Phi Beta Cons

Taps Dance

From a distinguished military historian, in response to my article

Dear Mr. Miller,
I read your “Sounding Taps for Military History” piece and congratulate you on bringing an interesting intellectual-academic problem to light. It think, however, that you miss or misrepresent some aspects of the perceived “demise” of military history in academic curricula. Without a tedious repetition of my credentials, let’s just say I’ve working in the field for forty years (Ph.D. 1966) and have held leadership positions in four national-international professional associations that dealt with military history.

First of all, there is an ebb and flow in every field, depending on faculty vacancies and hiring. It is true that some very good departments have abandoned the specialty: Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama, and Princeton. A Ph.D. program requires at least two specialists who can cover more than one war and one country. Some programs, thus, were not really programs, Purdue being a good example. Other military historians fit into national security studies programs or are really political scientists like Professor Bloomfield at MIT, but might be included in the ranks of the fallen.
However, there are healthy, flourishing graduate programs in military history at Yale, Rutgers, North Carolina–Duke, Ohio State, Penn State, Kansas State, Texas A&M, George Washington University, and Hawaii Pacific. There are other universities that can claim influence on the field through their graduates, even if not formerly having a graduate program: Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Indiana, Georgia, Florida State, Houston, Nebraska, Kansas, and other I’m sure I’ve missed. That a graduate history department doesn’t have a program doesn’t necessarily mean a student can’t “do” military history, depending on his/her advisors.
At the undergraduate level there are different considerations. Departments are smaller and hence field decisions can be contentious, competitive, and influenced by personal politics. The “taps” in this area is abetted by the armed forces officer programs’ diminished interest in the field, high in the 1970s and 1980s and shrinking since then.
The answer to collegial disdain is appealing teaching (e.g. a Vietnam War class), high enrollments, and scholarly publication. There will always be an inherent tension between bounded time-place historians (e.g. modern, post-1815 Europe) and topical historians of, say, war, religion, science, and women’s roles. Military historians need to teach wars and military institutions on a transnational comparative basis to be a “winner” in any department.
A third issue upon which you touch is the lack of teaching of the conduct of war at the operational level. Although I am on record for thirty years that military experience is not a requirement to teach and write military history, I would alter that stand to this degree: scholars without relevant military experience should be cautious and modest when writing about combat. Fewer and fewer academic military historians are veterans or active reservists, and the field is poorer for it. Some of the problem is sheer demographics; the active duty armed forces are one-third the size of the Vietnam military. Active duty officers, especially in the Army and Air Force, can become military historians, and stay in the services professional military education system. Of the current or recent historians to whom you spoke, to my knowledge only Professor Coffman and my esteemed friend and collaborator Williamson Murray are veterans. Both are over sixty. There will be no veterans amon! g the leading candidates to replace me as the Mason Professor at The Ohio State University. Only two of my eight former students on academic faculties are veterans, although all are accomplished historians. Service does make a difference. Just compare Sir John Keegan and Sir Max Hastings.
My last point is that academic military history should be taught as one of many ways to study the human condition and to understand the changes and continuities in the role of communal violence in human history. If it is only a substitute for real military experience, a series of war stories, national or technological celebrationism, pure escapism, or political indoctrination, military history should be buried at the university level. But don’t warm up your trumpet mouthpiece yet.
Allan R. Millett

Ambrose Professor of History

The University of New Orleans

Colonel, United States Marine Corps Reserve (Ret.)

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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