Military history is not the most respected branch of historical inquiry in academic circles. In part this is because of (and despite) its popularity with the general public and its importance in educating professional military personnel. The root of the disrespect, however, mostly lies in its subject: war. There exists deep suspicion that to write about war is somehow to approve of it, even to glorify it – a suspicion not unfounded in the history of the writing of military history. But to recognize the importance of a subject in the study of the past does not mean approving of it, as any historian of the Holocaust will attest. Military history today is practiced by as broad a range of historians, in their political, ideological, and methodological interests, as any other branch of history, and both its topics and its methods lie (and should lie) solidly in the mainstream of historical study. This book is an introduction to this important field. Its favorable reception over the 11 years since the first edition appeared affirms both the appeal of military history and the breadth of practitioners in the field.1
In most places, by the time writing was invented, there were already kings and armies. It did not take long for kings to recognize the value of the new communication technology in publicizing and thus glorifying their exploits. Military victories proved especially useful for such publicity, as they demonstrated the ruler's capacity to protect his subjects, and to subject foreign populations with their riches to his rule (presumably to the benefit of the kingdom as a whole). Even more powerfully, the image of a war leader as presented in writing and pictures spoke directly of the very qualities most likely to enhance a ruler's reputation: strength, decisiveness, glory, even fearsomeness. A ruler with a good military publicist appeared favored by the gods.
Military history is therefore the oldest form of historical writing in many cultures. It has long since ceased to be the exclusive preserve of publicists for great leaders, although such types certainly still exist in abundance and the genre has produced some great literature, especially if one considers epics such as The Iliad as a form of military history. Indeed, it ceased to be the preserve of publicists in antiquity, when some of the finest minds in a number of classical civilizations turned to writing history, the history of wars in particular, partly in reaction to the tradition of heroic epics. Their more analytical approach to the study of history did not replace popular war tales, but coexisted with them. In both fictional and non-fictional forms, the appeal of writing about war remains. In many places today, military history continues to be one of the most popular sorts of history and of non-fiction generally. This popularity still extends beyond the written word, just as it did in the days of oral traditions of war tales such as The Iliad: the factual programming of The History Channel is dominated by military history.
Yet that very popularity means that there are many types of military history and a sometimes overwhelming volume of publications. The quality of this outpouring is inevitably uneven, and military history has not always enjoyed a high reputation in academic circles, for reasons we will explore further elsewhere in this book. The popularity of military history therefore complicates the problem of getting to know the field. Where does a student just embarking on their study of military history begin to understand this deep and complex tradition of historical writing? The intent of this book is to provide a beginner's roadmap: to introduce students to the history of military history, to its current forms, practitioners, audiences, and controversies, and to its key concepts and directions. In short, this book attempts to answer the question “What is Military History?”
We'll make an initial pass at this question from two angles. First, what is military history about? And second, who studies military history and why do they do so?
Military History: Definitions, Topics, Scope
We adopt a broad definition of military history. At the core of the field, of course, are histories of war – both particular wars and warfare (the conduct of military operations) more generally. But narratives of campaigns and battles, or even analyses of the patterns and principles of warfare illustrated by campaigns and battles, sometimes called the “art” or “science” of war, can be told in many ways. The historian can look at a war in terms of how it fits into the larger political aims of a country or leader, what strategies leaders adopted to achieve their larger aims, how and how well those strategies were executed, or what the results of the war were – that is, histories of particular wars and warfare are part of the larger topic of histories of war in all its complex manifestations and effects. The focus at any of these levels might be on the decisions made by leaders, the institutions that put those decisions into operation, the experience of individuals far from the decision-making process but close to the action generated by the decisions, or the world of ideas, beliefs, and ideologies, including religious beliefs and practices, that shaped the plans, decisions, and actions of individuals and groups.
Nor do such varied approaches to the narration and analysis of warfare exhaust the possibilities of military history. Some armies never fight wars, but as institutions they are important (or simply interesting) despite (or even because of) the fact that they didn't fight. Military institutions, in other words, are as much the province of military history as are military actions. This is particularly true since institutional history subsumes the history of military organization, unit structures, and allocations of equipment. Likewise, the varying roles of soldiers and warriors in different societies and the social impact of warfare – whether directly through the interaction of combatants with non-combatants or indirectly through taxation, conscription, and other effects associated with the intrusion into societies of states and organized violence – have become central to much military history. The basic constraints placed on warfare and those who wage it by deep factors such as environment, climate, geography, and patterns of economic production, as well as overall levels of economic productivity, have also entered the mainstream of military history, especially in terms of histories of military technology. Technology, science, and the impact of war on individuals intersect in the history of military medicine. And the very popularity of war tales in many cultures indicates just one of the ways in which warfare, military institutions, and military values (including warrior codes of behavior) interact with the cultural values and constructs of different societies, bringing cultural analyses of war and warriors into the debate. Furthermore, both social structures and cultural constructs, including gender roles, affect the ways armies are raised, how they fight, and how they interact with society more broadly. In other words, the relationship between war and military institutions on one hand and society and culture on the other is reciprocal.
