This is something I've been thinking about recently since tomorrow is the Advanced Placement U.S. History test and I've been reviewing for the past two weeks with my students. And it has really stood out that, in order to do well, they don't need to know much military history at all. They should know what led up to a war and how it affected Americans on the homefront and what the impact of the war was on our country. As far as the fighting that went into the war, if they know Sarasota and Yorktown for the Revolution, New Orleans for the War of 1812, Antietam and Gettysburg for the Civil War, and the Tet Offensive for Vietnam, that is about all they'd really need to know about the actual fighting, although it would be helpful to know about the role of minorities in fighting.Betsy also cites comments on the topic from Judith Apter Klinghoffer, of the History News Network, as well as Jules Crittenden, of the Boston Herald. Crittenden's footnote bears repeating here:
This really pains me. I enjoy teaching the military history and teenagers are fascinated by it. I teach a whole yearlong course on the Revolution and the Civil War and the kids, both boys and girls, really are interested in the subject. We just spent a passionate two days of debate trying to compile a list of the ten best and ten worst generals of the Civil War and, boy, did these kids get into that debate. As David Bell says the study of war has long been the focus of human interest in history.Ask most Americans about important subjects in history, and it's a good bet that "war" will rank near the top of the list. Certainly, it holds a commanding position in the history marketed to the general public. Among the "hot books" currently listed on the website of the History Book Club, fully one-third--ranging from straightforward, popular titles like Battles of the Dark Ages to a new collection of essays by the esteemed Civil War historian James McPherson--fall into the category of military history. Viewers tuning in to the History Channel on a recent weekend could choose from at least seven hours of military history programming, including an hour devoted solely to cannons. Popular taste, in other words, bears out the judgment of Edmund Burke, who quipped--long before the horrors of modern mechanized warfare--that the annals of good deeds would "not afford matter enough to fill ten pages. ... War is the matter which fills all History."Yet our academies minimize military history and that has affected what is getting taught at the lower levels.Yet the discipline of history, as it exists in major U.S. universities, seems to have forgotten Burke's lesson. At Harvard this spring, for instance, only two of 85 history courses focus mainly on war. This is not surprising, because Harvard does not have a single specialist in military history among the 58 members of its history department. Neither does my own history department at Johns Hopkins; just two of our 61 spring courses are principally concerned with war. And so it goes across the country. The current issue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the profession, includes reviews of no less than 194 new history books, only 15 of which, by my count, qualify as military history.Instead the focus is increasingly on social history. For example, on last year's AP history exam, out of five essays, the big essay that all students had to answer was on women's history and, of the four remaining essays, three of them had a major component on social history: the roles of women, African Americans, or immigrants. Nothing at all on foreign policy. Social history is fine and an important component of our past. But I think it has taken up a disproportionate segment of our study of history. As I tell my students, whatever they study tonight before tomorrow's exam, they better be dang sure that they can write an essay on the role of women and blacks for every period in America's history.
The subject does remain entrenched in some small corners of the university world--notably at the service academies and in publications like the Journal of Military History. At major research universities, a few specialists, such as Omer Bartov of Brown or Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State, have continued to do marvelous work integrating the study of armies and military operations with such topics as the Holocaust or the "world crisis" of the seventeenth century.
Yet most historians pay scant attention to military history, particularly the part that concerns actual military operations. And so, even in the midst of the Iraq war--the fifth major U.S. deployment since 1990--professors are teaching undergraduates surprisingly little about this historical subject of rather obvious relevance.
Bell has his own hypothesis to explain this change from how we studied history previously in, for example, the 19th century when major historians focused on nations at war. In addition to the arguments that most academic historians today have little personal experience of war themselves and also tend towards pacifism, Bell has a further point.A more important reason, I would argue, can be found in the development of the modern social sciences. As sociologists like Hans Joas and Michael Mann have observed, the origins of these sciences lie in liberal, Enlightenment-era thinking that dismissed war as primitive, irrational, and alien to modern civilization. Canonical thinkers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant, believed fervently that, as human societies grew more rational, and as commerce bound nations closer together, war would disappear. "We have reached the age of commerce, which must necessarily replace the age of war," Constant wrote in 1813.Given that our nation is at war, and the long war against terrorists won't end anytime soon, there are lessons from past history of wars that would be enlightening for young people. One lesson they could learn is how no war ever was fought without setbacks and mistakes, sometimes massive mistakes. Changes in strategy are quite common. Replacement of generals as we searched for better results is common. And people would remember the importance of morale on the homefront and how that affects the ultimate success or failure of the fighting on the battlefront. People would have more context by which to evaluate the fighting that is going on today. Instead, many seem to judge this war against some ideal that has never existed in the world's history. Perhaps this idea that there is a perfect, ideal way to fight a war would disappear if people knew more about war's history.
Even Karl Marx did not fundamentally depart from these assumptions. He saw class conflict, not international conflict, as the motor of historical change, and he treated the latter as an artificial distraction. Nor did he ever exalt violence as cleansing and redemptive, the way some of his twentieth-century followers would do. In short, to most social scientists, conflict between societies simply has not been as worthy of theoretical interest as conflict within societies. True, one strain of nineteenth-century social scientists did take war more seriously, arguing that, without it, societies would weaken and wither. But they primarily lived in Germany, mostly grounded their thinking in starkly racialist views of human nature, and largely disappeared from the scene after World War I. There have been other significant exceptions--Carl Schmitt and Raymond Aron, to name just two--but the fact remains that the social sciences have mostly avoided giving war the attention it deserves.
An understanding of military history, as Betsy points out, is critical not only for those who will fight it but for the civilian population for whom they fight it and who are called on to support it. Every bit as critical as a knowledge of civic affairs and the institutions of government. Significantly more useful than excessive focus on the roles of minority groups, when that focus is presented as the overriding context of history, displacing and obscuring the larger events and context of events of importance to society as a whole.These are excellent remarks. I'm no expert on the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, but my dissertation's on the origins of World War II, and I've done a fair amount of scholarly reading on World War I and the Arab-Israeli Wars. I like Civil War history quite a bit as well, but I need some work in that area. I blogged earlier on the decline of military history -- citing one of Betsy's earlier posts on the topic -- noting how the trend is true in the discipline of political science as well.
Because, contrary to the nonsense that has been foisted on us since the 1960s, war is and will remain into the foreseeable future a sometimes necessary and moral endeavor, in a world that has not matured sufficiently to allow responsible, powerful nations to behave like flower children.