Ask most Americans about important subjects in history, and it's agood bet that "war" will rank near the top of the list. Certainly,it holds a commanding position in the history marketed to thegeneral public. Among the "hot books" currently listed on thewebsite of the History Book Club, fully one- third--ranging fromstraightforward, popular titles like Battles of the Dark Ages to anew collection of essays by the esteemed Civil War historian JamesMcPherson--fall into the category of military history. Viewerstuning in to the History Channel on a recent weekend could choosefrom at least seven hours of military history programming,including an hour devoted solely to cannons. Popular taste, inother words, bears out the judgment of Edmund Burke, whoquipped--long before the horrors of modern mechanized warfare--thatthe annals of good deeds would "not afford matter enough to fillten pages. ... War is the matter which fills all History."
Yet the discipline of history, as it exists in major U.S.universities, seems to have forgotten Burke's lesson. At Harvardthis spring, for instance, only two of 85 history courses focusmainly on war. This is not surprising, because Harvard does nothave a single specialist in military history among the 58 membersof its history department. Neither does my own history departmentat Johns Hopkins; just two of our 61 spring courses are principallyconcerned with war. And so it goes across the country. The currentissue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal ofthe profession, includes reviews of no less than 194 new historybooks, only 15 of which, by my count, qualify as military history.
The subject does remain entrenched in some small corners of theuniversity world--notably at the service academies and inpublications like the Journal of Military History. At majorresearch universities, a few specialists, such as Omer Bartov ofBrown or Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State, have continued to domarvelous work integrating the study of armies and militaryoperations with such topics as the Holocaust or the "world crisis"of the seventeenth century.
Yet most historians pay scant attention to military history,particularly the part that concerns actual military operations. Andso, even in the midst of the Iraq war--the fifth major U.S.deployment since 1990--professors are teaching undergraduatessurprisingly little about this historical subject of rather obviousrelevance. To take just one example, the problem of how societieshave historically evaluated their adversaries' intentions andcapabilities remains understudied and rarely taught at a universitylevel.
How can we explain the academy's odd neglect? One frequentlymentioned reason is that few contemporary historians have anypersonal experience of the military. Today, a historian has to bein his mid-fifties (and male) ever to have faced the possibility ofthe draft, and most American historians come from the privilegedstrata of society that managed to avoid military service duringVietnam. But this answer doesn't really work. Historians routinelyteach and write about a great many subjects absent from their ownexperience: slavery, plague, feudalism, industrial labor, humansacrifice. Why should war be different?
Another frequently given reason is that historians tend heavilytoward pacifism, and this is probably true to some extent. For onething, repeated surveys have shown that historians' politicalbeliefs skew considerably to the left of the general electorate's.And, just this winter, the membership of the American HistoricalAssociation passed, by a three-to-one margin, a resolution urginghistorians "to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to aspeedy conclusion." But this explanation, too, is unsatisfactory,since historians routinely write and teach about many phenomenathey detest.
A more important reason, I would argue, can be found in thedevelopment of the modern social sciences. As sociologists likeHans Joas and Michael Mann have observed, the origins of thesesciences lie in liberal, Enlightenment-era thinking that dismissedwar as primitive, irrational, and alien to modern civilization.Canonical thinkers of the eighteenth and early nineteenthcenturies, such as Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant, believedfervently that, as human societies grew more rational, and ascommerce bound nations closer together, war would disappear. "Wehave reached the age of commerce, which must necessarily replacethe age of war," Constant wrote in 1813.
Even Karl Marx did not fundamentally depart from these assumptions.He saw class conflict, not international conflict, as the motor ofhistorical change, and he treated the latter as an artificialdistraction. Nor did he ever exalt violence as cleansing andredemptive, the way some of his twentieth-century followers woulddo. In short, to most social scientists, conflict between societiessimply has not been as worthy of theoretical interest as conflictwithin societies. True, one strain of nineteenth-century socialscientists did take war more seriously, arguing that, without it,societies would weaken and wither. But they primarily lived inGermany, mostly grounded their thinking in starkly racialist viewsof human nature, and largely disappeared from the scene after WorldWar I. There have been other significant exceptions--Carl Schmittand Raymond Aron, to name just two--but the fact remains that thesocial sciences have mostly avoided giving war the attention itdeserves.
Historians did not always fall into this pattern. In the nineteenthcentury, history was still predominantly a literary, narrative art,and the past offered no more dramatic or compelling subject thanmilitary conflict. Masters like Ranke, Macaulay, Michelet, andParkman all took military science seriously and put climacticbattles at the heart of their stories. In the twentieth century,however, history moved away from this tradition and toward thesocial sciences. The leaders of the influential "Annales school" ofhistory, which developed in France in the early twentieth century,explicitly downplayed "event history"-- by which they particularlymeant military history--in favor of "deeper" geological, social,and economic factors. The most important annaliste, FernandBraudel, held to this principle so strongly that he drafted much ofhis masterpiece, The Mediterranean, while in a World War II POWcamp in Germany! Historians of the twentieth century resisted thesetendencies better than others (not surprisingly, given thecataclysmic impact of the world wars). So did historians of CivilWar-era America. But, in accounts of most other periods, war lostits formerly commanding position.
In a narrow sense, neglect of military history is easy enough tojustify. Surely scholars should have the freedom to pursue thosesubjects they find most intellectually compelling, and I myself, asa paid-up member of the guild, would look askance at any outsideauthority trying to tell me what sorts of courses I should teach orwhat books I should write.
But then, in the real world, nonintellectual concerns constantlyimpinge upon what professors teach and write, while the question ofthe university's civic--as opposed to intellectual--obligations isnot easily put aside. During the cold war, the government andprivate institutions like the Ford Foundation provided impressivefunding for various sorts of "area studies," so as to increaseAmerican understanding of the regions in which we might findourselves confronting the Soviets. It was not a question of forcingexisting professors to teach or write on new subjects, but ofencouraging movement into the desired areas. The years afterSeptember 11 have seen a welcome surge in the number of facultypositions and courses devoted to Islam and the Middle East, withoutproducing any charges of a distorted intellectual agenda. Members ofwealthy ethnic groups routinely endow professorships to spurresearch and teaching on their own particular history.
It seems to me that, at the very least, the study of militaryhistory could use more encouragement of this sort. With the UnitedStates facing a long-term terrorist threat--not to mention numerousrogue regimes, and the likelihood of having to send our ArmedForces to end genocide or protect vital interests in locations yetto be determined--our nation is almost certain to remain in theshadow of war for a long time to come. Given this fact, surely abroader, more rigorous intellectual knowledge of war itself is amatter of some civic interest.
Of course, promoting such historical knowledge does not meansubsidizing more books on subjects like cavalry tactics at theBattle of Antietam--which the public itself already subsidizesquite nicely. Nor does it mean--despite the knee-jerk fears of someof my colleagues-- promoting politically conservative forms ofhistory, as if only conservatives are driven to the study of war.It simply means studying and teaching about war in ways thathistorians find intellectually persuasive and important. But italso means asking historians to do something that scholars all toooften shudder away from: putting some trust in the instincts of thegeneral public. On this subject, at least, those instincts arequite correct.
By David A. Bell; David A. Bell is the author of The First Total War:Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It.