Tag Archives: military history

Victor Davis Hanson: “Not all history is equal.”

I just ran across this interview with Victor Davis Hanson, who’s one of my favorite public intellectuals.  I had the honor of meeting him when he spoke at UT a few years ago.  Most of the interview deals with modern-day foreign policy, but check out Hanson’s remarks about the importance of military history.  Here are the highlights:

“Not all history is equal. If people are willing to wage their entire existence in a few brief seconds, those moments are more worthy of commemoration and study than others.…[W]hether we like it or not, strange things happen during wars that don’t transpire as often in peace time.”

When asked about Peace Studies departments’ attitudes about military history, Hanson takes the words right out of my mouth with an analogy that I’ve used myself:

“They think we feel that war brings out the best in people, that war is a ritual that’s necessary for society, or that war is a macabre interest like video games are for some people. It’s like assuming an oncologist must like cancer, because why else would he study cancer?”

Precisely.  In fact, the military historian should be less prone to glory in war than anyone but the soldier, since he knows what war is and what it can do.  Those who accuse military historians of glorying in war are badly in error.  You don’t study war because you like it; you study it because it’s important, instructive, and (by all indications) here to stay.

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Does military history belong with diplomatic history?

Scrolling through historical job postings is always an instructive experience.  I’ve noticed a lot of openings for “military/diplomatic” historians, and this combination of disciplines puzzles me.  Why would military and diplomatic history go together?

War had a personal effect on these two American veterans of WWI, pictured here at Walter Reed in 1918. From the Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps it’s a holdover from the days when strategies, campaigns, and defense policy made up the basic building blocks of military history.  War, in that sense, is basically a nation’s attempt to secure political ends—diplomacy through organized violence.

The fact is, though, that much of the academic military history being written these days has little to do with war as an instrument of national policy.  The “new (now decades-old) military history” often takes its cues from social and cultural history, not political science.  A freshly-minted Ph.D. in military history today is as likely to be conversant with scholarship on race and gender as international relations. 

Indeed, many of today’s military historians could be considered military/social or military/cultural historians.  Take, for instance, Joseph Glatthaar’s examination of the relationship between white officers and black soldiers in the Civil War, a military approach to studying the history of race relations.  Or take Leisa Meyer’s book on the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, which looks at military history through the lens of gender. 

When, though, was the last time you saw a job posting for a military/race historian, or a military/women’s studies historian?  The job descriptions haven’t caught up to what many scholars are actually out there doing.  I suspect the reason may be that academia is still not entirely comfortable with military history, because many academics don’t realize how vibrant, diverse, and inter-disciplinary the field has become.

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Things new and old

There’s an interesting new post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin distinguishes between two different types of Civil War unit histories.  The first deals mainly with the engagements in which the unit participated, while the second deals with the social/political/economic backgrounds of the men who fought, and how these factors influenced their service.

Levin’s discussion of the role of context in unit histories has a context of its own—the “new military history.”  It’s one of the most inappropriately-named disciplines out there, since this “new military history” has been around for several decades.  It’s also a field that’s difficult to define.  It’s easier to say what it’s not; it doesn’t deal with leaders, campaigns or battles.  Its focus is on the wider social context within which battles take place.  Levin’s second group of unit history is thus a fine example of the new military history.

Being the Rev War nut that I am, when I read Levin’s post I started thinking about how these issues relate to America’s armed struggle for independence. 

I’ve long maintained that the historiography of the Revolutionary War is quite distinct from that of the Civil War, partly because the latter is so much more extensive.  The scholarly literature on the war—the actual fighting, I mean, as opposed to the Revolution in its broader sense as a political, economic, social, and military event—is not nearly so extensive as many people would probably believe.

If Rev War scholarship isn’t that extensive, though, in the sense of the questions being asked it’s very vibrant.  Scholars of the struggle between Britain and America have actively engaged social and other contextual questions.  Take, for example, Charles Neimeyer’s America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, which contrasts the myth of the citizen soldier with the backgrounds of the men who filled the ranks.  Or take Wayne E. Lee’s excellent Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War, which explores the factors that both restrained and exacerbated armed violence during the Revolutionary era.  I might also mention a classic of the “new military history” which deals with an earlier conflict, Fred Anderson’s A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, which uses the techniques of the new social history to draw a portrait of eighteenth-century New England militiamen.

