The War on (Military) History: Half a Century In

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Over the weekend I saw a few people commenting on Max Hastings's latest over at Bloomberg, American Universities Declare War on Military History. I couldn't help but laugh at times the shock - SHOCK - some showed when reading it. My take is, "Where have you been?"

Yet in centers of learning across North America, the study of the past in general, and of wars in particular, is in spectacular eclipse. History now accounts for a smaller share of undergraduate degrees than at any time since 1950. Whereas in 1970, 6% of American male and 5% of female students were history majors, the respective percentages are now less than 2% and less than 1%, respectively.

Fredrik Logevall, a distinguished Harvard historian and author of seminal works on Vietnam, along with a new biography of  John F. Kennedy, remarked to me on the strangeness of this, given that the U.S. is overwhelmingly the most powerful, biggest-spending military nation on earth. “How this came to be and what it has meant for America and the world is surely of surpassing historical importance,” he said. “Yet it’s not at the forefront of research among academic historians in this country.”    

The war on the study of history – and especially military history – has been with us for as long as I have been alive. As with many things in American culture, the fault lies mostly with those complaining about it – and it can trace its pivot point to 1968.

The revulsion from war history may derive not so much from students’ unwillingness to explore the violent past, but from academics’ reluctance to teach, or even allow their universities to host, such courses. Some dub the subject “warnography,” and the aversion can extend to the study of international relations. Less than half of all history departments now employ a diplomatic historian, against 85% in 1975. As for war, as elderly scholars retire from posts in which they have studied it, many are not replaced: the roles are redefined.   

An eminent historian recently told me of a young man majoring in science at Harvard who wanted to take humanities on history, including the U.S. Civil War. He was offered only one course — which addressed the history of humans and their pets.

This is part of a larger story – one from academia that covers more than military history. The American left after 1968 accelerated their march through our institutions of higher learning, pulling like minded people behind them and letting time and unity of purpose do the rest.

The goal was and is to chance the nation they loathe as founded in to something they can control.

Have you seen the agenda from the last American Historical Association annual meeting? Heck, look up the last few years yourself. Show me anything even remotely in line with center-right to right ideological thinking. Next do center-left to left.

Cowed, those right of center became more and more isolated. Not only did they not support up and coming scholars for ideological reasons like those on the left, as they watched everything from the classics to military history get gutted, they refused to fight. The ideological left played by new rules and were allowed to. Like a Cuckoo hatchling, the first pushed out their competition. 

My introduction to this “new problem” was in the mid-1980s. As part of our required NROTC curriculum, we had a course in naval history. Naturally, I loved every second of it and had a great professor. Towards the end of the semester, I cornered him as I was looking to change majors. I asked him about the path to be like him – a PhD in history.

After asking me a few questions as to my interests and goals, he stopped me short; “Don’t do it. Don’t major in history and do not invest time in getting a PhD in it – especially if you plan on not making the Navy a career. Military history is not in demand, most universities are hostile, departments are shrinking, and what you want to study is not what you will be given the chance to research if you stay in the USA. Apply yourself elsewhere. Don’t make the mistake I did.”

Yes, that conversation stuck with me. As a LT, I started down that path again when another professor I talked to – one who even had tenure – again advised me against it.

Paul Kennedy of Yale, author of one of the best-selling history books of all time, “The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers,” is among many historians who deplore what is, or rather is not, going on. He observed to me that while some public universities, such as Ohio State and Kansas State, have strong program in the history of war, “It’s in the elite universities that the subject has gone.”

“Can you imagine Chicago, or Berkeley, or Princeton having War Studies departments?” he asked. “Military history is the most noxious of the ‘dead white male’ subjects, and there’s also a great falling away in the teaching of diplomatic, colonial and European political history.”

This is where it is less of an academic discussion and more of an existential one. Ignorance of history or the mal-education in history at our highest institutions of learning is a critical vulnerability. 

Where do we draw many of our government leaders? That’s right – the top universities. Ignorance of history always results in repeating mistakes of others, with tragic results. Mal-understanding of other nations relations to neighbors, why borders exist, how they’ve changed …. literal libraries full of keys to every challenge we are facing, and yet we allow the teaching of history to devolve in to some farcical discussion of what pronouns to use?

