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On Military History

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Dr. Erik Loomis

I must dissent from Brother Loomis on several points. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a political scientist who studies military organizations, which often places me in the company (methodologically, epistemologically, and physically) with professional military historians. Thus, I am generally familiar with professional, academic treatments of military organizations, ideas, and campaigns, especially in the fields of airpower and seapower.

First, points of agreement (with necessary caveats):

1. Erik has an aesthetic distaste for military history. I’ll grant this as a statement of fact about Erik, and as a generally defensible position to hold as a human being. Not everyone finds details of the clash of the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps against the 3rd SS Panzer on the seventh day of the Battle of Kursk all that exciting; my eyes tend to glaze over at some of the more detailed treatments of particular battles, even as I recognize the intense archival, interview, and even archaeological work necessary to establish and contest factual claims about such battles. It’s entirely fine not to care about that, although I do suspect that Erik would get mildly irritable if someone said “I don’t like labor history because stories of workers getting crushed make me feel bored and sad.”

2. The academic study of military history has periodically been kind of a mess. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think I’d settle on two main causes. The first is that, unlike in most other fields (except perhaps biography) there are exceptional rewards to producing popular work that does not usefully engage with relevant academic debates, or employ rigorous methods of inquiry and analysis. This is especially true of particularly “popular” conflicts such as the American Civil War or World War I; it can be very hard to sort out the useful product from the dreck, especially as writers have little incentive to produce the latter over the former. The second is that military history often finds itself tied up in arguments about popular nationalist narratives that academic historian often find a) distasteful and b) dangerous. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that this all goes back to Vietnam era disdain for military conflict and military life, but it’s not completely wrong; the same dynamic occurred in political science, although it seems to have passed more quickly in polisci than in history.

3. Military history is not well-regarded among mainstream academic history departments. This is a big generalization, but while Erik’s views on the question are probably a touch stronger than the mean (that’s why we love him!) my own experience suggests that they aren’t terribly wide of the mark. That said, there are a number of institutions (often although not always associated with professional military education) where academic military history is well-respected, uses the most modern and rigorous methods of inquiry, and is subjected to productive critical analysis.

Now for the points of disagreement. First, I think Erik misunderstands the nature and direction of modern academic military history, and second, I think that he radically understates the contribution that academic military history can make to other historical fields.

Regarding the first, academic military history does not, by an large, focus on recapitulations of particular battles or campaigns. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that modern military history has taken an organizational turn, but only slight. This is to say that military history has become the study of how particular military organizations have developed, changed, and executed their primary objectives. A different way of saying this is that military history has largely become a story of the functioning of large bureaucratic organizations. Even histories of particular campaigns (for example, the air campaign over Korea) increasingly focus on bureaucratic questions; what ideas inspired how the organization explained itself, how did the organization conceive of war, what sort of societal footprint did the organization create, how did it attempt to marshal the resources necessary to conduct war, what kinds of arguments did people inside the organization have with each other and with outsiders, how did the organization react to actual military action, etc. All of these are subject to rigorous historical inquiry, and all of them have been so subjected by professional, academic military historians.

The second disagreement should be obvious in context of the first. Military organizations are, generally speaking, gigantic government bureaucracies. They draw resources from the nation, and in so doing often transform the relationship between state and society. Military organizations tend to produce intense, internally coherent identities that have a broad social impact, including on members, former members, and outsiders. Military organizations both reflect and structure broader social cleavages, including race, class, and gender. Military organizations play a remarkably important role in the creation and sustainment of national identity, for good and ill. In practical terms, military organizations enable or restrict certain kinds of public policy; the state can use military organizations for repression, for the development of cohesive national identities, for the pursuit of resources, or for the defense of territory and socio-political structure against adversaries. Long story short, telling a story without trying to understand the relevance of military organizations to social life is deeply problematic, whatever kind of history you’re working on.

I can hear an objection: None of the above is really “military history,” in the common understanding of the term. You don’t need to know anything about the order of battle at Shiloh to appreciate the broader impact of the expansion of the United States Army (and its corollary, the national security state) on American politics and society during the Civil War. To an extent, this is true; any academic account needs to “black box” certain phenomena in order to conduct a useful, coherent inquiry. Indeed,”the conduct of the Battle of Tannenberg has been dealt with extensively in other works, and will not be recapitulated in detail here” is an extremely common move in modern, academic military histories. But every inquiry also needs to appreciate that what happens in the black box is also the subject of potentially useful, legitimate historical inquiry. The Union won the Battle of Shiloh because reasons, and some of those reasons have to do with social cohesion, ethnicity, communications, and technology, all of which are of legitimate, if variable, interest to professional academic historians.

Let’s give an example. I’m currently pushing through Alexander Hill’s The Red Army and the Second World War, which is an extremely detailed account of the history of the Red Army from about 1921 on. It builds on (and revises) a lot of the secondary English language literature, while also integrating heavy Russian and German archival work and even some quantitative analysis. The book has substantially improved my own understanding of the development and functioning of the Red Army, in both peace and war. And here’s the thing about the Red Army; it was really, really important to the Soviet Union, and it’s really, really important to understanding the functioning of Soviet politics, economics, and society in just about every era of Soviet history. The combat experiences of the Imperial Russian Army, of the Red Army in the Civil War, of the Red Army in Finland, and finally of the Red Army in World War II are immensely consequential to Soviet state policy, and consequently to any useful account of Soviet history. The impact of the specific experiences of the Red Army and its antecedent helped structure ideological conflict (tension between the military and political elite), technology policy (Soviet technology investment was largely driven by the perception of specific aviation and mechanization needs), ethnicity policy (the politics of Russian relations with the periphery are extremely complex, and were often driven by perceptions of military effectiveness), social policy (creating a populace that could be effectively mobilized for war was a key Soviet goal, and one that was formulated in context of the Red Army’s understanding of what future conflict would look like, which was based on experience in the Civil War etc.); you get the idea.

All of these things should be pretty important to historians of the Soviet Union. Rigorous inquiry into the nature and conduct of the Red Army isn’t the only thing that historians should be doing, but it surely should be of interest to historians concentrating on other fields. And while the Red Army may be exceptional in its influence over broader Soviet society, the difference between it and, say, the US Air Force or the US Navy is one of degree, not kind.

And so… yeah. ¬†Brother Loomis should take military history more seriously, as should the rest of his field. ¬†There’s a lot of excellent work out there, and there are plentiful grounds for productive engagement between that work and practitioners of other fields.

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