The Second Oldest Historical Specialty?

Because my mind, like the Lord, “works in mysterious ways/ [its] wonders to perform,” I was watching the video for Sabaton’s “Steel Commanders,” and started 1) critiquing the band members in the tank*, and 2) thinking about military history. I started out as a military historian, and while I love environmental history and devour it whenever given the chance, military history remains a very strong interest and default.

I have been told, by someone from a different specialty, that military history is a dead end, and that there’s not really anything new there. Now, this was said in the early 2000s, by someone who was far more into social history than any other field. I bit my tongue, as one does in grad school. I was thinking back, to the very beginning, to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. Which is political, economic, social, and military history, with a dash of medical history as well. Is John Keegan’s The Face of Battle military or social history? What about other works? How can you isolate military history from the context of technology, politics, society, medicine, environment . . . . Unless all you are doing is “march, march, battle, battle, battle, list of dead, list of expended ordinance” you can’t.

Military history was cross-genre (to mix metaphors) long before interdisciplinary history became trendy. That is, when it’s done well. I have read “history of battle” accounts that managed to make the Battle of Leipzig boring. It can be done. It must have taken effort on the part of the historian.

Which came first, military or political history? If you can only study one field [the horror, the horror], which specialty would give a person a broad grasp of events, policy choices, and the “why” of the past? I think you could make a very strong case for military history. It and political history were the first two formal academic branches, once academics became a thing, and Von Ranke and his generation started chasing students into the archives to actually, you know, look at the documents and see what the records said. Obviously, governments and political figures left copious volumes of material, the Catholic Church likewise. So did armies and generals, at least most generals. A few were, let us say, reticent to the point of raising eyebrows.

Military history, when done well, includes so much more than just “people fought, here’s where, here’s how, here’s who won.” I think Keegan was the first to really pull/kick the field into some new directions, although Barbara Tuchmann’s The Guns of August might rival Keegan. The discipline is not a dead end, not any more, and it is a field that I think more people would do well to study. Especially those with political ambitions.

29 thoughts on “The Second Oldest Historical Specialty?

  1. From what I witnessed last millennium…

    Grad students and History professors *hate* military history.
    Partially because it tends to devour their pet theories. (And is not very friendly to the race/class/sex obsession fashionable in academia.)
    But mostly because a significant percentage of the people who are interested in taking a class on a War are already extremely knowledgeable about that specific War, and are not at all hesitant to call out the professor if they get something wrong.
    (My roommate at the time caused a grad student to have a meltdown in class. She was very interested in pushing a critical theory view of WWII. But thought the Enterprise was at the battle of Coral Sea, and had no idea what The Slot was.)

  2. I’ve studied military history for decades, because it’s the product of so many other influences, and shows what they can do when taken to their ultimate conclusion. For example, economic history shows us where economic policies in one nation or region led to conflict with another, and how military force resolved those conflicts, and how post-war developments influenced new economic policies, which… you get the idea.

    Also, military history is often far more related to real world developments than more theoretical branches. For example, there’s von Moltke’s famous dictum: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. One might as well say that no theoretical policy survives contact with real life. Real life, like the enemy, always has a say!

  3. Where’s the foot-note?! I want the critique of the guys in the tank! 😀

    That said– it makes sense that military history would, ahem, cover the most ground. It’s cultures at a breaking point rubbing up against each other, in a situation where they’ve got to bring their best– you’re going to get a look both at what they have, and at what their idea of “best” for this situation is. Prioritize cost over all? Appearance? Function balanced with cost? Ability to repair on site?

    American soldiers are different because of the philosophy moving them, in part, and that covers everything from the gear they get to their orders. I know that I heard folks get flat *pissed* at the stuff English generals pulled in, I think WWI, I don’t want to know what would happen if someone tried to do the Santa Anna zerg/throw more bodies at them effort without managing to *really* sell it to the guys.

    Even now you can get an earful about how the Canadian and English military guys are great, but they’re literally raiding museums for parts for normal machines. Yeah, Americans have raided museums for parts in recent memory– but that was because a stupid approval issue meant we ran out of vacuum tubes before the new standard was approved, it was far enough removed from stuff you need on the field that it’s a stupid paperwork thing, not a failure to supply basic needs thing.

