty, or war.

      The exception is Switzerland, where the voters can in fact vote on every law or treaty if they so choose, and last I checked actually exercise this right 9-16 times a year. (3-4 ballot times, 3-4 ballot options each time.) (Well, some of those are initiatives, not referenda.) I suspect that makes the legislature more attentive to public opinion as well.

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      1. It’s remarkable how much effort is spent choosing between a few candidates, and yet how little interest there is in how these were chosen out of millions of potential alternatives.

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      2. Now isn’t that fascinating about Switzerland and the public’s direct ability to influence lawmaking, mainly as Switzerland isn’t exactly the socialist, egalitarian haven a lot of people would expect if the power to make policy is spread to everyone rather than held by an elite.

        I can hazard a number of guesses as to why that might be, but I thought it was an interesting observation that even direct participation into policy-making might not equate to as much responsibility as you’d expect (say, if power over media which influences the opinions of the public is still held by an elite with different goals and values).

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        1. It doesn’t have a ‘socialist’ reputation like the Nordic countries, but it does have one of the lowest Gini indices (lower = more equality) in the world *before* income transfers, and does pretty well after transfers too. Certainly more income-egalitarian than the US. I believe that as in Germany, ‘vocational’ education and jobs have a higher status than in the US. It’s been pretty progressive in prisons, drug laws, and sex work as well. It’s also had a good employment/population ratio.

          https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.EMP.TOTL.SP.MA.NE.ZS?locations=CH-IS-US-SE

          Between ancient Athens and modern Switzerland, I do suspect that a high level of democracy means more internal egalitarianism — though not socialist utopia — but also increased protectiveness of the valuable citizenship.

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      1. the two presidents in question lasted only one term. And the latest president, elected in 2017, continued the interventions in Syria and Sahel

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  15. Hi Brett, Just a reply to thank you for an interesting and thought provoking read.

    I consider myself a dilettante of military history, with an interest in the way technology shapes conflict, and the casualties of war; from the falling numbers of death by, injury and disease to the rise of psychological injury.

    However, in my former day job as a cognitive behavioural therapist, my interest was in managing emotions that drive conflict. I’m of the opinion that conflict management skills are one of the key skill that our societies fail to teach our children.

    Anyway, thank you again.

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  16. I am an amateur historian of sports, mostly baseball. There are parallels between what you write here and sports history.

    One is the prevalence of amateur histories. Most are quite bad, along the lines of “The 1923 Paducah Palookas: The Season that Changed Baseball Forever.” As a rule, the writer will have researched his subject painstakingly, in the sense that he will have chased down box scores if he had to visit local historical societies across five states. Then he will have nothing of interest to say. This is the equivalent of a drums and trumpets military history, but probably not as well written. A variant is the book by a professional sports journalist. It will be better written, but will emphasize a compelling narrative at the cost of accuracy.

    There are academic histories as well, but these are pretty thin on the ground. There was a moment a few decades back when sports history was treated as a discipline in its own right. That seems to have passed. Today we often see appallingly bad books by academics. These are of the “I am a baseball fan, and I have a Ph.D., and am therefore omnicompetent” variety. The absolute worst disaster of a baseball history book I have read was written by a humanities professor at an excellent private liberal arts college and published by an Ivy League press.

    There are some good books out there, but you have to look. Any sports history worth a damn approaches the subject as an aspect of cultural history. Viewed in that light, sports obviously is a major part of our culture, and clearly a suitable topic for rigorous study. But this is easily lost in the crowd of people whose idea of sports history is discussing whether or not Babe Ruth really called his shot.

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    1. The same applies to a lot of other niches that don’t attract much academic notice. In, say, brewing history you can often have academics making howlingly wrong statements, because they can’t be bothered to do real primary source research on “unimportant” stuff like beer so they keep on repeating the same crap from bad secondary sources (especially about porter for some reason). This leaves the best research in the hands of amateurs which leads to various weird effects.

      For example probably the guy with FAR and AWAY the best knowledge of the development of modern brewing techniques and recipes has a horribly organized blog with a literal ocean of primary source data gleaned from massive amounts of archival research in a half dozen languages.

      While another guy who went out in the field and collected information about northern European farmhouse brewing (all across Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, rural Russia, etc.), found so much interesting information about the remnants of tradition brewing and what might be a whole new species of yeast that set the homebrewing community on fire with interest (since the yeast is really really good at making beer, it’s the only one I’ll ever use for the rest of my life) and seems to have attracted basically no academic interest in his work despite how much he’s gleaned from an important cultural tradition on the verge of dying out in a lot of places.

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      1. On ‘bad secondary sources’, here in the UK there was a period when every time the film ‘Highlander’ aired on a terrestrial TV channel the TV schedules in the newspapers referred to it as a ‘time travel’ film. Apparently someone lazy hadn’t bothered to do their research properly into what the film was about (and it involves zero obvious time travel) and then the mistake kept being repeated again and again and again.

