Sounding Taps

by John J. Miller

Why military history is being retired.

A decade ago, best-selling author Stephen Ambrose donated $250,000 to the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater, to endow a professorship in American military history. A few months later, he gave another $250,000. Until his death in 2002, he badgered friends and others to contribute additional funds. Today, more than $1 million sits in a special university account for the Ambrose-Heseltine Chair in American History, named after its main benefactor and the long-dead professor who trained him.

The chair remains vacant, however, and Wisconsin is not currently trying to fill it. “We won’t search for a candidate this school year,” says John Cooper, a history professor. “But we’re committed to doing it eventually.” The ostensible reason for the delay is that the university wants to raise even more money, so that it can attract a top-notch senior scholar. There may be another factor as well: Wisconsin doesn’t actually want a military historian on its faculty. It hasn’t had one since 1992, when Edward M. Coffman retired. “His survey course on U.S. military history used to overflow with students,” says Richard Zeitlin, one of Coffman’s former graduate teaching assistants. “It was one of the most popular courses on campus.” Since Coffman left, however, it has been taught only a couple of times, and never by a member of the permanent faculty.

One of these years, perhaps Wisconsin really will get around to hiring a professor for the Ambrose-Heseltine chair — but right now, for all intents and purposes, military history in Madison is dead. It’s dead at many other top colleges and universities as well. Where it isn’t dead and buried, it’s either dying or under siege. Although military history remains incredibly popular among students who fill lecture halls to learn about Saratoga and Iwo Jima and among readers who buy piles of books on Gettysburg and D-Day, on campus it’s making a last stand against the shock troops of political correctness. “Pretty soon, it may become virtually impossible to find military-history professors who study war with the aim of understanding why one side won and the other side lost,” says Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who taught at West Point for ten years. That’s bad news not only for those with direct ties to this academic sub-discipline, but also for Americans generally, who may find that their collective understanding of past military operations falls short of what the war-torn present demands.

The very first histories ever written were military histories. Herodotus described the Greek wars with Persia, and Thucydides chronicled the Peloponnesian War. “It will be enough for me,” wrote Thucydides nearly 25 centuries ago, “if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.” The Marine Corps certainly thinks Thucydides is useful: He appears on a recommended-reading list for officers. One of the most important lessons he teaches is that war is an aspect of human existence that can’t be wished away, no matter how hard the lotus-eaters try.

A DYING BREED

Although the keenest students of military history have often been soldiers, the subject isn’t only for them. “I don’t believe it is possible to treat military history as something entirely apart from the general national history,” said Theodore Roosevelt to the American Historical Association in 1912. For most students, that’s how military history was taught — as a key part of a larger narrative. After the Second World War, however, the field boomed as veterans streamed into higher education as both students and professors. A general increase in the size of faculties allowed for new approaches, and the onset of the Cold War kept everybody’s mind focused on the problem of armed conflict.

Then came the Vietnam War and the rise of the tenured radicals. The historians among them saw their field as the academic wing of a “social justice” movement, and they focused their attention on race, sex, and class. “They think you’re supposed to study the kind of social history you want to support, and so women’s history becomes advocacy for ‘women’s rights,’” says Mary Habeck, a military historian at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. “This makes them believe military historians are always advocates of militarism.” Other types of historians also came under attack — especially scholars of diplomatic, intellectual, and maritime history — but perhaps none have suffered so many casualties as the “drums and trumpets” crowd. “Military historians have been hunted into extinction by politically active faculty members who think military history is a subject for right-wing, imperialistic warmongers,” says Robert Bruce, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

At first glance, military history appears to have maintained beachheads on a lot of campuses. Out of 153 universities that award doctorates in history, 99 of them — almost 65 percent — have at least one professor who claims a research interest in war, according to S. Mike Pavelec, a military historian at Hawaii Pacific University. But this figure masks another problem: Social history has started to infiltrate military history, Trojan Horse–style. Rather than examining battles, leaders, and weapons, it looks at the impact of war upon culture. And so classes that are supposedly about the Second World War blow by the Blitzkrieg, the Bismarck, and the Bulge in order to celebrate the proto-feminism of Rosie the Riveter, condemn the national disgrace of Japanese-American internment, and ask that favorite faculty-lounge head-scratcher: Should the United States have dropped the bomb? “It’s becoming harder and harder to find experts in operational military history,” says Dennis Showalter of Colorado College. “All this social history is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.”

