Is There Too Much Military History?

It is among the most commercial as well as maligned fields of history. Four distinguished scholars consider its value – and its future. 

‘Les Poilus’, by Louis Abel Truchet (born Versailles, France 1857-died Auxerre, France 1918). Smithsonian American Art Museum.

‘With all that has been written, there are still many questions worth addressing’

Beatrice Heuser, Professor of International Relations, University of Glasgow

Any visitor to a British airport bookshop will come away with the impression that business management and military history are the most important genres of factual literature around today, with biographies a close runner up. The two World Wars, the Napoleonic Wars and espionage top the lists, but individual works covering recent kinetic conflicts can also rank prominently. Much research has gone into most of these works and, annually, when my colleagues and I select just one winner for the Duke of Wellington Medal for the best military history written that year, we have considerable difficulties doing so.

Military historiography is a curious genre. It is a while since I read a work in this field that was anything other than compassionate about the sufferings of war among friends and foes, regretful that the war described took place and somehow moved by the urge to commemorate those who lost their lives or came away maimed, often for life. The gung-ho accounts of war that filled Boy’s Own magazines or were otherwise written in the spirit of ardent nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have largely died out, at least in the West. In my experience, much criticism of contemporary military history is unjustified: it is not warmongering, not bellicose, not fond of war in any way. It tends to be inspired by sorrow and the urge to draw lessons from past failures, lest they be repeated in the future.

With all that has been written on past wars, there are still many questions worth addressing. Each generation produces its own and discovers new areas of interest. None of them are a priori pointless or to be dismissed: the decision-making of political leaders or chief commanders continues to be as legitimate a subject as the experience of the grunt, the poilu, the common soldier; or the experience of the civilian and popular support for and opposition to war, its cultural context and effects. There is nothing to be said against completely different interests of historians – in the history of artisans, or of music, or of education, or whatever. But it is war that tends to blight the lives of more people than anything other than pestilence; it is the most fatal disease of human society and thus deserves our attention. 

 

‘We need more because military history is hard’

Jonathan Boff, Reader in the History of Warfare, University of Birmingham

We need more. Military history matters. Partly because we’re citizens and need to understand the wars fought in our name. But also because few areas of history attract more public interest and none generates so much guff. If we don’t understand the wars of the past, we have no chance of preventing fools and knaves from distorting our yesterday to serve their today. How often have we heard dodgy analogies with the Munich Crisis used to justify interventions abroad, for instance, or the myths of 1940 trotted out to support British isolationism? Without rigorous scholarship, sound evidence and considered argument, we have no answer.

We need more because we need more good history. History is not a zero-sum game, where one more good essay on religion and the American soldier means one fewer on medieval Baltic pottery. Historians are like musicians: they have different talents and they work in different styles. The more good stuff they produce, the richer our world. If history is done well, it doesn’t matter whether it’s about the economics of shipbuilding 1450-85, or Stalingrad. 

We need more because military history is hard. Few other areas require so diverse a skill set. Far from being merely ‘paintballing on paper’, the best now encompasses the whole human experience of war. Read Alexander Watson’s recent The Fortress, for example. He interweaves political, social, cultural and emotional history; indeed, approaches from every strand of our discipline. He has carried out comparative study in multiple languages, working from tricky sources in hard-to-reach archives. And all the while he maintains a grip on the brutal and depressing realities that war involves and that give the subject coherence.

And we need more and better career paths to bring through new voices and build a generation of military historians for tomorrow. What is true for history in general is especially true for military history: it is notoriously hard to win public funding for research; harder to get published in the most prestigious journals; and hardest of all to find jobs. Why? We could speculate. But this needs to change, or in ten years there will be no students learning, no original scholarship being published and no way back for the history of war.

 

‘The subject serves as a window into a wide range of histories’

Jessica Meyer, Associate Professor of Modern British History, University of Leeds

As a social and cultural historian of the First World War, my inevitable first response to this question is: ‘What do we mean by military history?’ The term tends to be used to mean the study of strategy and operations, battles and campaigns, units and their interactions on the field of battle. Taken more broadly, however, military history increasingly examines those engaged in military endeavour in time of war. Military history is thus concerned with war as periods of, in the words of Joan W. Scott, ‘disruption of all previously established relationships’. In this definition, the subject serves as a window into a wide range of histories, such as developments in medical technologies and practice, as in the work of Roger Cooter and Mark Harrison, or the experiences of historically marginalised communities, as explored by, for instance, Emma Vickers.

Browsing a high street bookshop (when we are again able to enjoy such luxuries), the section on military history can often feel entirely dominated by the narrower version of the genre. Do we really need yet another book on the Battle of Waterloo? Is there value in publishing the history of every regiment to serve in the First World War? Possibly not. But in order to understand the wider social history of war, to understand why soldiers kept fighting in the most awful circumstances or how care-giving practices developed in wartime, military history of this type remains a vital element. The success or failure of operations shaped men’s willingness to fight. Developments in military technologies and firepower, tactical considerations and the logistics of moving men and materiel were all relevant to the development and delivery of medical care.  

What we need, then, is not less military history, but a more diverse understanding of what military history is and what it can do. Integrating studies of logistics and planning, weaponry and firepower, manpower and motivation into the work of social and cultural historians of war will help all of us gain a better understanding of how periods of war shaped the world in which we live.

 

‘The subject matter remains directly relevant to the problems of today’s world’

Peter H. Wilson, Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford

Military history remains a highly controversial field and rightly so, since it involves humanity’s most contested activity. Even the term stirs debate. The title of the position I am privileged to hold was changed in 1946 from ‘military history’ to the ‘history of war’ in an attempt to elevate it from a technical subdiscipline and integrate it within more mainstream history, even though the Ministry of Defence was still involved in the appointment of each professor into the present century. The wider associations of the terms ‘military’ and ‘war’ are not the same in all languages. For instance, in German the situation is reversed with Kriegsgeschichte generally dismissed as an activity of the general staff, such as those of Prussia and Austria, which had large ‘historical sections’ in the 19th century. In its place, Militärgeschichte has emerged more recently through attempts to study armed forces as social and cultural entities.

Regardless of labels, military history remains regarded within academia and by sections of the public with suspicion as, at best, some kind of methodologically deficient antiquarian recording of battles and regiments or, worse, a form of soft militarism intended to foster support for defence spending and belligerent foreign policies. 

Such criticism is most pronounced in the US, but is fairly general and is fuelled by the enthusiasm of many of those on the political right for the subject, as well as by some militaries, who do not help matters through their often partisan and uncritical use of their own past for current ends. 

However, the subject matter remains directly relevant to the problems of today’s world, as well as attracting a broad interest among the public. Its commercial potential is demonstrated by the range of print and digital media, as well as films and computer games devoted to it and should not be ignored at a time when history’s viability as a subject in schools and universities is under threat. More fundamentally, it has been integral to the human past, which cannot be explained fully without understanding war’s causes, conduct and consequences.