    (It was a signal generator used to calibrate a tool that is used to fix a piece of gear that is used to do something or other in testing jet radar; all of that’s publicly available and a really bored person could go through the calibration instructions and figure out the model numbers, but heaven knows I don’t even remember which jet it was!)

    • Foxfier, re: “American soldiers are different because of the philosophy moving them, in part, and that covers everything from the gear they get to their orders.”

      Bruce Catton and … ?Stephen Ambrose? made the same point in different ways in their books about the American Civil War and the Normandy invasion respectively. In both cases the American Army being fielded was a “citizen army” of men who had been civilians a short time before – civilians from all walks of life with an equally wide variety of skills. In the Vicksburg campaign, U.S. Grant’s army built not only its own roads and bridges but even its own steamboats, while several of the devices used by the American Army to fight through the Normandy hedgerows were improvised on the spot by American soldiers. You can’t treat an army like that as robots. They just won’t accept it.

      • There’s also that those citizens were *American* citizens.

        I still get utterly bloggled at the…well, from the Europe perspective, Americans seem to think of themselves as too high of class, even while willing to do things that are incredibly low-class.

        Like that old joke about the Englishman asking a ranch hand where his master was, “the [blanker] ain’t been born.”

        • American Tank Commanders (officers) during WW2 knew enough about repairing cars to fix broken down tanks and unlike British Tank Commanders were willing to help their crews in fixing their tanks.

          • Our stuff was made with the idea that not only COULD we do that, we SHOULD do that.

            I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am as lured by the romantic value of the finely tuned machine whose mechanic knows each of his cars by heart and is more artist than technician….but I also know which one I want to drive when I have to GET places!

            • Chuckle Chuckle

              IIRC WW2 German Tanks were “wonderfully designed” but hard to fix.

              WW2 American Tanks weren’t so “wonderfully designed” but as you said easy to fix by their crews.

  4. Learning from history (military or otherwise) is always useful otherwise we may have to relearn what works and doesn’t work.

    Of course, it is interesting to realize that sometimes people learn the Wrong Lessons from history.

    The French learned one lesson from WW One and the Germans learned another lesson from WW One.

    Obviously, what the Germans learned enabled them to smash France. 😈

    • And even when someone learns the right lessons they are sometimes not properly applied.

      E.g. the French made some pretty good deductions about what a future war would look like when they built the Maginot Line. The problem was that the Line only ran from the Swiss border to the Belgian border.

      What the French appeared to have forgotten was that in the First World War the Germans had launched their primary assault on France through Belgium. They did the same in the Second World War – thus bypassing the Maginot Line entirely. When the Germans did get around to assaulting the Line they did it from its rear – and it was built with guns that only fired across the border. Thus it had to surrender without a single shot being fired.

      • Nod.

        I was also thinking that the Germans worked out how to increase mobility in warfare.

        I seem to remember that the Germans made more use of “portable” radios in communications between Army Units than the French.

      • The Maginot Line and Dyle River Plan should have countered Schlieffen Plan 2.0. No one (including OKH) expected resounding victory from Guderian’s plan to move light and medium armor through the Ardennes. Broke through weak lines near Sedan, then turned WNW to the Channel, fortunately not quite running out of fuel.

        Know your enemy, terrain, equipment, and own troops. I’m a semi-pro historian because I needed to learn much of this for reasons similar to Peter’s.

        • ISTR that the French also retained a lot of forces just behind the Maginot Line that could have been better used eleswhere.

      • They hadn’t forgotten.
        They just expected that the Germans wouldn’t be able to quickly move through the thick forest of the Ardennes in force with minimal supply lines.

        It was well into the war before the Brits made the general switch from their armor supporting their infantry to their infantry supporting their armor.
        To the extent that they did. (Which admittedly served them well on Sword, Gold, and Juno. But not nearly so well in many times and places.)
        The French never had a chance.

        Mechanized infantry supporting armor (with close air support on call) was a paradigm shift.

