A Military History Critique

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.

Preparing to Fight the Last War? Maybe Not

I’ve been taking some time to think more about a slow-moving article on Wilhelm Groener I’ve been working on. It has received a big boost recently from the GHI’s new focus on the history of knowledge.

A truism holds that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. Unable to peer into the future, they make do with the lessons of the past. Fair enough, perhaps, but this common-sense wisdom presupposes that military leaders will necessarily understand the salient features of the last war without preconceptions about war and officering affecting their discernment. In other words, the truism fails to account for the effects of prior training, experience, and acculturation in the production of knowledge about war. Instead, it implicitly assumes the existence of universal soldierdom, as if officering and soldiering—but for technology—were not culturally and historically contingent.

Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939) offers a case in point. A general staff officer in the German army who rose to prominence quickly in the First World War, Groener became an important spokesman in these interwar period for the so-called Schlieffen school, offering an interpretation of the war seemingly at odds with what actually happened. Instead of deriving new lessons from the stalemate, as his contemporary Erich Ludendorff did in a nightmarish vision of politics serving war instead of vice versa, Groener doubled down on the knowledge he had internalized in peacetime Wilhelmine Germany. Issuing from neither a military outsider nor an original thinker and steeped in antebellum military thoughtways and culture, Groener’s interpretation of the First World War can be analyzed in relation to his prewar training and wartime experiences to show the inner logic of the professional military knowledge and culture in which he was steeped.

A Few Notes on the History of Knowledge

One of the new research focuses at the GHI since our director, Simone Lässig, began her tenure last October is the history of knowledge.1 The study of knowledge in its societal context (as opposed to thought experiments about truth in the discipline of philosophy) has some tradition in sociology and anthropology, but it is still a relatively new focus in English-language historiography, at least in my experience here in the U.S.2

A good introduction for me was Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge (polity, 2016). It says more about what the field can encompass than it does about historiographical debates or plausible narratives. Still, for an outsider like me, the book offers helpful vocabulary and categories with which to begin thinking about this subject. A different kind of text that I also found useful is Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). If the focus is on the West and elite knowledge, and if it offers generalizations that specialists might pick apart, it has the merit of offering a narrative that helps the reader to think about the production, preservation, transmission, and consumption of knowledge over a long span of time. I find such historical narratives absolutely necessary when first getting my feet wet in a subject.

Knowledge history can encompass faith traditions and the academic disciplines, of course, but it can go well beyond that to all walks of life, whether the knowledge is explicit or implicit, published or produced and transmitted in a workshop, and so on. With its interest in what people know and how they produce, use, and disseminate this knowledge, knowledge history does not feel all that strange from the perspective of social and cultural history. Indeed, knowledge history seems capable of dovetailing productively with these more familiar approaches.

In Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction (Cornell UP, 2006), for example, we learn that army officers in Imperial Germany shared a certain understanding and approach to war despite their diverse training, career paths, and experiences; however, we never learn how they came to share this common military culture. If we consider what these men knew about war, we still have a phenomenon whose cultural logic can be unpacked, but now we can also start asking about the education, training, and acculturation that helped transform young men into military professionals. In other words, we can begin to think about how and what officers learned and knew as well as how they produced and transmitted this knowledge. In this way, a static image of culture becomes dynamic, capable of changing over time.

The history of knowledge is not all that foreign to the business and consumption history I edited under the previous director either, even if that history has not been written with the history of knowledge in mind or in the vein of cultural history. The most interesting book of this type I encountered was Hartmut Berghoff, Philip Scranton, and Uwe Spiekermann, eds., The Rise of Marketing and Market Research (Palgrave, 2012). The titles of its individual chapters might sound highly specialized, but together they show how different social and economic actors came to conceive and understand the markets in which they were operating in ways that modernday ideological adherence to capitalism as a natural, ahistorical phenomenon remains oblivious. The subtitle of the introduction includes the term “information” (not “knowledge”) but many of the examples in the book show entrepreneurs and others producing knowledge, that is, coming up with new ways to understand society and gather and use data to sell goods.

In hindsight, I think I found this particular book so interesting because of the knowledge aspect of the topic. For example, in “Making the Ledgers Talk: Customer Control and the Origins of Data Mining,” Josh Lauer shows how U.S. department stores in the early decades of the twentieth century had credit departments—not necessarily profitable—as a service to their customers. Yet some people in these departments came to understand how much sales data they were sitting on and began to use it to target specific kinds of customers with direct mail campaigns, based on their specific purchase histories. In other words, these credit departments took information already on hand and transformed it into new knowledge about their customers that could be used to increase sales.


