Recently, the National Review published Sounding Taps, a dire jeremiad by John J. Miller about the state of military history in American universities. The article warns that military history is increasingly unfashionable, and except for a few bastions like the service academies and Ohio State, it's in danger of dying out as a subject. Miller blames liberal suspicion of all things martial for the decline in the number of new faculty hires specializing in the study of battles and strategy.
The refusal of many history departments to meet the enormous demand for military history is striking — the perverse result of an ossified tenure system, scholarly navel-gazing, and ideological hostility to all things military...
Mark Grimsley, my colleague at Cliopatria, issued this response in his capacity as an Ohio State military historian. In a nutshell, he doesn't think "Taps" is being sounded for military history; from his vantage point, it's time to play "Reveille." Military history is on the rebound, and the suggestion that it isn't is due more to conservative alarmism about the state of higher education than it is to the actual "facts on the ground". Grimsley writes:
Some in academia may view military history with jaundiced eye, just as some others may feel impatient with women's history or frustrated at the shortage of faculty positions to cover adequately the non-Western regions of the world. And it must also be acknowledged, candidly, that military historians have not always been good ambassadors for their field. But in our view the situation is nowhere near as bleak as John J. Miller’s article portrays -- not at OSU and not in this country.
In my survey courses, I do very little military history. In my Western Civ classes, there are a few battles so vital I describe them in detail: Salamis and the Somme, for example. But I always fall short of what some of my eager young men want. Every prof who teaches survey courses knows the type: the earnest lad who comes to office hours, filled with righteous anguish because I chose to talk more about the unique status of Spartan women than the heroics of their husbands and brothers at Thermopylae! I've noted that the most consistent complaints I get as a professor is the lack of military history in my survey courses. I emphasize religious, gender, and social history at the expense of battle tactics time and again, and given the time constraints, I make no apologies for it.
But I do regard military history as immensely valuable. I may be a pacifist progressive, but I think a basic understanding of how battles unfolded and how strategy works is vital for any professional historian. My dissertation, believe it or not, had a healthy dollop of military history within its 300 dreary pages. I wrote on the role of the English church in the Anglo-Scottish wars of the middle ages, and had to include detailed accounts of the battles of Falkirk and Neville's Cross, two engagements in which clerics played vital roles in English victories. If nothing else, it left me with a great sense that luck -- or divine providence -- played an especially important role in the outcome of many of these bloody encounters.
I will note that when I was hired to teach European History/Women's history, I was hired to replace a historian who was a military specialist. Jim Kingman, the man whose "spot I filled", was a gentle, kind, soft-spoken professor who taught the same survey courses I did -- but with infinitely more attention to battle tactics and far less attention to social and intellectual developments. He stayed on in the department for a few years after I was hired, and many times said to me, ruefully, "Hugo, what I do seems to be going out of fashion." He would agree with John J. Miller's assessment that military historians, at least in some places, are indeed being replaced by those whose interests are elsewhere.
I am glad to hear military history is thriving in some institutions. I am glad that women's history continues to thrive, and that "men's history" is emerging as a legitimate discipline. Those of us who teach survey courses to undergraduates need to draw from many different sub-fields of history, and at least a cursory knowledge of war is essential to do our jobs well. I'm grateful for the training I got in the field, but I am equally glad it is not my specialty. But I wouldn't mind hiring a colleague who knew a hauberk from a Howitzer.