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.



Filed under Teaching History

6 responses to “Does military history belong with diplomatic history?

  1. There was an interesting discussion generated on the topic of military history back in November on the Historical Society blog. If you aren’t familiar with that blog, here’s a link to the discussion I’m referencing.

    This blog is an interesting and diverse blog that is certainly worth checking out. Enjoy!

  2. I think it all comes from the simplified version of Clausewitz’s definition of war being an “extension of politics.” Then consider that the popular histories on the last hundred years worth of wars essentially conclude that World War I was unnecessary, World War II was a result of Versailles, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars were started after politics were not working. These conclusions are far too simplistic for my taste, but they are a strong case for closely tying war and diplomacy together.

  3. Michael Lynch

    Thanks for the link, Andrew. It’s an interesting site, and well worth some attention.

    Scott, I think you’re right. These approaches to war look at the subject from a standpoint of the reasons why nations engage in it, as opposed to the approach of a lot of current military history, which has more to do with its effects on individuals, classes, demographics groups, cultures, ideologies, and so on. In other words, it’s a distinction between war as an instrument of policy and war as a force that affects and is affected by the societies in which it take place.


  4. I am a graduate student with a focus on military history. I created a website to document my findings. You may find it interesting. I have a focus on American civil war.

  5. Michael Lynch

    Hi Rene,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ve got a link to Wig-Wags on the blogroll.


  6. kotev100

    Dear Friend!
    If you like a military history, you can see my blog “Contemporary Military Historian” with URL adress:
    Best wishes

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