The Long Gray Line (Summer Seminar Version)

Between now and 23 June, I’m here at West Point for the 2010 Summer Seminar in Military History. It’s just me, 18 other fellows, some military and civilian instructors, and a whole lot of fun. With the exception of a couple of staff rides (aka field trips to battlefields), we’re all staying at Thayer Hotel – right on the Hudson, right inside the West Point gate. The gist of it is that we spend three weeks studying (western) military history, going on those staff ride field trips, enjoying some fine food, exploring the area, and generally having a good time.

I’m told it’s rather exhausting in all, but so far it’s not been too bad. We have a fair amount of reading – not bad, but more than I’ve done on a regular basis for awhile (in this dissertating stage, my reading comes in spurts). The general pattern seems to be that we have one lecture a day – given by some esteemed military historian – and then a pedagogy session, where we talk about how to approach teaching a specific military history topic. I like this combination. I like it because it allows me to learn and contribute – and discussing things rather than just hearing a day of lectures is always a great option.

But the not-so-secret thing is that I’m kind of a hack when it comes to military history. (And did I just use that word in the third post in a row?) My main reason for coming is to make sure I have a solid military history foundation because when you’re writing about the military, it’s a good idea to have such a solid foundation. Everything I know about the military to date is stuff I’ve gleaned on my own through years of dissertation research. Spending time immersed in the military is a helpful exercise, in part because it helps me better understand the Military Mind.

What I learned today is that I am probably the oddity. I’m really a “war and society” person – and by that I mean that I think the truest value of traditional military history comes when we put it in concert with social history. Combined, I think you can learn a lot about militaries and the societies that create them, and how wars and battles affect society and militaries and all that. It’s not that I see no value to simply learning about battlefield strategies and operational issues – yesterday we stood over a scaled map of Agincourt and walked through the battle – it’s that I still want a bigger picture.

If you are in the military and leading personnel into war, then strategy and operations have great value in and of themselves, perhaps. I can understand why West Point cadets would be expected to learn such things. But what’s the bigger picture? What can understanding Agincourt – for example – tell us about the French and the English and their societies?

As someone who studies women in the military – you know, a total focus on the social history aspect of the military – I want our conversations to move beyond the battlefield. That, I think, is where things will get really useful. And interesting. And maybe even a little contentious.

But I do know that this seminar is going to give me perspectives I never would have considered. I don’t know if I’ll ever teach much military history in my career, but I think it could be a useful thing to have in my scholarly arsenal.

More adventures soon, including trips to Saratoga and Fort Ticonderoga, followed by yours truly in the role of George Washington on Monday!

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