Why Don't More Colleges Teach Military History?

Despite its enduring public appeal, and a country at war, the subject gets little respect on campus.

Photos and documents donated by John Milan Palik to the veterans oral history project at the Library of Congress .
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Five years into the war in Iraq, military history seems to be experiencing a golden age. Hollywood has been cranking out war movies. Publishers have been lining bookstore shelves with new battle tomes, which consumers are eagerly lapping up. Even the critics have been enjoying themselves. Two of the last five Pulitzer Prizes in history were awarded to books about the American military. Four of the five Oscar nominees for best documentary this year were about warfare. Business, for military historians, is good.

Except, strangely enough, in academia. On college campuses, historians who study military institutions and the practice of war are watching their classrooms overflow and their books climb bestseller lists—but many say they are still struggling, as they have been for years, to win the respect of their fellow scholars. John Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, first described this paradox in a 1997 essay called "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History." The field, he wrote, with its emphasis on predominantly male co mbatants and its decidedly nontheoretical subject matter, "has always been something of a pariah in U.S. universities." For years, military historians have been accused by their colleagues of being, by turns, right wing, morally suspect, or, as Lynn puts it, "just plain dumb." Scholars who study D-Day or the Battle of Thermopylae may sell books and fill lecture halls, but they don't have much success with hiring committees.

This state of affairs, needless to say, vexes military historians to no end. As the Iraq war plods along, shackled to frequent—and often misleading—comparisons to Vietnam and World War II, scholars with a deep understanding of war would seem to be in high demand. But, at many prestigious schools, they are not. "Military history today is in the same curious position it has been in for decades: extremely popular with the American public at large, and relatively marginalized within professional academic circles," writes Robert Citino, a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, in a recent issue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the historical profession. "While military history dominates the airwaves...its academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities."

The field that inspired the work of writers from Thucydides to Winston Churchill is, today, only a shell of its former self. The number of high-profile military history experts in the Ivy League can be counted on one hand. Of the more than 150 colleges and universities that offer a Ph.D. in history, only a dozen offer full-fledged military history programs. Most military historians are scattered across a collection of midwestern and southern schools, from Kansas State to Southern Mississippi. "Each of us is pretty much a one-man shop," says Carol Reardon, a professor of military history at Penn State University and the current president of the Society for Military History. The vast majority of colleges and universities do not have a trained military historian on staff.

This situation may get worse in the next few years. As the first baby boomer historians have begun to retire at schools like Michigan and Purdue, two traditional bastions of support for military history, they are not being replaced. More than a decade ago, the University of Wisconsin received $250,000 to endow a military history chair from none other than Stephen Ambrose, the author of Band of Brothers and one of the field's most popular figures. Ambrose donated another $250,000 before he died in 2002, but the school has yet to fill the position. Illinois's Lynn, who has taught military history for more than 30 years, recently announced his retirement, as well. "And when I leave," he writes in an upcoming article in the journal Academic Questions, "a sixty-five year tradition of teaching military history at my alma mater will almost certainly come to an end."