It is extraordinary that so many major U.S. universities renounce, for instance, study of the Indochina experience, which might assist a new generation not to do it again. Marine General Walt Boomer, a distinguished Vietnam vet, said to me five years ago, when I was researching that war: “It bothers me that we didn’t learn a lot. If we had, we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.”

Biddle has written: “The U.S. military does not send itself to war. Choices about war and peace are made by civilians — civilians who, increasingly, have no historical or analytical frameworks to guide them. They know little or nothing about the requirements of the Just War tradition … the logistical, geographical and physical demands of modern military operations.”

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is not a stupid man. But he might have made less of a mess of U.K. foreign policy had he accepted the advice of some people who understood both war and the Muslim world better than his ill-informed Downing Street clique. 

Post-modernismCritical theory. Aggressive bullying and cowardice. This is what we have in our university history departments. Did you follow the AHA link earlier?

Kennedy notes that war studies are highly popular with students, alumni and donors, “but the sticking point is with the faculty — where perhaps only a small group are openly hostile, but a larger group don’t think the area is important enough.”    

Harvard offers few history courses that principally address the great wars of modern times. Many faculties are prioritizing such subjects as culture, race and ethnicity

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Tami Davis Biddle, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, has written, “Unfortunately, many in the academic community assume that military history is simply about powerful men — mainly white men —fighting each other and/or oppressing vulnerable groups.” 

You may have noticed in many recent books that are either the byproduct of someone’s PhD studies or afterwards, that there is a section or two shoe-horned in that has to address race, gender or other socio-political themes that otherwise don’t seem to be in line with the story. I’ve reached out to authors asking them “why.” On two occasions, and this was shared on a condition of anonymity, they stated “had” to cover this as those who had power over the granting of their PhD or the publication of their book advised them, ahem, to address these issues. They were embarrassed, but they had no choice.

A few years ago, a history department in the Canadian Maritime provinces was offered a fully funded chair in naval history — and rejected it. Paul Kennedy told me recently that he is amazed by the lack of interest in naval affairs at U.S. universities, “since we are by far the greatest naval power in the world, and the global naval scene is heating up enormously.”

Many, indeed most, academic institutions across the continent are infected with an intellectual virus that causes them to reject study of subjects that seem to some faculty members distasteful. This represents a betrayal of the principles of curiosity, rigor and courage that must underpin all worthwhile scholarship.

 In Britain, by comparison, history continues to thrive. About the same number of students embark on first degrees in the subject as take law. Post-graduate studies are especially popular. Some 30 institutions offer War Studies programs. On the European continent, those at Stockholm and Leiden Universities are particularly respected. The problem — we might even call it the repugnance — appears an explicitly North American phenomenon. 

North America’s great universities should be ashamed of their pusillanimity. War is no more likely to quit our planet than are pandemics. The academics who spurn its study are playing ostriches. Their heads look no more elegant, buried in the sand.

What can be done about history as an area of study in North America? If you can’t beat your opponent’s methods, then copy them. If they won't play fair - why should we? If they don't like it - then perhaps they will come to the table to compromise. Maybe not - but the practice of surrender by the center-right needs to come to an end. 

People right of center – and intellectually honest people left of center (this really shouldn’t be a right/left divide) need to push back. 

Push back against post-modernism and critical theory. Push back on cancel culture. Get on board of regents/advisors/directors at your university. Be willing to be called names. Support fair minded individuals and isolate bad actors. Do not be bullied. Stand by truth in the face of ideology. 

I would hope that even well-meaning center-left to left academics would support this action. It might help them better understand the nation in which they live to be exposed to different views. It would be a joke if it were not so sad to see many of them react in stunned horror when they hear ideas everyone outside their bubble discuss on a regular basis. The real world is intellectually diverse; when 90% of your fellow academics vote one way and are in alignment with all the wokeish issues you can think of, you may be the problem – not the unwashed masses you rarely interact with.

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