  5. I recall reading Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” but like most I’ve read about WWI on the Western Front it is so depressing. Her “The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War” and other books about the world situation leading up to the war, like Massie’s “Dreadnought,” are more my speed, even if I do get the urge to scream at the folks involved and say “Stop! Don’t do it! Bad idea!” Histories and stories of aerial and naval combat, or on other fronts, are less depressing. Books like Eddie Rickenbacker’s “Fighting the Flying Circus” (I still regret not buying the autographed copy I saw one year up at Dayton), several of Richard Hough’s works, Massie again, “The Zeppelin in Combat,” Arch Whitehouse’s “The Zeppelin Fighters” about combating the zeppelins, etc. Reading about the Eastern Front (until the October Revolution), or the Middle East and Africa, are also fine.

  6. Growing up, I used to read books about wars, war fighting, equipment… Later, I got into the AF, and spent 9 years in 33 holes in the ground (missileer, Titan II, and Minuteman Modernized), and never got north of mid-Missouri…until my final assignment in Minot, ND.

  7. There will always be more in Military History, so long as we don’t exterminate the other populations using a combination of nukes and infantry. Probably also even if we make an effort, and are anywhere near ‘successful’.

    There is definitely a lot more work that can be done in the humanities, in relation to military things. Anthropology, forex, could perhaps find out some very interesting things from trying to investigate defense R&D during the early Cold War, etc. (Okay, it is possible that I am a monomaniac, but my general soft ‘proofs’ for work to be done in the humanities may hold anyway.)

    In particular, there is a lot of context that is usually kind of assumed for STEM, that actually needs to be unpacked and reexamined, very seriously. Most of the STEM workers in question are specialists, and very focused on other things. Additionally, the scholars in the humanities mostly don’t have the right interests, and may not be equipped for dealing with the hot garbage that occupies so many fields.

    So, yeah. I have a very weak grounding in Military History, and it is still a strong interest that has significantly shaped me.

    We are almost ensured that the future will contain wars. That means that even those of us who do not have the interest and ability to contribute to the scholarship military history, will not be able to ignore the other problems that will need to be solved or addressed.

    War is not the exception, peace is the exception, and people can break the preconditions for peace. The line of thought in the humanities that incorrectly flipped that to ‘war is the exception, peace is the rule’, is exactly why there is a great deal of urgent need for this work in the humanities, and for addressing other issues significantly outside of the category of humanities scholarship.

      • Also don’t understand Japanese. Apparently I am making some terrible life choices at the moment.

        • It’s not really the original “Airwolf” unless it has the “scream” at the start, IMHO. (Types she who has a compilation of EP variations on the Airwolf theme that add up to over half an hour of music.)

          • I can understand that. There are so many covers in so many styles, and most are at least good.

    • Actually, no. For most of my life the (in English) history of the Russian front in WW2 has been written by the losers, or anyway by people using the losers as their main sources. This is one reason why the internet is full of “German superiority” nonsense.

    • History can also be written by “People on the Side Lines” and even the “Winners” are often unable to “wipe out” all information that goes against their “History”.

      Sorry, I’ve heard “Winners Always Write The History” used to support plenty of Nonsense.

  8. I’m a day late to this party, but I’d just like to observe that – whatever is going on in the Academy – we are currently living in a golden age of military history. Fifty years ago secondary sources in English were totally lacking for many conflicts (or if they existed you ended up using a second hand copy of something published decades earlier). Nowadays, conflicts that were so obscure that they did not even get a mention in the history books have detailed histories in print. Of course, for a lot of ancient conflicts this is often not possible as the sources are so lacking that there is little said.

    In addition, there are some great YouTube channels providing very high quality military history (though there is also much nonsense to be avoided and the “history” channels on cable TV appear to be mostly trash). I’ve recently been learning a great deal about the land war in Papua New Guinea from YouTube, and it is definitely more informative than the books I’ve read which ten to skip over this part of WW2.

    • One of the things about electronic access to records, and inexpensive printing, is that people who are interested in one small facet of military, or environmental, or local, or religious history can find what they want far more easily, and find more material, and translators if needed, without having to spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire archive researchers and the like. And we still have the wealthy eccentrics who write or fund books, a bit like Parkman, Bancroft, and other did back in the day.

      I’m going to be leaning a bit on YouTube for battlefield histories next semester. I’ve got a lot on DVD already, but some Eastern European and Medieval stuff . . . Hasn’t made it to the big-budget professor level yet.

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