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Is "Specialist History" Relevant To Everyone?
And just what IS "Specialist History" anyway...
That depends a great deal on who you ask… and how.
Most non-historians who like the past are generalists—they read about the past because it entertains and informs. But some enjoy different periods; others like different subjects. Many just like, well, stuff that happened before now. Some study the Victorian era, the invention of the calculus, farming methods in the 18th century, and the development of antihistamines. There’s as many special subjects that people study as there are those who study them.
History is where you find it and what you make of it.
John D. Beatty
When I first started my serious study of history—not before the Flood, but the mid-’70s—I quickly realized that there were many fields of history. My chosen specialization, military history, was also split up into myriad specializations. As I progressed, I also learned that there was a “history of history” that was both obscure and quite plain. Much of the history of history is the history of pedagogy, or how it is taught—that’s the plain part. The obscure parts are the ideological framework—what we teach—and the treatment of sources; the origins of the content of what the student had to know to grasp the subject.
In the 1980s, there was a seismic shift in the ideology, moving from teaching how to look to teaching what to believe.
There were movements in the profession that started questioning the nature of the sources. Suddenly the official documents became suspect because the diarists and the letter-writers were so much more interesting and, apparently, honest. This was where the “social history” movement began in all the specializations, and in time the themes of gender, race, national origin, ethnicity and sexuality crept into the picture. In my chosen area, US military history from 1850 to 1950, issues of this nature kept getting into the journals. Some were so contrived it was clear that the writer bent his data and conclusions in those directions just to get published.
Publishing is where it’s at for historians, academic or not. Publish or Perish is more than a slogan.
There’s a clear divide in history: academic and popular. Most of the history books you might read—and all the movies—are on the popular end. Popular histories are about familiar or popular subjects.
Popular histories are meant to make money.
Academic histories have more footnotes and end notes than popular histories, are couched in highly technical verbiage, and are generally aimed at other academics… who almost never read them. They are written on subjects so obscure as to make their usefulness almost nil and are often developed from master’s theses or doctoral dissertations.
Academic histories are meant to show how brilliant the writers are.
Now, what’s all this to do with “specialist history?” Back before the ‘80s, academic histories were often readable, if a little slow. They were also somewhat more broad than they are today. In the ‘70s and into the 80s, books on such subjects as the Normandy invasion or Victorian England were simple, clear expositions. Now, you can find histories that point to Omaha beach as an example of toxic masculinity, and Victorian England’s attitudes towards persons of color as an example of white fragility. Recently, Pasteur’s work on homogenization has been labeled an attack on rural lifestyles.
Specialist history by academics is becoming increasingly politicized.
And overspecialized. A study of morganatic marriages (one where any issue would be ineligible to inherit from the father) as symbolic of the degradation of women may be needed, but… why? People of different social classes usually arranged these unions, and in the 21st century… where? Similarly, the attitudes of 15th century button-makers towards tailors might be interesting, but again… why?
But specialist history for non-academics can be fascinating.
One of my favorite writers is Simon Winchester, who wrote about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the stark-raving mad contributors. He also wrote about how navigators solved the problem of longitude, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There are countless others who have written about the development of the metric system (just as contrived as any other), the pen (you remember, what you used to write with before the computer), and, of course, aviation of all kinds. But there’s Jared Diamond’s work on how Europe came to dominate most of the world, Peter Frankopan’s work on the trade between Europe and Asia in Roman times, and John Man’s magisterial work on the Mongol empire and the founding of “modern” China.
And, naturally, Why The Samurai Lost by yours truly.
In answer to the question, yes, they can apply to everyone who cares about the past, even if only peripherally connected to your particular interest. But unless you write books about the past and try to make a living at it, specialist history presents some mighty interesting stuff… if you’re into that kind of thing.
Fire Blitz: The Making of Strategic Air Warfare In the Pacific
In the long history of writing about WWII, there have been countless books about the European bombing campaigns, but precious few about the Pacific air campaigns, where the USAAF developed “strategic air warfare” into a viable tool. This saga centers on the philosophies and policies of Harold H. “Hap” Arnold and Curtis E. “Iron Ass” LeMay, who used the B-29 to attack not just the military forces of Japan, but the very infrastructure by specialists. While the RAF and the USAAF arguably did the same in Europe, notably during the petroleum and transportation campaigns in 1944, LeMay’s “fire blitz” and the aerial mining campaigns were directed at Japan itself, not just its armed forces.
Fire Blitz is about the development of a military doctrine that would become a national doctrine.
The incendiary campaign against Japan highlighted the difference between bombing big ball-bearing plants and torpedo factories and attacking the scores of machine tools that were operated in private homes in Japan—unique to Japan’s decentralized industrial plant. This, the aerial mining, and the attacks on petroleum infrastructure by specially trained and equipped units was a departure from the one-size-fits-most attacks undertaken in Europe.
This is a work in progress that you might see late next year.
Can Military History Explain Anything But Violence?
Who Put The Dip In The Dip Da Dip Da Dip?
On 16 July:
1790: An Act of Congress carved Washington, District of Columbia out of the Maryland and Virginia swamps, in keeping with the recently ratified Constitution. Would that they might have drained the swamps before they occupied the place?
1945: The plutonium-core lab instrument sometimes called Trinity was detonated in the New Mexico desert near Alamogordo. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian head of the project, is said to have muttered, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” from the Bhagavad-Gita.
And today is NATIONAL PERSONAL CHEF DAY. Don’t ask why…