Thursday, May 17, 2007
I have been vacillating between two candidates of late: Ron Paul and Fred Thompson. (Bill Richardson is also still on my radar screen, but he's out at the edge.) One could argue that neither is truly a Presidential candidate, since Ron Paul doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell, and FDT has not officially declared. Of course, even if Paul did have a chance at one point, he officially threw it out the window during Tuesday night's debate, by blaming 9/11 on US policy.


One can make (and Paul does make) a legitimate conservative anti-war position. Chuck Hagel makes the same case. One cannot --in any sane way-- blame 9/11 on America.

So FDT is my man, for now. Or, perhaps not. Tolle lege!!

Let me put on my "professional historian's hat" for a moment...

The idea that Military History has "disappeared" from the history curriculum in American academia is simply ludicrous.

FDT uses the work of Victor David Hansen as his support for this assertion. States Hansen:
The hundred years of talking about slavery was not as important as two [sic] days at Gettysburg. The success or failure of Normandy affected Hitler more in an hour than had years of pleading with him in the 1930s.
First of all, these two sentences are not saying the same thing. To speak of relative importance and affect is to speak of two completely different things. So Hansen's logic is dubious at best. (Unless, of course, he was trying to make two different points. I have not seen the context of the passage.)

Hansen's first sentence above is flat wrong. First of all, Dr. Hansen, Gettysburg lasted three days, not two. But I quibble. The three days of Gettysburg might not have happened were it not for the hundred years of talking about slavery. Had no one talked, had no one challenged slavery, who would have fought to defeat it? Furthermore, without the Constitution of the United States of America (written approximately four-score and seven years before Gettysburg) there could not have been a Battle of Gettysburg. Yessiree Bob, that hundred years of talking is/was every bit as important as those "two" days.

Hansen's second sentence may or may not be true (although I am inclined to believe that it is). Unfortunately, it is a statement made only with the benefit of hindsight. If we could know such things ahead of time, then we would know in advance who we could talk down and who we would have to fight. As such, his statement is useless.

Near the end of his commentary, FDT writes the following:
(1)If for no other reason than that we want to avoid war whenever we can, universities should at least offer the option of studying it. (2)We know that students would sign up for the classes, because books on the subject are always reliable sellers. (3)Television programmers have also responded to the sizable hunger for military history. [ed: the numerals in parentheses are mine]
Sentence (1) begs the question: have they stopped offering the option of studying it? The answer is no, they have not. What has happened in past years is that fewer and fewer schools are teaching Military History in a vacuum. What, after all, is the point of teaching about Gustavus Adolfus or Jan Sobieski if you don't teach what they were fighting for? Military History is now generally taught in the broader social context. Which is to say, the reasons for fighting are deemed just as important as the methods of fighting. In some cases, more important.

The people who need to learn strategy and tactics are the students at our military academies. Believe me, there are plenty of excellent historians at those institutions. There are also places for those interested in such things to meet, such as the Society for Military History, and H-War, the H-Net discussion group devoted to Military History.

Here is a sampling of some of my required reading during my Ph.D. coursework:

Niall Fergusson, The Pity of War: a revisionist account of WWI. The book was openly presented as an example of revisionism in the class. Standard texts were also recommended.

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800.

Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659: The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries' Wars.

Jan Glete, War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as Fiscal-military States, 1500-1660.

Ann Hughes, The Causes of the English Civil War.

I'm sure there were more.

Military History is taught in the broader context of national and international histories: the English Civil War is taught in general British history classes. Everyone learns about the Battle of Lepanto: it effectively ended Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean world. But these days, we also learn that the shift in Spanish focus from northern Europe to the eastern Mediterranean allowed for the Dutch revolt and the rise of Protestant Europe.

I picked a major American university at random and looked up their course offerings to give just a quick test to FDT's assertion that Military History has disappeared. The school was Kansas University, and list of recent course offerings is here (.doc file warning!). I count at least a dozen courses which explicitly deal with issues of war. There are at least another dozen which would have to address issues of war in some kind of ancillary way.

As for sentence (2), it also begs a question: are college students one and the same as the consumers who are buying books on Military History? One hardly thinks so. As a former bookstore manager, I can say unequivocally that patrons who buy books on Military History are predominantly older (40+) men. And when I say predominantly, I mean in excess of 90%.

The same holds true for (3) television programming. College kids are watching American Idol, not the Hitler History Channel. The median age of the History Channel's audience is 51 years.

FDT also asserts that:
our schools have stopped offering courses that would help us meet their [the terrorists' or terrorist sponsoring nations'] challenge.
Again, this is incorrect. He's just looking for it in the wrong place. Learning how to stop terrorism isn't done in the History Department. That's done in the Public Policy and Public Health Departments. My wife (an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UNC) is on a terrorism task force. If we're looking for strategy and tactics, that's done in the criminal justice department, or at specialized schools for such purposes (like the aforementioned military academies).

Sorry Fred, but this column was a swing-and-a-miss. The article which inspired your piece takes a slightly more measured approach. But even Bell made the same mistake when he said,
Historians of the twentieth century resisted these tendencies [ed: the tendencies of paying attention to things other than war] better than others (not surprisingly, given the cataclysmic impact of the world wars). So did historians of Civil War era America. But, in accounts of most other periods, war lost its formerly commanding position. [ed: emphasis mine]
Again, this is begging the question: should war have ever had a commanding position in history?

I for one (as a historian of science and theology) don't think so.

posted by Kepler at 08:06 |


At 5/21/2007 07:21:00 PM, Blogger Eric

Good article... thank you.

I was familiar with the argument of the Hanson party, but I hadn't heard any reasonable response to it. I tend to enjoy learning about historical battlefield tactics, but I can appreciate the idea that civilians (like me) find more practical value in history that deals with war in its broader social context.


At 5/22/2007 07:44:00 AM, Blogger Kepler

For the record, I like VD Hanson. A very good historian. So my criticism should not be taken too broadly.


At 5/22/2007 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Eric

Glad to hear it... I like him too.

Did you read his Soul of Battle? Any thoughts on his representation of General W.T. Sherman as both efficient and humane?


At 5/22/2007 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Kepler

I have not read that, unfortunately. That kind of reading is strictly extra-curricular for me until the dissertation is done.


At 5/30/2007 12:11:00 PM, Blogger CPA

I've read it; highly recommended. Actually I really liked his portrait of Epaminondas, a relative unknonwn, best.

BTW, he HATES Alexander the Great


At 5/30/2007 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Kepler


How does the History Department at Indiana fare in it's military history offerings? Has it disappeared?


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