Why doesn't the study of military history have a prominent place in the professional development of military and civilian leaders in America today?

     The study of history, particularly military history has languished for three primary reasons:  the general disdain for military history in academic circles; the trend of viewing warfare through the panacea of technology where military history becomes an anachronism; and the difficulty in adequately and logically understanding and using military history as a civilian and military leader.  Although the concerted study and use of military history hit a nadir after Vietnam which continued through the 1990s, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a renewed understanding of the importance of military history, particularly among military officers and civilian policy makers.   Complementing this renewed interest is a broadening of military studies to include not only societal and cultural influences on waging war, but how wars affect people, and how technology, doctrine and training combine to change how wars are waged.  

            After the Vietnam War, many in the academic community viewed military history with a great deal of hostility.  The study of war was considered to somehow “glorify” conflict and killing and was not seen as a topic worthy of study.  Many historians, particularly military historians, attempted to argue that conflict has always been part of the human experience and to neglect the study of war would in fact not serve the public interest.  The rise of ethnic and gender studies caused many academic historians to consider not only military history, but also diplomatic and political history as anachronistic and chauvinistic. [1]

Compounding this issue is the fact that military history has been affected by the unfortunate watering down of history as an overall academic subject.  As Luvass points out in his article, not only is history being mashed into a political correct “social studies” mush, but many students are eschewing history for more “practical” subjects like engineering and finance.  [2]   

 John Lynn takes this observation a step further in essay, stating that the study of military history in an academic setting where future civilian leaders are educated is particularly under siege as universities replace retiring military history professors with practitioners of gender and ethnic studies.  Even when universities have endowed Chairs of military history, they have remained vacant as faculty leadership debates whether they should be filled.  [3]  

            The second trend has been the illusion in many military circles that warfare has changed so much due to nuclear weapons or the development of sophisticated technology that historians and great thinkers like Thucydides, Clausewitz, or Sun Tzu have nothing to offer.  Adding to this illusion is a bureaucracy more attuned to daily training and operations without a great deal of time set aside for officers to contemplate war outside of a command and staff college.  LTG Van Riper noted this trend in the late 1950s and early 1960s when not only the influence of nuclear weapons, but the introduction of systems analysis and operations research into the American officer corps diminished the use of military history in understanding warfare.   Dr. Williamson Murray offered additional insights by noting how military bureaucracies are often loath to critically examine failures and shortfalls in doctrine and tactics.  This is exactly what happened to the American military after Vietnam when the Army and Marine Corps suffered self-induced amnesia on waging counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, returning to the more familiar and straight-forward challenge of stopping a Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap.  When the American military again found itself conducting COIN operations 30 years later in Iraq and Afghanistan, bitter lessons had to be relearned as well as additional insights gained from other conflicts in recent memory.
The discussion of technology and warfare has been one of the most controversial aspects of military history, particularly in the overarching discussion among historians of the so called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) currently in vogue with many Western military and strategic analysts.  The desire to properly understand the integration of technology and warfare has often led to simplistic and often misleading analyses of how significant a role that technology plays on the battlefield.  The simple assumption that the side with the best weapons wins has been picked apart by many authors, most recently Max Boot, who thoroughly analyzes his self-styled model for four major periods of military technologies shifts, showing that technology itself has little influence on armies or warfare until a doctrinal and cultural epiphany occurs within the military bureaucracy to change the country’s entire mode of warfare to maximize the impact of the technology, rather than attempting to fit the technology into accepted methods of combat.  [4]

            Finally, the study of military history itself presents significant challenges to both civilians and military officers.  Through this chaotic era of the 1960s and 1970s, not only did military historiography change in response to political and military developments, it was also influenced by the forces changing the wider field of historicism and historiography.  The field of history began to change from the study of military battles and leaders to military institutions and the interaction between the military, political leaders and society as a whole.  Consequently, during this period after Vietnam, military historians not only looked at what happened on the battlefield, but why wars occurred, how they affected people and events beyond the battlefield and the influences of culture, ideology, economics and even technology on warfare.  This trend, although it had a positive effect of meeting Sir Michael Howard’s maxim of studying military history in depth, breadth and context, offered significant intellectual challenges to professional students of military history. [5]
     However, all is not lost and this trend appears to be slowly reversing itself.  Military history remains enormously popular among the public and two Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to military histories in 2003 and 2005, with several more volumes being nominated.  In his review essay examining recent trends in both academic and popular history, Dr. Robert Citino critically examines the state of the profession and posits that-“military historians today are doing enough good work, based on exciting and innovative approaches, to re-engage the attention of historians in any number of areas.”[6]

Clearly the fact that schools like American Military University have vibrant programs in military history and military studies show that the personal and professional interest in the subject is alive and well.  Anecdotally, the high percentage of active duty and government personnel taking these courses is proof that the need for a better historical understanding of warfare is certainly understood.  Does the study of military history occupy the place of prominence it should?  Maybe not, but the most significant long-term trend for the study and use of military history by military and civilian leaders may be the preeminence of “national security history.”  The study of warfare can no longer be confined to military matters alone, but will almost always be integrated with political, economic, societal and cultural viewpoints.  Although historians will continue to debate the level of influence of these factors on soldiers and strategy, the fact that warfare is too important to be left to the generals is no longer really in dispute.  Warfare in the 21st century will involve all spectrums of a nation’s power- military, political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural; therefore military history must adapt to remain relevant.

[1] Allan Millett, "American Military History: Clio and Mars as ‘Pards’," in Military History and the Military Profession, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992), 3-22 .
[2] Jay Luvaas, "Military History: Is It Still Practicable?," Parameters (U.S. Army War College), Summer 1995: 82-97.
[3] John Lynn, "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History," The Journal of Military History 61, no. 4 (Oct 1997): 777-789.
[4] Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History 1500 to Today (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2006), 212-240; Jeffrey Clarke, "On the Once and Future RMA," in Recent Themes in Military History: Historians in Conversation, ed. Donald Yerxa, 30-36 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
[5] Peter Paret, "The Annales School and the History of War," Journal of Military History 73, no. 4 (Oct 2009): 1289-1294;
 [6] Robert Citino, "Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction," The American Historical Review, Oct 2007, http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/112.4/citino.html (accessed Dec 2009).