Military History as a field, and some random military affairs notes

Posted: February 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Ok, I really shouldn’t be doing this now…I am in the grad lounge, where I have been for…well…a considerable length of time…surrounded by just about every conceivable type of crusades study, trying to get this article “done” before the end of the week.  I might just succeed, I don’t know (and there’s another one waiting for me right behind this one).  BUT, the poor blog has been in poor shape since the AHA, and there’s so much good stuff out there to talk about, that I’ve decided to bite the bullet and do a post.  There it is.

Back in November 2010, Mark Grimsley noted in “Hand Wringing for Military History” that every now and then there comes along an article which decries the supposed “decline” of military history, and usually ties it to some nefarious agenda of one sort or another.  Whatever…there’s plenty of evidence that military history is alive and well, and that it exists in many forms.  In other words, it is not restricted to the “drums and trumpets” style of many older studies (to which I confess myself somewhat partial on rainy days).  The post is well worth reading, as are the comments afterward. Dr. Grimsley does a great job of pointing to legitimate issues with the popularity and especially the integration of military history with other fields, and expresses a sentiment that I’ve already felt on more than one occasion in my nascent career: ” To be a good academic, I’m expected to be conversant with other fields.  But historians in other fields feel no need to become conversant with mine.”    Last Friday, Dr. Grimsley published a follow-up post on the topic, giving an email he received in response to the earlier story.  Upshot: complaining about the “lack” of military history in high schools is not only a) wrong-headed, but b) rather misconceived as a concern in the first place.

If you want to read a truly excellent overview of the current state of military history as a field, and how it basically works professionally, you can’t do better than Robert Citino’s outstanding survey “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” from The American Historical Review, vol 112, no 4 (October 2007).  Being four years old so far doesn’t change the cogent good sense of Dr. Citino’s analysis.

On a related note, I just got a link from H-German to a new review of Samuel W. Mitcham’s Defenders of Fortress Europe: The Untold Story of the German Officers during the Allied Invasion.  Very interesting read, and it highlights some of the issues and nuances discussed by Grimsley and Citino.  I have a couple of Mitcham’s books–his study of Gazala and Tobruk is a perennial favorite of mine, mostly because it’s a very nifty summary, and my dad really enjoys his older study of the Sicilian campaign, which benefited, as does this current volume, from Mitcham’s connection with the Stauffenberg family.  But in general Mitcham, I believe, occupies the tenuous middle ground between being a historian who has something to say, and a popular author who for various reasons (some good, some bad) can’t take the time to do an in-depth study based on extensive original research (FM Lord Carver’s Dilemmas of the Desert War is an example such a study, imho).  This current book has some new research, but as Bradley Nichols points out it seems grounded in a popular conception of the Nazi War Machine (Army–decent chaps; SS–vicious incompetents) which has been utterly demolished by social and cultural historians in the last 20+ years (going all the way back to Manfred Messerschmidt’s old study in…oh, when was it…’79?).  In other words, for all its value, this latest study seems to be precisely that kind of imprecise, overly simplistic, popular work that still makes some academics turn their noses up at military history to begin with.

I’ve always been of the opinion (courtesy of C. V. Wedgwood) that one can write good, popular, and accessible history without either “dumbing down” your prose, or condescending to your audience–the French historian Marc Bloch is one example of such a historian.  It can, and should be done.  Or at least constantly sought.  Oh well…On the other hand, if we all wrote the same kind of history, life would be pretty, pretty boring, don’t you think?

Back to work…


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