        In World War 2 history, there’s a myth which has arisen somehow, from somewhere, that the Allies didn’t make a move on (in terms of armies invading/liberating) Nazi-occupied Europe until June in 1944. Even if the Russians are somehow disregarded as not being part of the ‘Allies’, that still ignores the Allied campaign in Italy, ongoing since the summer of 1943, with Allied soldiers fighting hard against the Nazi armies in continental Europe almost a year before ‘D-Day’. And yet this myth that the Allies didn’t land in Europe until June 1944 just keeps on getting repeated and spread over and over and over again.

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        1. In beer history what makes a lot of these myths have especially long legs is that they’re often repeated in official material from various breweries.

          Shockingly enough, marketing hacks aren’t expert historians but people take them at face value since they’re official and often the only real push back comes from obscure blogs.

          For example old school IPA was generally aged for up to a year before being put on a boat which disproves a whole slew of IPA myths…

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          1. Here in the US of A, the Cincinnati Reds baseball club’s merry band of marketers routinely claim that the organization dates to the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. This is unambiguously false, as is easily confirmed through standard references easily available online. I don’t know if they are indifferent to the truth or merely lying, but I also don’t much care. If recent political history has taught us anything, it is that “stupid or evil” doesn’t matter.

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    2. Sturgeon’s Law, but history books rather than science fiction. “There are some good books out there but you have to look” applies almost everywhere.

      Take a moment to think how wonderful it is that we live in societies where too many sources is a problem. I’m sure Bret and other academics would be much happier if we had dozens of bad histories of eg the campaigns of Alexader to sort through.

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      1. A fantasy writer with a doctorate in Old Norse and Old English literature mildly suggested to a fellow writer reading all the Old English sources because there were few enough that it was reasonable for researching a story.

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      2. You make a fair point. What mostly strikes me is how the normal signifiers of quality don’t help. That awful book I mentioned carries these signifiers. In addition to the author’s pedigree and the publisher, it carries all the scholarly impedimenta one would expect. So on the one hand, the innocent reader would be entirely justified in taking the book at face value. On the other hand, the jaundiced eye of the editor should have noticed problems such as the author using a tourism bureau pamphlet as a primary source, not to document what the tourism bureau was claiming, but for those claims. This should have been a red flag, even for an editor unfamiliar with the subject. The book is crank BS, but giving every appearance of academic respectability.

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  17. I have had a bit of contact with brewing history as it intersects with baseball history. Several 19th century baseball club owners were brewers who knew a potential market when they saw one. I can see the similarities with who would be willing to really dive into the primary sources on a granular level: grad students working on their thesis, and amateur enthusiasts who may or may not be equipped to do anything useful with the information.

    In my earlier life I was into medieval historical recreation, with a particular interest in heraldry. This is an odd field in that there still exist professional heralds as an institutional vestige of the earlier age, but what they do only intersects lightly with historical heraldry. A professional herald might be interested in it, but that is essentially a side gig for him. And of course the vast majority of amateur heraldry enthusiasts are either hopeless romantics or crank royalists, with only a tiny portion able and interested in approaching the subject as a serious historical topic.

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  18. WRT Black’s three lenses, you might find Linstone’s 1984 book “Multiple Perspectives for Decision Making” interesting. He looks at problems (mostly business problems, but he includes political issues, and things like the Army’s decision to buy the M-16) from ‘Personal’, ‘Organizational’, and ‘Technical’ perspectives. I’ve found him very useful when teaching systems development to MIS majors.

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  19. Even regular campaign histories can be interesting studies in managing subordinates, making decisions in uncertain conditions (fog of war) and concerns for the moral and training of the common soldier.

    Truman’s made the comment “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” showing he is uninformed about Eisenhower’s relationship with talented but headstrong officers like Patton, let alone subordinates of other nationalities like Montgomery who have alternate chains of command and can’t simply be relieved of duty even if he felt like it.

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  20. Talking military history, what’s the professional opinion on Hans Delbrück? Did his work on ancient warfare age well or not?

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  21. Wait, I thought military history was just a bunch of guys going ‘Clausewitz was right, but only I understand him correctly’?

    (Sorry)

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  22. “and the notion that warfare is formative”

    I will note that, in social context, this statement is not necessarily wrong. Warfare may have been one of the major factors (along with need to organize food production and storage when society shifted from hunter-gatherer to farmer lifestyle) which led to advances in social organization resulting in the appearance of the state. And this process is far from finished: it were world wars which led to appearance of formal supranational institutions. So it is not just that war shapes an already existing social structure, but that it can help create social structure which did not exist previously.

    I am planning to write on the topic in the future, but I would be interested in your thoughts on the topic as well; even if you don’t want to write an entire blog post.

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