As in any field of history, military historians face a choice between narrative exposition and thematic analysis when they present their answers to the many questions the past poses. That is, history tells a story about some aspect of the past. But simply recounting a series of events or retelling a story from a primary source barely qualifies as history: such writing is analogous to collecting ancient artifacts with no attempt to understand what they tell us about past times. A narrative without analysis, in other words, risks becoming antiquarianism, the display of disconnected pieces of the past for curiosity value. The job of the historian is to analyze his or her sources for what they say about bigger themes, not just display them. On the other hand, thematic analysis without a story about the past isn't history either. Historians must do both, balancing the sometimes conflicting demands of narrative and thematic analysis, of telling a story and highlighting the inner characteristics of the story. (We shall return to this topic in chapter 5
We therefore arrive at a broad definition of military history that encompasses not just the history of war and wars, but any historical study in which military personnel of all sorts, warfare (the way in which conflicts are actually fought on land, at sea, and in the air), military institutions, and their various intersections with politics, economics, society, nature, and culture form the focus or topic of the work. One obvious implication of such a broad definition is that many works of military history could also be classified variously as political, economic, institutional, intellectual, social, or cultural history. Indeed the best history, military and otherwise, necessarily crosses many of these abstract academic boundaries in order to present as rich and rounded a view of the past as possible. In practice, military history has benefited from methodological advances and insights derived from other subfields of history, as well as from separate but related academic fields such as anthropology, sociology, and literary criticism.
Historiography is the study of the history of historical writing; one of its basic principles is that while histories can be divided by their central intellectual or topical approaches, the historical categories used are not clear and compartmentalized, but overlap across fuzzy boundaries. The categories themselves are invented – there is nothing “natural” or essential about them – and so over time their definitions and boundaries are frequently contested and adjusted.
One reason history gets divided up into subfields is for convenience of historiographical analysis. Historical writing really does fall into recognizable groupings, even if the groupings can be rearranged if viewed from a different angle, just as any set of historical data can be divided up depending on the interests of the particular historian. But another reason is that many of the practitioners of historical writing since the mid-nineteenth century have become increasingly professionalized in specific ways that contribute to specialization and subdivision. Historians working within academic institutions – colleges, universities, and research institutes – are especially prone to specify their areas of specialization for a variety of reasons that include the utility of such divisions for historical research in an age of ever-increasing information, but are also influenced by academic politics, the interests of sources for funding research, and the workings of academic job markets.
The subfield of military history is complicated by such dynamics. The unpopularity of military history among many
academic historians that we noted at the beginning of this chapter has meant that self-identification as a “military historian” can be a liability for those seeking jobs or promotions. Thus, paradoxically, much interesting and even groundbreaking work on the history of war and military organizations has been done by historians who do not self-identify as military historians or who do not appear to be part of the field in terms of association memberships and publishing venues (see chapter 5
). This does not, of course, mean that what such historians write is not military history, any more than self-identified “military historians” must always write about military history topics. It just means that political perceptions and questions of identity are complicated among historians as much as among any other group of people!
The subfield of military history is further complicated by such dynamics because a significant amount of military history writing, owing to its attraction to popular audiences, has always come from outside of academic institutions. This brings us to the question of military history's practitioners and audiences.
Who Studies Military History and Why?
The audiences for military history have changed over time, with significant implications for who has written military history and why. The audiences for military history in today's modern world generally fall into three major types. First is the popular audience, those readers in the general population who are interested in military history as recreational reading. This has long been and continues to be a large and therefore economically significant group – a mass market, at least potentially – whose attractions draw writers not just from among academics and professional military personnel but also from professional authors and popularizers who happen to choose military topics for their marketability.
Second is the academic audience. We include in this category both professional academics whose specialty is military history and who read to keep up with developments in the field and in support of their own research and writing, and students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels whose reading of military history is (presumably) more focused and guided than that of the popular audience and is directly related to advancement of their academic careers. In this category, the audience and the practitioners, that is, those who write military history, are often the same people, though the most influential military history writing usually appeals to both a scholarly or academic audience and a popular audience. Success in “crossing over” from a purely academic audience to a mass popular audience can influence the academic careers of authors: John Keegan, one of the most successful academic historians to reach the mass market, eventually gave up his teaching post at Sandhurst Military Academy to write full time. Moreover, the “mass market” appeal of military history, even in the academic world, is evident in the robust enrollments often seen in courses that deal with the study of war and the military.
Keegan's academic position illustrates the overlap of the academic world with the third audience for military history: professional military personnel, for whom knowledge of military history is not simply an academic specialty of choice but, at least theoretically, a qualification for the demands of their job. In addition to academics, military specialists and authors from the ranks of government and in quasi-academic institutions (“think tanks” and the like) write for this audience. As a result, some of this professional military education (PME) literature is more technical and practice-oriented (though not necessarily less theoretically informed) than purely academic military history tends to be, as it is likely to have the most direct impact on the making of military policy and the implementation of military action by states and their armies. On the other hand, to bring this introductory discussion of practitioners and audiences full circle, a traditional sort of military history author has been the retired military officer who uses the credibility of both his military experience and his advertisable rank as entryways to the mass popular market. Although less common now than it was 60 years ago, the image of the “retired general” as author continues to inform the popular image of military history among both mass and academic audiences, with varying effects. Keegan, for example, felt it necessary to explain, in his Introduction to The Face of Battle, what he could bring to military history despite his lack of direct military experience.
The practical uses of military history for professional military personnel and the civilian governments that direct military activity today provide the clearest and most direct illustration of an important and general historiographical principle: that the questions historians ask about the past, in this case about past military actions, institutions, and so forth, are crucially shaped by their present concerns and perspectives. In other words, military history, like all history, is a dialogue between past and present. Because the present is constantly changing, views of the past change c...