Essays & Reviews

The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy (Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino)

Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas recently published a White Paper for the Society for Military History, “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.”

The white paper provides an account of military history’s revitalization over the past four decades and assess its current place in American higher education. According to the authors, in addition to the sub-field’s maturation in academic terms, its enduring popularity with the public and college students makes it an ideal lure for history departments concerned about course enrollments and the recruitment of majors and minors. Knowledge of the uses, abuses, and costs of war should also constitute a part of the education of future American leaders.  The Society “intends this white paper to generate a dialogue with history professors, college and university administrators, journalists, politicians, and citizens regarding the key role the study of military history can play in deepening our understanding of the world we inhabit and producing an informed citizenry.”

As examples of Notable Books of military history that also have an appeal to a broader audience, the authors  cite Fredrik Logevall’s, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, a recent (2013) winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize. It examined the way that disastrous decisions at the end of France’s war in Indo-China set the Americans up for their own failure in Vietnam. Just over a decade ago, Fred Anderson’s account of the Seven Years’ War, Crucible of War, is (according to the authors) deeply perceptive, sweeping in scope, and able to comprehend and convey the overarching trajectory and import of the story, including its most subtle and nuanced details. Several of the nominees for the inaugural Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History – including Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light, and Allen C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion – are works not only of extensive research but also of widely-recognized literary merit. The first book in Atkinson’s trilogy on the Second World War, An Army at Dawn, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2003.

As to the value of military history in the academy, the authors argued that it adds depth and insight to the college curricula:  “Scholarly military history puts big strategic decisions about war and peace into context; it draws linkages and contrasts between a nation’s socio-political culture and its military culture; it helps illuminate ways in which a polity’s public and national narrative is shaped over time. All this gives the field relevance, and, indeed, urgency, inside the classroom. Scholars in our field are well-positioned to draw linkages and build bridges among subfields in history, and to engage in interdisciplinary work.  Because warfare has dramatic consequences at every level of human existence, it must be a central element in the way that we understand our own narrative through the ages. To avoid the study of war is to undermine our opportunity to fully comprehend ourselves—and our evolution over time—in social, political, psychological, scientific, and technological realms.”

For instance, the authors point out, “it is difficult if not impossible to understand the geo-political fault-lines of the 21st century world if one does not understand the causes and outcomes of the First World War. Students will not understand Vladimir Putin’s contemporary Russian nationalism if they do not understand (at least) Western intervention in the Russian civil war, the history of the Second World War, the Cold War that followed it, and the expansion of NATO following the Soviet collapse in 1989.”

The Society publishes the Journal of Military History and a newsletter.