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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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."

This new approach does seem to be enjoying some early success. In the past year, several prominent leaders of the historical community have publicly acknowledged that military history has been overlooked, to the academy's detriment—including, most notably, the editor of the influential American Historical Review, the source of Lynn's ire. "There has definitely been a realization among historians, maybe tied to 9/11 or Iraq, that war is such an intrusive and large-scale phenomenon that we can't shield ourselves from it," says Robert Schneider, a professor of history at Indiana University, who has been editing the journal for the past three years. "War is something that affects all of society. I think we've neglected some of the traditional subjects for too long."

These concessions are music to many military historians' ears, who hope they are the first steps back to broader academic acceptance. Hiring practices are notoriously hard to change, but here, too, there have been a few positive signs: This fall, Ohio State hired Col. Peter Mansoor, an aide to Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq, to fill a vacant military history teaching position. A group of historians have discussed trying to create more room for themselves on campuses by raising funds from wealthy donors to start endowing more military history chairs around the country. (At $3 million or so per position, a tall order.) Lynn himself will be taking a place at Northwestern next year, where he's been welcomed with open arms after announcing his retirement from Illinois. "I hope we've turned a corner," he says, but he's not sure the fate of military history has been settled.

The stakes, with the war in Iraq dragging on, have certainly never been higher, but most historians are equally cautious about the future of their field. "Someone's going to be writing books about war—there's a huge demand for it," says Citino of Eastern Michigan University. "I personally would rather it be written by a scholar, instead of a re-enactor or your friendly neighborhood war buff." That decision, ultimately, will be left to the academy to decide.