Category: military history

    Military History

    Check out Mark Grimsley, “Why Military History Sucks Sucked,” Blogging Them out of the Stone Age, June 2, 2016 (originally 1996). This is an older critique, and I agree there has been much improvement. Still, negative examples abound, making this short piece as worthwhile as ever.

    Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

    Officers on foot and horseback posing for a picture at one of the big annual maneuvers held for the emperor.

    Officers, some on horseback, at a Kaiser Maneuver in 1898. Source: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg.

    I recently noticed that the English translation of Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente, edited by Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Groß, is now available from the University Press of Kentucky under the title The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I. Interestingly, Terence Zuber, who sparked much of the debate on German war planning prior to the Great War, declined to allow his chapter from the German original to be included in this English translation.1 It wasn't his best piece anyway, far more peevish than usual, and there is plenty of his work on the supposedly nonexistent Schlieffen Plan already available in English. Be that as it may, if Zuber's thesis about Schlieffen's war planning has been conclusively disproven, the assumptions underlying his work have received less attention.2 That matters because his work on Schlieffen continues to be widely read and discussed, having made a big splash when it first came out. Moreover, he continues to write and publish books on German military history.

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    'Not a Military Historian'

    At a recent lecture on the Great War, Roger Chickering said, “I'm not a military historian.”1 The phrase stuck in my mind because he said it two more times during the course of the lecture and discussion. I’m sure he was trying to avoid letting the discussion get sidetracked by narrower debates about military operations, which was fair enough in the context of his talk about a series of common structural elements in Germany’s, France’s, and Great Britain’s wars. Nonetheless, his words bothered me.

    Of course, there was nothing surprising about the statement. And Chickering really can’t be called a “military historian” in the narrow sense of the term. Nor can I, his former student. But if stating that one is “not a military historian” makes sense in terms of the prejudices of too many academic historians, it also cedes the ground of professional competence to those historians who only focus on the battlefield.

    As legitimate as narrower operational and tactical studies of warfare are, their authors cannot be allowed to enjoy a monopoly on the interpretation of the more military-technical aspects of warfare. The broad expertise and perspective of the historian who studies war’s manifestations away from the violence is also needed for the battlefield and everywhere else that people were killing or being killed for ostensibly political aims.

    1. Roger Chickering, “Imperial Germany’s Peculiar War, 1914–1918,” Georgetown University, October 23, 2014. 

    Military History Conference

    I went to the annual meeting of the Society of Military History this year, because it was in the DC area, if way out in Crystal City. It was good to see and talk with people, especially a particular outside reader of my dissertation, who I was glad to run into. The book display was also interesting, because I discovered titles that the same publishers had not shown at the AHA meeting in January.

    Less interesting were the panels, which are actually the main event of conferences. The problem was not the quality of scholarship but rather the fact that I have a low tolerance for being read to. I try to be patient and grown-up and stuff, but my mind starts to wander in this format. I wish that presenters would let go of the notion that they need to fill their 15 or 20 minutes with as much text as possible and instead just focus on pitching their main points and the central evidence that they are using to make them.

    When I complained about this on Twitter and Facebook, I heard other scholars feeling the same way. We should not be reading our papers, but most of us do. One colleague on Facebook also shared a link to an interesting paper on "How to Give an Academic Talk" (by Paul N. Edwards). The trick, I think, is to adopt as much of the advice in this paper as one can without feeling so intimidated that one resorts to the crutch of reading to an audience. The result won't be perfect, but it will be far better for listeners than the standard alternative.

    As boring as the reading format is, though, the panels in this conference were particularly well filled—standing room only in the couple I visited (one with senior historians and one with graduate students, both with papers read to the audience), which I have not seen at any AHA or BHC conferences (where papers, unfortunately, are also read).

    A few other impressions: the conference seemed to include both people who call themselves military historians and those who just happen to be doing a related topic. It also included members of the military itself, as well as professors who teach the military at the War College and related institutions. The mix reinforced my opinion that military history and business history share analogous positions within the field of academic history and relative to the occupational fields that they study.

