On military experience and military history

Someday, if all goes according to plan, I hope to finish another graduate degree and then spend some time studying, interpreting, and explaining how Americans made war during the Revolution.  The thing is, I’ve neither experienced combat nor served in the military.

It’s an issue that a very fine and reputable military historian, Professor Mark Grimsley, has taken up a few times on his blog.  Recently, for instance, he commented on accepting a visiting appointment at the Army War College:

Would the students — better than 75 percent of them combat veterans — really accept the idea of learning about war from a civilian professor of suburban physique, whose only military experience consisted of eight years in the Ohio National Guard?  Most students, I was pleased to discover, had no problem with this.

You can read some of Professor Grimsley’s earlier thoughts on the subject here.  Since I’ve lived my entire life in peaceful enjoyment of the liberty and prosperity that others have secured, I’m humbled by his dismissive remark about  serving “only” eight years in the Guard.  I admire those who’ve served in any capacity.  They have both my respect and my gratitude, and those who withold respect and gratitude from them make me genuinely angry.  For that reason, I fervently hope that  nobody will misunderstand what I’m about to say. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether a lack of military service is a handicap when it comes to doing military history, and whether having served is a significant advantage.  I’ve concluded that it probably makes relatively little difference one way or the other.

I don’t deny that there are certain universal characteristics of warfare that have held true in any time or place.  Some emotions and experiences may very well have been the same for a Greek hoplite as for a present-day American Marine or any other warrior.  Military service might give you some unique insight into these universals that would be difficult to get elsewhere.

But you can’t assume what these universals are, or what their limitations might be.  Maybe the sensation of being charged by a line of bayonets was the same as the sensation of being under machine gun fire.  Maybe the camaraderie around a backcountry campfire was the same as the camaraderie in a WWII foxhole.  But maybe not.  I don’t know, and without looking into it, neither does anybody else.  The soldier who endures service and combat “knows war” in the sense that he’s experienced an aspect of it for himself; he knows what it’s like to serve in whatever capacity in which he’s served, and he knows the conditions of whatever type of combat he’s encountered.  But a personal, experiential knowledge of one type of war is quite distinct from a knowledge of another type of service or combat.

Furthermore, understanding the environemt, the actvity, of “war” is only part of what should go into understanding past military conflicts.  You’re not just dealing with the distinctive atmosphere of battle or camp, but with an entirely different society that existed around the field and the armies.  The Continental soldier, the Rebel, and the Rough Rider came from different worlds, with their own assumptions and cultures.  The soldier of the past didn’t just do something different by engaging in battle.  He was something different, simply because he was born into his particular time and place.

If you’re looking for some profound insight into the past, I believe that solid historical research is still your best bet.  If you want to know what a given historical figure experienced and what he thought about it, then go to the archives and ask him.  You may indeed find that his experiences and reactions were comparable to those of his descendants.  But that’s a question to answer during your research, not a fact to assume at the outset of it.  It’s only by approaching past wars and soldiers on their own terms and without preconceived notions that we can get an accurate picture of this complex human activity that shows no signs of going away.

(Bunker Hill illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

8 Comments

Filed under American Revolution

8 responses to “On military experience and military history

  1. Very thoughtful and insightful post. And it is an interesting question to ponder. I would think that if military experience counts for anything it would be more applicable when studying more modern wars (say WWII to the present), as opposed the American Revolution or the Civil War. My father was a career Marine and my brother served 8 years in the Marine Corps Reserve, but I’ve never served. I don’t believe that makes me any less qualified to study or interpret military history. Interesting ideas to think about, though.

  2. mlynchhistory

    Thanks for your comment! I agree with you. Service in today’s military might be comparable to ground combat in various twentieth-century wars. In fact, Peter Kindsvatter has written an interesting book that analyzes the experiences of American troops across the twentieth century. I suspect many of his findings wouldn’t apply as easily to the Revolution or Civil War, although perhaps the combat experiences of soldiers in those two earlier wars might have had some things in common.

    –ML

  3. Martha Wiley

    As the mother of a 13-year-old boy who has become fascinated with military history in the past six months, I’ve given some thought to what you talk about in your post, but in reverse. Does such an interest in military history – of all periods, from ancient warfare throgh the Napoleonic Wars – indicate or precede an interest in actually serving in the military? I’m employed as a historian and several members of my family have also made their living by teaching and writing about history, but it’s always been social and political history rather than military, and I have to admit I just don’t get the interest in tactics and manuevers. It seems to me that an interest in studying war might lead to an interest in experiencing it first-hand in order to further understanding. Isn’t this why people re-enact battles?

  4. mlynchhistory

    That’s an interesting question. Personally, I suspect that an interest in military history is very rarely a factor in enlisting. Most people (me included) who take an interest in military history are quite happy to distinguish between their interest and the kind of sustained commitment it takes to put your life at the nation’s disposal. There’s a big difference between a willingness to spend several thousand dollars on reproduction gear and fire blanks every other weekend and a willingness to completely relenquish your civilian identity for a number of years.

    On the other hand, things do seem to operate in the reverse. Involvement in the military does seem to generate an interest in military history, at least in many cases. Active-duty officers are a pretty common sight at conferences, and many of them are involved in scholarship and research. I don’t know how much of this is practical and how much is due to some kind of professional ethos; I suspect both factors play a role.

    –ML

  5. In response to Martha’s post, I have two observations. First, I don’t think an interest in military history necessarily fosters a commitment to joining the military. Some of my favorite historical stories growing up in Pennsylvania were stories of the French and Indian War, Andrew Jackson, and the Civil War, but I never seriously considered going into the military, though my father was a career Marine. I’m sure its different for other folks, but that’s my story.

    Also, in terms of motivations for reenactors, I think they are as different as each individual reenactor. I think generally all reenactors have an interest in military history, but I don’t think that interest is why each one of them reenacts. I have found it to be a very personal hobby in some ways and each person does it for different reasons. While my interest in military history is one reason I do it, my main reason is because its part of the way I try to educate people of all ages and tell them about our country’s history.

  6. kotev100

    Dear Friend!
    If you like a military history, you can see my blog “Contemporary Military Historian” with URL adress: http://kotenikkote.wordpress.com/
    Best wishes
    Nick

  7. Pingback: A reader tells me what it was like back in the day and then lets me know what a jerk I am | Past in the Present

  8. Pingback: History in the first person plural | Past in the Present

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