American Revolutionary soldiers, as depicted by a French officer. From Brown University via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, though, I’m having a hard time coming up with Rev War unit histories.  There are plenty of regional studies of the war in specific areas, and of course there is a classic book by Hugh Rankin on North Carolina troops in the war.  But monographs on particular regiments or other specific units of organization are harder to come by.  I think the reason is simply that the Rev War hasn’t been investigated as extensively as other wars. 

In fact, as I’ve said before, there is a dearth of “traditional,” meat-and-potatoes military historiography when it comes to the Rev War.  Major battles and campaigns haven’t been investigated thoroughly, and significant figures lack modern biographies.

The good news is that those modern historians who have tackled battles and campaigns have brought the insights of the new military history to bear on them.  Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard have incorporated quantitative methodology and a sensitivity to social history into their investigations of Cowpens and Guilford.  David Hackett Fischer’s book on Trenton and Princeton employs the insights of cultural history to distinguish between American, British, and Hessian conduct in the field.

The Rev War historiography that’s out there is of a high order, partly because scholars are using it to answer old questions about what happens in line of battle.  All the books mentioned above are stellar examples of the possibilities the new military history offers.  Today’s best Rev War scholars are like the householder described in the first gospel, “which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

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)

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Filed under American Revolution

Pivot of the Revolution

Several years ago I went to a small movie theater with a friend of mine for a repeat viewing of The Patriot.  After the movie ended, we ran into one of our former teachers outside, who was a serious history buff.  He told me that he’d enjoyed the movie, but he didn’t know the Revolutionary War was such a big deal in South Carolina.

A lot of people don’t know that, although I suspect the number is getting smaller, thanks to the aforementioned movie and a number of recent books and documentaries.  The war was, in fact, a very big deal in South Carolina; it’s quite possible that more combat actions took place in the Palmetto State than in any of the other twelve.  In fact, after 1778, the Revolution was basically a southern show.  Frustrated by inconclusive campaigning in the North, and faced with France’s entry into the conflict, the British “Southern Strategy” depended on recruiting and training Loyalist auxiliaries in the Carolinas and Georgia to make up for dwindling Redcoat numbers.  This strategy worked well for a while; British forces won a number of important engagements through the summer of 1780.  It wasn’t until early 1781 that reorganized American forces drove Cornwallis out of the Carolinas and toward his ultimate fate at Yorktown.  The South, and particularly the Carolinas, was the pivot on which the whole war turned.  One historian who understands that is John Ferling, who emphasizes the critical nature of the southern war in his outstanding military history of the Revolution, Almost a Miracle.   

So why is the war in the South so poorly remembered?  I think a number of factors are at work.  First, when it comes to the issue of military history and popular memory, size matters.  Many of the nasty little guerilla fights in the South were tiny in comparison to some of the big, set-piece battles around New York and Philadelphia.  King’s Mountain, for example, was critical in showing the folly of relying on Carolina Tory militia, but only about 1,000 men were engaged on each side. 

Second, I think that it’s difficult to associate the South with the Revolution because the Civil War dominates the region’s history and identity.  Since the South, the Confederacy, and the Civil War are synonymous for so many people, there isn’t room for another war in the popular imagination.

Third is name recognition.  Washington defined the Revolution.  It’s probably no accident that Yorktown is both the most famous southern locale of the Revolution and the only event in that theater in which Washington played a prominent role.  Few men did as much to win the war as Nathanael Greene, commander in the South during the critical months of 1781, but I’d be surprised if one in ten Americans could tell you who he was.

Finally, and probably most disturbingly, American amnesia about the Revolution in the South is symptomatic of amnesia about the Revolution as a whole.  There’s no getting around the fact that it remains an understudied war.  We lack modern, thorough biographies of many significant figures; histories cite the same outdated battle studies; important questions go unasked and unanswered.  John Adams famously said that the Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people, making the war almost an afterthought.  So far, it seems America has taken him at his word.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory