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New Approaches to Teaching Military History in Civilian Academe

Mark Grimsley
The Ohio State University

Presented at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting,
San Francisco, California, April 18, 1997

Not for quotation or citation without the author’s permission

I teach military history at Ohio State University. We like to think of ourselves as having the best military history program in the country and—after a couple of beers—in the universe. Whatever members of the audience may think of that claim, it remains the case that we have four self-identified military historians on the faculty and are searching for a fifth; that we have twenty-six graduate students specializing in military history; and that we offer ten courses in military history. Moreover, it will surprise none of you to learn, we have no lack of undergraduates clamoring to take our classes. In short, military history is a big deal at Ohio State. Consequently, so is the subject of this session.

My situation at Ohio State is fairly unusual in that I am a product of its graduate program and have therefore been confronting the issues involved with teaching military history for a considerable period of time. Nevertheless, it was only in the final year of my graduate work that I really became exercised by a question that I imagine everyone grapples with from time to time. Reduced to essentials, it was this: What the hell am I doing? The question was only exacerbated when I joined the faculty and discovered that a number of my peers among the junior faculty seemed to be silently asking the same question, only in reverse: What the hell are you doing? Whatever military history might be, they seemed fairly sure that it must be pretty traditional, backward-looking, intellectually sterile, and irrelevant to their own scholarly concerns.

Although this suggested a third question—Why don’t you people go to hell?—I resisted asking it, partly because I expected to have to live with these junior colleagues for years to come, but mostly because I thought they were silently asking the right question. Just what do we military historians do, and why should other historians be interested in it? My approach to the teaching of military history revolves heavily around an effort to answer that question for my undergraduates and to train my graduate students to answer it for themselves. I’m far from alone in this. I think the dominant "new" approach in military history (to the extent that anything is new) is an effort to connect our concerns to those of other academic historians.

I scarcely have time this morning to explain all the ways by which this connection can be made. But I would like to focus on four key issues that strike me as central. The first is to encourage students to interrogate our field: why do we choose the boundaries we do, the definitions and conceptual frameworks? The second is to get them to think about war and military affairs in comparative perspective. The third is to consider not only how war and military affairs reflect the workings and values of society but also how they shape society. The fourth—which in some ways is an extension of the first three—is to revisit our traditional concern, the conduct of war, with new eyes conditioned by these other explorations to see in new ways.

Students typically begin with many unexamined assumptions about military history. Chief among them are an expectation that it mainly concerns battles, commanders, and weapons, and that it can be studied with little or no reference to political, social or cultural history. I well remember my very first day of teaching American military history. I suggested that one could not understand the wars between the English settlers and the Indians without understanding something about racism. One of my undergraduates was appalled, and walked with me all the way back to my office—a good quarter mile—urgently trying to convince me that racism was irrelevant to military history. I think he must have regarded a military history course as a refuge from political correctness and was terrified to see it rear its visage even there. Finally I turned to him and said that if racism is a problem in everyday life—which he readily conceded it was—surely it might come into play when people of different races were trying to kill each other. Today I would go further and suggest that warfare frequently not only reflects racism, but is sometimes an important element in the construction of racial modes of thought.

In any case, military affairs cannot be explored in isolation from the larger workings of society. Consequently, I have established a practice of dividing my share of the American military history course into four parts, each corresponding to the usual periodization of American history survey courses, and each introduced by a lecture that examines the main developments in American history during the period—say, for example, the Market Revolution—and the way in which military developments and institutions were involved in them. My students find this approach illuminating and so do I, because it forces me to make explicitly connections that are often made only implicitly or indirectly.

This approach willy nilly obliges students to see that military history concerns issues apart from battles, leaders, and weapons. It can also prompt them to wonder about the boundaries we place on our subject. Why, for example, is the Confederate army’s struggle against Union authority fit grist for the military historian’s mill, but the political violence of the Reconstruction era is not? My own feeling is that there is no good reason at all.

The second issue I want to raise concerns comparative history. A great deal of very good military history is done by scholars who were not trained as military historians and often do not consider themselves military historians. I will instance, among many possible examples, Charles Royster’s The Destructive War, Michael S. Sherry’s The Rise of American Air Power, and Gordon A. Craig’s The Politics of the Prussian Army. When non-military historians can produce work of this caliber, it prompts the question: Should we even train graduate students in military history, particularly since there are so few academic positions in the specialty? Should we not instead prepare them as political, social, or cultural historians and let them explore the military dimensions of these concerns on their own? The only good counter to this question is to observe that military history is a thematic field, and the strength of a thematic field is that it permits scholars to consider an important historical subject in comparative perspective.

Unfortunately, this is an area in which our field is in serious trouble. Most military historians are not historians of war so much as historians of specific wars. Get us away from our pet conflict and in many cases our level of knowledge plummets dramatically. Our plight is even more apparent when one looks as the poverty of books that employ an explicit, systematic comparative perspective. And it becomes downright scandalous when one considers how Eurocentric in focus most military history is. How much do any of us know about non-western military history? In my case, the answer is, Blessed little. And I suspect that many of you are in the same boat. To my knowledge, there is not a single military history textbook that examines the subject in world perspective. Instead we see such titles as Warfare in the Western World, Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society, and The Art of War in the Western World. Only a handful of us have given extended attention to the military experiences of Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Yet I would argue that those few people are doing the single most important body of work in our field today.

At Ohio State we are developing a new course, entitled "The History of War," which is intended as an introductory or "gateway" course to our other military history offerings. It is more an introduction to how to the main issues involved in war—what causes war? How do wars end? Can war be controlled?—than a chronological survey of war. Nevertheless, we are framing the course in global perspective and plan to examine nonwestern military systems and cultural attitudes toward war as well as those familiar to the western experience. I’m very much looking forward to it. My initial role in the course, and probably for years to come, will be no more than facilitator: I shall be learning as much as my students.

One of the hallmarks of the so-called "new military history"—now pushing forty years old, which as my undergraduates could tell you is positively ancient—is a belief that military institutions reflect their parent societies, that war is a mirror, and so forth. The point of this assertion was that military history was as valid a window into the human past as anything else. But I have long thought the "mirror" analogy was unfortunate, because it begged the question: Why study a reflection when you can study the thing itself? Fortunately for our field, a society’s quest to conduct war successfully does more than reflect the strengths and weaknesses of that society, it often plays an important role in shaping society. This is the third issue I’d like to raise—and one, incidentally, that resonates best with historians in other fields. One of my colleagues at Ohio State pointed out to me a couple of years ago that it had dawned on historians of the American colonial experience (like herself) that the English settlements on the Atlantic seaboard spent a great deal of time either conducting, preparing to conduct, or worrying about the prospect of war; and that this concern with war was an important engine that transformed the role played by the colonial assemblies. A number of historians have observed the same dynamic at work when war places a strain on pre-existing gender relationships, behaviors, and identities. Military developments have also played a significant role in the rise of the state and more recently in the rise of the welfare state. In quite a few countries, military intervention remains the usual conduit by which political power is transferred from one group to another.

These cross-connections between military and nonmilitary developments require joint exploration by both military and nonmilitary historians. At Ohio State we military historians are fortunate in having colleagues willing to engage with us and with our students. In the past, we’ve held informal colloquia in which we have asked them to discuss aspects of their own research interests that have a connection to military history, or to give guest lectures in military history courses. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve had a number of discussions with colleagues about the possibility of team-teaching a course or seminar on subjects ranging from war and gender, to comparative civil-military relations in revolutionary France and the United States, to the connections between war, revolution, and genocide. This new approach—cooperative teaching by military and nonmilitary historians—is an idea whose time is long overdue. At a minimum, military and diplomatic historians ought to follow David Trask’s suggestion to combine forces in a new "national security history."

