Can "Military History" Explain Anything But Violence?
And why is "military history" in quotation marks?
First, just what is “military history?”
Note: for the sake of convenience, I pack naval history in with military history.
The most commonly described “military history” is battle narrative, that recreates the violence that many find distasteful. But battle narrative does not show how they got there. Beyond battle narrative, no two practitioners agree on just what “military history” entails. Yes; it includes military organizations and battles and leaders and all that. But does it extend to causes, or motivations, or weapons?
There is where the arguments start, and they don’t end.
Earlier, I talked about the changes in the history profession in the US that started in the' ‘70s. There were changes in all the disciplines at the same time. In “military history,” the shift added sociology and psychology, political science and race relations, partly as a reaction to Vietnam and partly because all the other subfields in the discipline were going in that direction. The “military history” field had to explain the American “failure” in Southeast Asia without being able to point to a lost battle or campaign.
American: You know, we never lost a battle in the field.
Vietnamese: True, but it does not matter.
While the above exchange apparently took place during the Paris peace negotiations, it points out a truism that the field has always and still does grapple with, because simply talking about battles and units isn’t enough.
War is too important to be left to the generals.
“Military history,” strictly defined, is a very limited field, limited indeed to the units and the battles, with the occasional foray into the soldiers and the weapons. What it does not explain—itself—is how the men and the machines got the way they were, and why the units were organized the way they were. Those explanations don’t come from the military past; they come from other disciplines. There’s a lot of dispute about this, and it’s gotten more extensive and complicated the more specialized the discipline of history becomes. Regrettably, it goes to the heart of the very origins of our concepts of “history” itself.
The origins of the military don’t come from “military history.”
“Military history” has trouble explaining the reasons for the military itself, which belong in the realm of social or political history—or both. Moreover, it can’t explain why the soldiers are in uniform; that’s in the realm of both social and political history, too. How their weapons got into their hands falls into the fields of industrial or scientific history, depending on your take.
Military history itself can only explain what the military does.
Historians created this phenomenon when history became professionalized—and fragmented—in the 19th century. When Hans Delbrück publish his detailed studies of ancient battles, he observed, among many other things, that the size of early Greek and Persian armies must have been way overstated because they simply could not supply armies as big as some of the ancient chroniclers claimed. He was the first modern historian to observe that an army is a moving town, with the same needs for food, water, clothing, and even amusement. But he had to so he could make that important observation. Some also hail him as the first true military historian… even though he spread that net pretty wide.
Military history thus doesn’t explain violence; it just describes it.
The profession describes military historians as the “drum and bugle corps,” stuck in a rut of flags and uniforms, guns and maps. This is because the common perception of military history is one of wars and generals, battles and weapons, death and destruction. While I’m not denying that those are parts of most military histories, they are not the be-all and end-all of most military history works. Official histories like the famous “Green Books” produced by the US Army after WWII are often that dull—and dull they are—and that focused. They produce official histories for reference, not entertainment. Military historians often produce official histories, that is so, but they produce them to the specifications of those who pay for them.
“Military History” as a product classification is often a misnomer.
Much of what is labeled “military history” is a hybrid of military, social/sociological, ethnic and political history, with a little scientific and industrial history thrown in. Straight-up “military history” is often dull as dust and virtually unreadable except as a reference work. Most consumers of “military history” are interested in being enlightened and entertained, and if they don’t get both, they stop consuming that product. That’s why most of the popular “military history” products are mainly battle narratives and much more.
This two-volume, six-pound behemoth (there is a Kindle version) came out in 2014. Though its primary emphasis is on military operations, it covers a great deal more in its voluminous entries than just what the Russian/Soviet armies did in this conflict or that one. It covers hundreds of treaties, for instance, and has entries on atrocities like Babi Yar (September 1941), which I argue are beyond the scope of military history. While it is a useful reference, ABC/CLIO prices it for the reference library and the serious student.
I have four articles in these two volumes: Joseph Stalin, Soviet Tanks in World War II, the Battle for Berlin, 1945, and Soviet Casualties 1939-45. Aside from Berlin, the other three articles extend far beyond just units and guns. Counting Soviet casualties goes far into the political; the article on tanks goes into their development—and the state of Soviet industry—before and during the war; Joe Stalin had a notorious career both before and after the several conflicts he survived. But the series is classified as “military” nonetheless. Like my contributions to the WWII encyclopedia, I don’t get a cut from you buying one… just my surprise that you’ve got that much money lying around.
Historical Failure Analysis: Say What?
Who Put The Ram In The Rama Lama Ding Dong?
On 23 July:
1885: Ulysses S. Grant died in Mount McGregor, New York, of throat cancer. Former general, the victor of scores of battles, two-term president, father, grandfather, author of a memoir still in print… and dead broke.
1904: Charles E. Menches is said to have invented the ice cream cone at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition/World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. There have been many, many claimants to this one, but the most credible alternate claimant was a Syrian immigrant named Ernest Hamwi, who was making zalabia wafers next to Menches’ stand. My money is on the version that says they collaborated on the invention.
And 23 July is GORGEOUS GRANDMA DAY. I live with one; I know several, including a sister and two sisters-in-law, my mother-in-law and many, many more. Happy Day, ladies.
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