The End of Military History?

David Bell wonders, “Why don’t we study military history?”

At Harvard this spring, for instance, only two of 85 history courses focus mainly on war. This is not surprising, because Harvard does not have a single specialist in military history among the 58 members of its history department. Neither does my own history department at Johns Hopkins; just two of our 61 spring courses are principally concerned with war. And so it goes across the country. The current issue of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the profession, includes reviews of no less than 194 new history books, only 15 of which, by my count, qualify as military history.

The subject does remain entrenched in some small corners of the university world–notably at the service academies and in publications like the Journal of Military History. At major research universities, a few specialists, such as Omer Bartov of Brown or Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State, have continued to do marvelous work integrating the study of armies and military operations 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. And so, even in the midst of the Iraq war–the fifth major U.S. deployment since 1990–professors are teaching undergraduates surprisingly little about this historical subject of rather obvious relevance. To take just one example, the problem of how societies have historically evaluated their adversaries’ intentions and capabilities remains understudied and rarely taught at a university level.

Bell’s proffered guesses as to why this phenomenon has taken place — pacificism, lack of military experience, and a sense that war is not only outmoded but less interesting than intra-societal conflict among the academic elite — strike me as plausible enough. Indeed, economists and political scientists often neglect to include military variables in their equations, too.

The dearth of military historians is more pronounced at the elite institutions than at state teaching universities, too. Most of the Land Grant colleges continue to have ROTC programs which require its cadets to take a military history course, so there’s incentive to have someone on staff who can teach that. The presence of ROTC and a generally less affluent student body also tends to generate more interest in military affairs, for both practical and cultural reasons.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    It’s a catch-22; for years, the image of military history was rah-rah, armchair-general bloviating.

    There are more serious practitioners now, but when the field’s image doesn’t improve, it doesn’t attact the serious types so much as the bloviators, who then continue to repulse others.

    I saw the article but for some reason, his proposed syllabus was behind the subscriber wall. I would never suggest that anyone potentially violate copyright & cut/paste that syllabus into a comment thread here, or an e-mail to me.

  2. tylerh says:

    Another effect:

    History Profs get tenure/accolades based on their research. As any researcher knows, it’s much easier to find novel and interesting results in unplowed ground. Thus, Military History’s long and deep tradition of scholarship works against in the moder n research university.

    This clearly isn’t whole story — Newton and Aristotle are still taught are still part of the standard curriculum — but given the radical shift in viewpoint as what constitutes the import stuff of history over the last 40 years, it can’t be discounted.

    Take cheer: this very same effect points to a major renaissance in Military History within the next 10-20 years.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Dead white guys—bad. Dead white guys with guns—worse.

  4. josil says:

    The unscientific component of universities (social “sciences” and humanities) has always coalesced around the latest intellectual fashions (e.g, deconstruction and its relatives). Among others, the history of Psychology or Management can be represented by a succession of fads. Unlike the sciences (where fashionable R&D will eventually succeed or fail based on experimentation), little in the world of the soft arts and sciences is dispositive.