By this time, I know some of you are asking yourselves if there is no place in this brave new world for the study of war proper—strategy, operations, tactics, the face of battle? Of course there is, and for two reasons. First, the academic community is only one of three principal audiences for military history. Second, although war may lack its own intrinsic logic, it certainly retains its own grammar, and somebody needs to understand it. Let me take each reason in turn. If the academic community is the first audience for military history, the other two are the strategic policy-making community and the general reader. Both are sources of jobs, funding, and at least the illusion of influence. They are not to be despised. Like many of you, at Ohio State we have made a practice of interacting with the policy-making community for years, and in a variety of ways. At the teaching level, this interaction occurs mainly through the graduate training of military officers who have been tapped for assignments as instructors at West Point or Colorado Springs. And although we expose them fully to our civilian-oriented curriculum, and are gratified to see how energetically most of them take to it, we don’t forget that these students are obliged to deal with more "traditional" concerns. One of the ways I have addressed this side of their education has been by having my officers accompany me on an annual staff ride to Antietam with West Point cadets, and by taking them on a special two-day staff ride to Gettysburg. The latter functions not only as a practicum in the logistical and pedagogical issues involved with conducting a staff ride, but also as an extended dialogue concerning the issues of command, operations, combat motivation, and so on.

These staff rides, coupled with my classroom experiences over the past five years, have led me to a greater understanding of the ways in which our subject matter is unique, and also to reevaluate one of my early assumptions about teaching military history. I used to believe that the one thing students could do effectively without my help was to study and analyze battles and campaigns. After all, it was often an absorption in battles and campaigns that got them interested in military history in the first place. But as time goes on, I grow increasingly convinced that this view is incorrect. The reason is not hard to find. Most battle books are actually pretty indifferent as campaign studies. Although largely command-oriented, they seldom have any explicit model of what command is or how it ought to function. They are often relentlessly detailed but just as often devoid of any systematic analysis concerning why this attack succeeded and that one failed, why this unit stood firm and that one ran away. And what analysis there is, is often a jumble. In my own area of concentration, the Civil War, efforts at analysis are often heavily conditioned by a commander’s reputation, so that virtually anything that Robert E. Lee does is considered competent and anything Ambrose Burnside does is considered incompetent, almost a priori.

I think therefore that one "new approach" might be to revisit, systematically, the classic concepts associated with battle history and explore them in new ways. Take command, for example. I know of no book on the subject that treats it satisfactorily. John Keegan’s The Mask of Command is mainly just about command style, and although gracefully written, like all his books, it has always struck me as simplistic. Martin van Creveld’s Command in War is principally about executive decision-making—the gathering of information, the selection of options based on that information, and the enforcement of decisions once made. Both style and decision-making are components of command but not, I would argue, the full picture. Indeed, neither touches upon what current Army doctrine regards as the single most important element of command, namely that commanders should function as teachers and coaches of their subordinates. I think that anyone who has ever known—or ever been—a military commander will recognize that command is a complex task. It is also, I would think, heavily conditioned by the values and expectations of the institution, the troops, and the larger society. As both Keegan and Van Creveld recognize, the attributes of effective command have varied according to time, place, and culture. A thorough study of command would therefore not only tell us much about military history and institutions, but would connect with nonmilitary history as well. It seems to me that properly handled, a course in Great Commanders would be as appropriate as other undergraduate courses that employ biography as a window into, say, British political history or American intellectual history. And if, as J.F.C. Fuller once wrote, "in generalship but a hair divides the great soldier from the great civilian," then it seems to me that such a course might also examine significant political and business leaders as well, to offer a comparative perspective. Military, political, and business leaders do different things, and I would argue that military command (as opposed to management) is a unique human activity, but surely military command styles and methods have been influenced by political and business leadership, and vice versa.

There is much more that one could say on this subject. But let me close with one quick confession: the longer I teach military history, and the more I think about the potentialities of the field, the more enthusiastic about it I become. I look forward to hearing what the audience will have to say when we panelists have done.

WarHistorian.org 2005 - Mark Grimsley