Consider the case of Steve Zdatny, a history professor at West Virginia University. On his webpage, he lists World War I as one of his “teaching fields.” But he’s no expert in trench warfare or aerial dogfights. Here’s how he describes his latest scholarship: “Having recently finished a history of the French hairdressing profession . . . I am now in the opening stages of research on a history of public and personal hygiene, which will examine evolving practices and sensibilities of cleanliness in twentieth-century France.” His body of work includes journal articles with titles such as “The Boyish Look and the Liberated Woman: The Politics and Aesthetics of Women’s Hairstyles.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But when fashion history begins to crowd out military history, or even masquerade as it, the priorities of colleges and universities are clearly out of whack. “The prevailing view is that war is bad and we shouldn’t study bad things,” says Williamson Murray, a former professor who is now at the Institute for Defense Analyses. “Thank goodness cancer specialists don’t have that attitude.” The problem is most severe at first-tier schools. Two years ago, Coffman, the retired Wisconsin professor, pored over the faculties of the 25 best history departments, as determined by U.S. News & World Report. Among more than a thousand full-time professors, only 21 listed war as a specialty. “We’re dying out,” he says.

To make matters worse, faculties are refusing privately financed lifelines. Years ago, William P. Harris, the heir to a lumber fortune, tried to establish a chair in military history at Dartmouth, his alma mater. He offered $1.5 million to endow it, but the school turned him down. “Liberals on the faculty objected to the word ‘military,’” says Harris, who recently pledged his money to Hillsdale College, which was happy to accept it.

Another reason for the shortage of scholars is that military historians have been shut out of The American Historical Review, the most prestigious academic journal for history professors. Last year, John A. Lynn of the University of Illinois surveyed the last 150 issues of the AHR, which comes out five times annually. During this 30-year period, he couldn’t find a single article that discussed the conduct of World War II. Other ignored wars included the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. There was a single article on the English Civil War, dealing with atrocities committed therein. Lynn located precisely two articles on the U.S. Civil War. One of these also dealt with atrocities. “I guess military atrocities are attractive to the editors,” he says. The only article on World War I focused on female soldiers in the Russian army. “I suspect the editors liked it because it was about women, not because it was about war.” The lead article in the most recent issue of the AHR is about wigs in 18th-century France.

Although military history is sometimes viewed as a haven for conservative academics, Lynn calls himself a liberal Democrat. Yet his politics haven’t swayed any of his left-wing colleagues to accept his field. “When I retire in a few years, I’m sure they won’t replace me with another military historian,” he says. “That will end a long tradition of teaching military history at Illinois.” Other schools already have abandoned military history. James McPherson, the most celebrated living historian of the Civil War, recently retired from Princeton; his prospective replacement, Stephanie McCurry, is an expert in gender relations. The University of Michigan retreated from the field when Gerald Linderman and John Shy retired in the 1990s. Purdue failed to replace the late Gunther Rothenberg. “We had a really strong graduate program, with maybe 18 students,” says Frederick Schneid, a former student of Rothenberg and now a military historian at North Carolina’s High Point University. “But the department didn’t bring in a new military historian and now it’s gone.”

