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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All of which raises the question: Why, especially in a time of war, aren't military historians getting more respect? This has been the subject of furious debate among scholars in journal articles, conferences, and heated blog discussions over the past year. And while some believe the profession is being purposefully purged by a generation of new-wave historians of gender, labor, and ethnic studies, whose antiwar views blind them to the virtues of military history, most insist that nothing so insidious is happening. "I don't think there's been a deliberate policy of killing these positions," says Wayne Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Instead, most of the historians interviewed by U.S. News believe the study of war, like several other, more traditional historical disciplines such as political and diplomatic history, has simply been de-emphasized as the field has expanded since the 1960s. Amid that decade's social upheaval, historians finally began examining the plight of the many groups overlooked by scholars in the past, from women and African-Americans to factory workers and gays. Military history, as a result, fell out of favor. "It wasn't just that people were antiwar and didn't want to read books about war anymore," says Citino, "History itself splintered into a number of different approaches. Suddenly, if you were a history department that had pretensions about being world class, you had to cover a lot more bases." While the number of specialties in history departments expanded, budgets did not. Some subjects got squeezed. When Lynn started working at Illinois in 1978, a cadre of World War II veterans worked together on military history. Today, the school employs more than 50 historians, but he is the only military specialist left.

Not surprisingly, this dearth of experience worries many military and nonmilitary historians. War may not always be the trendiest of subjects—especially in times of peace—but there's no doubt it is a field worth studying. As Trotsky put it, "You may not be interested in war. But war is interested in you." And yet, in an analysis Lynn conducted of the past 30 years' worth of articles published in the American Historical Review, he found that not a single article had appeared on the conduct of—to name a few—the Revolutionary War, World War II, or Vietnam. The AHR represents the cutting edge of scholarly research, serving as a measure for the rest of academe of what scholars should be working on. Lynn, for one, is appalled by this scholarly oversight. "The new wisdom," as he puts it, "decrees that the death of at least 60 million people, the Holocaust, and the reshaping of the world by warfare from 1937 to 1945 fall short of deserving a single article in nearly [three] decades because apparently more important matters had to be discussed."

Beyond war studies' inherent value, some historians point out that it is also one of the few humanities disciplines that actually train real-world practitioners. Most of the officers who teach history at West Point, for example, get their military history Ph.D.'s at civilian institutions. "It is up to us to teach people good history," says UNC's Lee, whether students are voters in an upcoming election or ROTC members who will be serving abroad in a few years. "This is something that history departments should offer as part of a liberal arts education. The better educated we are historically, the less likely we are as a country to make stupid mistakes."

Lynn's 1997 article served as a call to arms, of sorts, for many in the military history community, who are determined not to let their discipline continue to decline without a fight. In his essay, Lynn argued that the only way to get respect in academia was to play academia's game—to begin using some of the techniques developed by the social, ethnic, and cultural historians who now rule the academic roost, emphasizing the importance of linguistics, say, or memory. "We're not going to retilt academia," says Lee. Instead, military historians are trying to move the field away from its association with battles and generals—musing, say, about whether one of Napoleon's commanders should have gone left or right at Waterloo—and toward broader insights about the cultural and social significance of war.