The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part II: What I Learned About the Field of Military History

(Click here for Part I: Introducing the 2010 Summer Seminar in Military History)

I didn’t acknowledge my proximity to the field of military history until perhaps a year ago. This may seem very strange or shortsighted – after all, I’m writing a dissertation about women in the military. My brief explanation is that I’ve been trained primarily as a social historian. More particularly – as I’ll discuss in Part III of this series – I’m a women’s historian. As I’ve hinted at, there are a number of ways and reasons why women’s history and military history don’t always seem to go together.

So although I study members of the military, I’ve long been acutely aware that what I do is distinct from what I understood to be “military history”. I don’t deal with combatants. I can’t really tell you much about weapons. When I stepped into the Summer Seminar for the first day of classes, I had no idea what the Battle of Agincourt was or why everyone seemed to think it was important. Although I grew up visiting battlefields – three-plus hours at Little Bighorn, for example – tracking troop movements and battle positions was always the hum-drum part of history for me.

The levels of war – strategy, operations, tactics –have always been a central element of military history. It’s a very old field, particularly in comparison to social history. (In the Center of Military History’s A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History, for example, Colonel Thomas Griess dates military history’s origins as a field to at least the early 1800s, beginning with Jomini and Clausewitz (page 27).) The question of how an army fights and wins both battles and wars, and close interrogations of the great men who led those armies – these have long been the dominant areas of analysis for military historians.

These are the things we seem to think of most often when people talk about “military history.” And if you’ve seen some of the articles in the past couple of years, those on the fringes and outside of military history would tell you that military history is a dying field. (For example, in 2006 “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retired” and in 2009, “Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?”. Last November, Historically Speaking ran a forum with several prominent military historians, including Brian Linn, Dennis Showalter, and Robert Citino, all of whom I had the opportunity to hear at West Point last month. Articles available via Project Muse; limited access.)

The problem is that traditional military history is often perceived to be increasingly out of step with the field of history as a whole, at least since the social turn of the 1960s. At least, that tends to be the perspective of non-military historians looking in. That was also the perspective I had walking in to West Point. For my own part, I’ve gotten mixed perspectives from faculty about what my relationship to military history should or should not be.

But it’s not just about traditional military history anymore. These days, there’s also “new military history” – sometimes referred to as “war and society,” a phrase I don’t like for a couple of reasons. Technically, this is where I fall in the realm of military history, because new military history is all about things like the social composition of militaries, civil-military relations, relationships between people in militaries, and so on.

The social turn of history added new possibilities, then, for the field of military history – at least as I see it. What seems to have happened instead is that an intense battle emerged. On the one side, military historians who eschewed the idea of applying social history to military history became perceived as increasingly outdated and irrelevant (hence the articles on the state of the field in recent years). On the other hand, those who wanted to embrace new categories of analysis – like gender – ran the risk of becoming the black sheep in the military history world. Or perhaps just feeling like they’re the black sheep.

In my three weeks at West Point, I felt like I was surrounded by more traditional military history folks than new military history folks. “War and society” seemed, at least early on, to be little more than dirty words. (As one friend and former fellow put it, traditional military historians sometimes seem to think the “society” aspect of “war and society” has sidelined military history too much, which may be why the apparent.)

What I’m beginning to believe more and more is that military history is at a crucial juncture. From where I’m sitting, new military history holds the most promise for the field. Where it was once simply enough to look at levels of war and leadership and command, I don’t think that approach is adequate anymore.

Is the traditional approach to military history outdated and passé? Although it’s not my preferred way of doing military history, I’d say no. There’s still a place for traditional military history – although it may well be that these days, that sort of history is best left to the service academies, ROTC, and the armed forces as a whole. The traditional topics of levels of war, weapons, battles, and military leaders make sense as subjects for those participating directly in the nation’s defense.

