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.
They point to several recent books as examples of the new direction military historians are moving in: Emily Rosenberg's A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory, which examines how the attack on Pearl Harbor is remembered—and how it has been used to justify, for example, the government's response to 9/11; John Lynn's Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe, which looks at the role women played in the armies of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries; and Kenneth Chase's Firearms: A Global History to 1700, which tackles the question of why Europeans, of all people, were the ones who perfected the technology of the firearm, when the Chinese invented it. "There is a perception [among academics] that military historians are working well-trod ground—that we know everything there is to know about the Allies during World War II," says Lee. That misconception is intensified by the sheer quantity of military history books lining bookstore shelves, most of which aren't written by academics and aren't worthy of comparison to scholarly work. "They can make us look primitive in our approach to history," says Lee. "The solution isn't to complain about it, but to try to generate military historians who do good and creative work and who can speak the same language their colleagues do."