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."
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.
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.