    On the other hand, whereas we had the teachers of our future generals at the conference in Crystal City and the teachers of future CEOs at the conference in Philly, I saw practitioners (officers) in Crystal City but no practitioners (business leaders) in Philly. This might have been due to the proximity of the conference to the Pentagon and other military installations in the area, but I wonder if this one difference says anything about different attitudes towards history in the military and business. Few doubt the importance of history for cultivating critical thinking in our military officers, especially not the officers themselves, but I wonder how passionate about history business executives are. It would be interesting to find out.

    Command Culture by Jörg Muth

    Last week I read Jörg Muth, Command Culture.1 The book’s main subject is about training U.S. officers for war, and it draws on the German officer corps in the interwar period for its useful comparisons. I can’t offer a review, because my own expertise lies more with the Imperial German officer corps. Nonetheless, the book deserves some comment.

    This was both an enjoyable and a frustrating read, but the frustrating part had more to do with my own preferences. Muth (who I know and value) takes West Point in this period to task for some pretty lousy education (Fort Leavenworth, too) and awful hazing. I have no problem with such well-sourced assertions, but I can’t help but think there might have been a deeper cultural logic to these things that Muth does not seek to uncover, because it apparently did not relate to military effectiveness, which is his topic, not, for example, the deeper character of leadership, education, and masculinity in the United States more generally.

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    Military History and Business History

    My research deals with war and society, while my editorial work addresses mainly consumption history. One might think these are two different worlds, but I’m coming to doubt the validity of such assumptions. Indeed, the subfields of military and business history have a lot of similarities. Most obviously, they are both interested in organizations, knowledge, experts, and elites—among other things. They are also both informed by a tension between the historian’s ethos to understand the past for its own sake and the practitioner’s desire to learn lessons from that past for today. And they both have homes not only in history departments, but also institutions that train future generations of professionals, whether officers or MBAs. This tension also means that military history and business history are sometimes looked down on by the field of history more generally, even though bread-and-butter themes such as class, race, gender, citizenship, politics, and power more generally cannot be adequately understood without consideration of militaries and businesses.

    Military Studies in Liberal Arts Education

    Samuel R. Williamson Jr and Russel Van Wyk make an interesting point on the last page of an undergraduate documentary history of the Great War's causes.

    At the start of the new millennium, and after September 11, 2001, there is an urgent need for civilian understanding and control of the military forces of the state. Yet paradoxically, this need comes at a time when very few civilians in western society have had any direct experience in the military, either as members of the uniformed services or as students of strategic issues. Conversely, recent studies also show that many in the military have little appreciation of the American traditions of civil-military relations and even of the assumed tenets of civilian control.

    I am unable to comment on their final assertion, but the rest of their comments speaks to a problem that has long bothered me. Why do we not teach more military history in our liberal arts programs? How can we expect our civilian leadership and the electorate more generally to make informed decisions about war and peace if we do not teach these questions in our institutions of higher learning?


    I was looking through Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, a play I have used a few times in a survey course on modern Europe. In the back of the English translation by James Kirkup are “21 Points to The Physicists,” one of which reads, “The more human beings proceed by plan the more effectively they may be hit by accident.” This quote sums up my recently completed dissertation on three levels that I would like to consider: the content of my research from the point of view of its historical subjects, the path my research takes from my point of view, and the shape of the narrative that eventually emerges. I plan to look at these paradoxes in future posts at irregular intervals. For now I will mention a different one that is not as difficult to resolve.

    I spent four years in the U.S. Army during peacetime, and I disliked being a soldier. I also rarely found military history interesting. Nonetheless, my research has focused on war. My M.A. thesis is about Bavarian soldiers and French civilians in the Franco-Prussian War, and my Ph.D. thesis is about the Imperial German officer corps and war planning. How did a former soldier who hated his experience in the military come to enjoy studying military history?

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