Outside of the military, I think it can still be useful to convey many of these ideas and principles to the average college student. The staff rides I went on really helped me understand battles like Antietam and Gettysburg much better than I ever did: there’s a real difference between that sort of hands-on approach and looking at a map with arrows and reading a dry account of General So-and-So moving his left flank to position X. Sure, staff rides aren’t always possible – it helps if you actually live near a battlefield, of course. But the principle of engaging students in the details of a battle, as opposed to simply assigning 45 pages of reading – that’s one of the big takeaways for me. Military historians have an amazing potential to help battlefield history come to life (assuming they choose to use their powers for good, of course).

Perhaps even more importantly, there are ways that military historians think that could be very valuable to the rest of us. The type of analysis and thought processes that go into traditional military history were a very different experience for me, and I think it can be incredibly useful to learn to think and approach problems in new ways.

My own personal opinion, though, is that military history is much richer when it is not limited to the battlefield. New military history – this idea of thinking about the people, at all levels; of moving beyond combat and weapons; and so on –is where I see the most possibility and promise for military history as a field. While my second-year ROTC undergrad may be thrilled to talk about tactics, operation, and strategy, the future veterinarian will want to know why and how any of that has relevance beyond the classroom. My opinion is that, far from dying out or becoming irrelevant, military history should make the most of these newer analytical possibilities and discover where it could go next.

As much as I believe that this blending of new with old is the way to go, it’s an uphill road. There seemed to be little room to maneuver outside of traditional military history at the Summer Seminar.  My ultimate feeling by June 23rd was that to be someone who studies women within the military – someone who engages with questions about not just women, but also gender and the military – marks me as a person apart.

While the US military has moved towards understanding its military force much more thoroughly in the last 60-70 years, it has still only taken baby steps in some way. If the “war and society” aspect of military history is young in comparison with military history as a larger field, then adding gendered analysis to understanding the military is an even younger proposition. (as evidenced partially by the still-quite-small literature set on women in the military.)

What, then, do I do with all of this knowledge and perspective on the field of military history and my relationship to it? I’m still thinking about that, but check back Monday for my thoughts on being cast as the token gender studies person.

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5 thoughts on “The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part II: What I Learned About the Field of Military History

  1. You really would have enjoyed the roundtable on military history at the Policy History Conference a few weeks ago; there was a lot of discussion about the subfield’s fragmentation along the lines you describe. It wasn’t being recorded, but if you can find anyone who was taking notes, it’s worth getting a copy of them.

    Speaking of war-and-society: You point out that many of the operationally-focused military historians work in ROTC and service-academy contexts, where part of the point is for students to learn warfare by studying it. What do you think these historians (and their students) could learn by reading more broadly from the war-and-society side of the field?

    (I’m thinking about, for example, Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, which isn’t classically-defined military history but has a lot to say about Anglo-American colonial violence and how Americans (mis)remember it. I’m wondering what a service-academy military history instructor would do with that book in a class.)

  2. I was sorry to miss the Policy History Conference this year – I was there 2 years ago and loved it, but West Point took priority! I’ll have to check into the roundtable, just in case.

    You also pose a really good question: what could these historians/students learn by reading more broadly from war-and-society? This may be something for me to really address in my next post, but briefly, I think that the idea of focusing only on the operational/strategic/tactical elements of warfare is tunnel vision, in a way. Sure, you learn about battles and fighting wars, but what does this teach you about the people who comprise the military and how the human element affects military operations? (I do understand that there is an emphasis in traditional military history on leaders, but I think that’s still limiting.) I think war-and-society adds the perspective of WHY we’re fighting, and how wars/national defense practices affect the nation/people that they’re ostensibly fighting for.

    The book you mention sounds great – although I haven’t read it. I think that sort of book would be perfect for extending the conversation beyond troop movements and general strategy. In short: war doesn’t happen in a vacuum – soldiers return home, eventually.

  3. Pingback: Apologies | Tanya L. Roth

  4. Pingback: The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part III: On Being Cast as the Token “Where are the Women?” Person | Tanya L. Roth

  5. Pingback: Women’s historian attends West Point Summer Seminar! (Alert the MPs.) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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