TAKING COVER

Military history still clings to a few fortified positions. The service academies continue to teach it; cadets at West Point, for example, must take two semesters of military history during their senior year. ROTC students are also required to pass a course in military history, though the quality of these classes can vary dramatically. “We prefer a member of the regular faculty to teach them, and for these courses to include battle analysis,” says Army Lt. Col. Gregory Daddis, the ROTC battalion commander at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But not every campus has a faculty that can handle this.” When a school can’t satisfy this requirement — or doesn’t want to — the instruction is left to ROTC officers. Elsewhere, students may take “military history” courses that are more likely to concentrate on the quilting patterns of Confederate war widows than Stonewall Jackson’s flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville.

Several public universities — Kansas State, Ohio State, and Texas A&M — are highly regarded bastions of military history. A handful of strategic-studies programs, such as those at SAIS and Yale, also approach the subject with seriousness. But even these strongholds are besieged. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Security Studies Program recently introduced a new logo that features a compass. “It seemed there were complaints from others at MIT that the existing logo with its 18th-century cannons was too aggressive,” complained Harvey Sapolsky, the center’s retiring director, in a recent annual report. “And if the cannons offend, will not the work we do as well?”

Some military historians have found refuge in the military itself. The Army alone employs more than 200 civilian historians. They write official histories, teach at various war colleges and leadership schools, and research questions for active-duty personnel. “Just before the first Gulf War, we got a call from the Pentagon asking us to describe the historical experience of the Army in the desert,” says Cody Phillips of the Army’s Center of Military History. “So we prepared a report that focused on the North African campaign during the Second World War.”

Military historians who try for a more conventional career, however, often confront the academic equivalent of urban warfare, with snipers behind every window and ambushes around every corner. “You shouldn’t go into this field unless you really love the work,” warns Showalter. “And you have to be ready, like Booker T. Washington, to cast down your bucket where you are.” Many talented scholars wind up taking positions at second-rate institutions because they don’t have other options.

Even though they’re embattled, military historians have a not-so-secret weapon: the public’s love for their area of expertise. When history departments actually offer military-history courses, students flock to them. “My classes max out right away,” says Sam Houston’s Bruce. “I like to think it’s because I’m a good teacher, but this material simply sells itself.” A surefire way for a history department to boost its enrollment figures — and perhaps win funding that is tied to the number of bodies it packs into classrooms — is to offer a survey course on a big American war.

The hunger for military history is even more obvious off campus. The History Channel used to broadcast so many programs on World War II that it was nicknamed “The Hitler Channel.” It still airs a lot of shows on war, and now there’s a separate Military History Channel. Booksellers and publishers also recognize the popularity of military history. Most large bookstores have shelves and shelves of titles on generals, GIs, and the wars they fought. “I’m always looking for good books on military history because there’s such a large audience for them,” says Joyce Seltzer, an editor at Harvard University Press. The audience is highly informed, too. “If you get the tiniest detail wrong, you’re going to hear about it,” says Arthur Herman, the author of a book on the Royal Navy. “This feedback from readers improves the overall quality of the scholarship.”

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. Unfortunately, this failure is more consequential than merely neglecting to supply students with the electives they want. “Knowledge of military history is an essential prerequisite for an informed national debate about security and statecraft,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist at the Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas. Many voters, for instance, don’t know how to contextualize the nearly 23,000 U.S. military casualties in Iraq since 2003. That’s a pretty big number. But it’s also roughly the level of casualties suffered at Antietam in just one day, and a small fraction of the more than 200,000 casualties endured in Vietnam.

Critics of the war also have plenty to gain from a public that has a better understanding of older conflicts. “People might have realized that we have a poor track record of using the military to do nation-building in Third World countries,” says Desch. “The model isn’t Germany or Japan, but Nicaragua and the Philippines.” Finally, the population of Americans who have served in the military is shrinking, and with it their knowledge of what armies and navies do.

Anybody who has studied the history of war knows that it’s possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — it happened at Shiloh, when a Confederate attack nearly routed the Union army, only to have General Grant drive them off the field of battle the next day. Perhaps military historians can stage a similar comeback. In their efforts to do so, they will be wise to remember something that Grant didn’t know back in 1862: An awful lot of brutal fighting lies ahead.