  1. See Simone Lässig, preface, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute Washington DC 58 (Spring 2016), http://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_Washington/Publications/Bulletin58/bu58_3.pdf
  2. Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge, 1952), https://archive.org/details/essaysonsociolog00mann; Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983. 

Historiographical Impasse

I have had to withdraw from an interesting handbook project because of excessive overlap with two other chapters. My topic was on the matrix of gender, war, and nation in European wars in the 1850s through the 1870s. Given the limited historiography, I chose a thematic approach, but that produces the undesired overlap. What is needed instead, I’m told, is a gendered history of these specific wars. Leaving aside the insufficient historiography, to say nothing of the challenges inherent in collaborations of this kind, where project requirements and individual research have to somehow come together and adapt to changing parameters, the impasse I’ve reached seems to have deeper epistemological roots.

Making sense of the matrix of gender, nation, and war in the European conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century appears to involve contradictory historiographical impulses. On the one hand, the revolutions, insurrections, and wars of this era represented discrete political events in specific temporal, geographic, social, cultural, economic, and technological contexts. On the other hand, solidarities or identities represented by the nation emerged and achieved hegemonic status over much longer periods of time (even if war acted as a catalyst), to say nothing of the resilient normative and structural operations of gender in human societies.

If one scholar has successfully identified a discursive relationship among nationalism, military service, and the masculine construction of citizenship in Prussia during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon, making the leap from those discourses to changes in gender norms (including the shifting meaning of military service in a man’s life) and how gender operated in social hierarchies is another matter. Depending on the region of Europe, it could take many decades for such discourses to manifest themselves in ordinary people’s lives.

These contradictory historiographical impulses are also evident in gender history itself. If the field (earlier conceived as women’s history) had initially promised to challenge and subvert conventional periodization schemes, the professional requirements of specialization in specific eras and regions has tended to reproduce those schemes instead.

If I have been unable to navigate these tensions and contradictions within the limited scope left open to me in the handbook project and given the limitations of the historiography itself, I nonetheless find myself wondering how they might be addressed within event-driven history more generally. Clearly one can explore the operations of gender in a specific war, but is it possible to draw conclusions about changes in gender norms and gender orders without taking a much longer view? I am skeptical.

Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

I recently noticed that the English translation to 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 in English anyway. 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.

Zuber makes his historiographical assumptions explicit on the front “about” page of his website (terencezuber.com) in a section called “Philosophy of writing military history.” The text seems to be for the benefit of potential new readers, but that does not make it any less sincere or interesting. The first important factor he lists is “the careful analysis of primary source material,” which he learned during his graduate studies in Würzburg, Germany. Zuber is talking about the venerable historiographical tradition of source criticism as taught to us in the nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke. The historian, according to Ranke, is supposed to use primary sources in order to write about “how things really were” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist).

Ranke’s ideas presuppose that the historian can read and understand the sources in context and that their meaning is immutable. If the objectivity question is much more complicated than Ranke’s phrase suggests, trying to understand “how things really were” still informs the professional historian’s ethos.3 But how do we meet this standard on the basis of imperfect documentary testimony? How do we go about reading and interpreting sources whose meanings are frequently ambiguous?

“In military history,” according to Zuber, getting at the past as it actually was “means above all the evaluation of training, doctrine, plans, intelligence estimates, orders, weather, terrain and tactical combat.” I can live with that assertion for the moment, even if it ignores important factors, especially politics. But how can Zuber be so sure that he understands the sources whereas his historical predecessors and present-day detractors do not?

His answer is simple: “As a professional infantry officer, I am able to apply twenty years of military experience to this analysis including three years with a German panzer division. I work through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation.” On the face of it, the assumption that his military background is historiographically relevant seems at least plausible insofar as the tools and techniques of warfare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not so far removed from Zuber’s Cold War–era training in land warfare that they could not be understood from that point of view.4 Moreover, German operational thought—however vaguely defined and varyingly understood—enjoyed respect on both sides of the Atlantic long after the First World War.5 But is that enough? Does Zuber’s military background really guarantee the accuracy of his analysis of military documents from an earlier era?

In his own words, Zuber “work[s] through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation.” The key element here is Zuber himself. He is playing out World War One–era military scenarios on the basis of his own military-professional judgement, which he developed in the 1970s and 1980s. This statement certainly comports with an unfortunately common assumption in military history and in writing about war more generally, namely that soldiering is a timeless phenomenon, aside from the obvious changes in technology, organization, and (if the historian is really doing his or her job) politico-economic basis. But as John Lynn shows in his book Battle, there is no such thing as the “universal soldier.” Soldiers and their institutions exist in specific historical contexts, and they change over time. These changes run deep, encompassing not only the externalities of the soldiers’ and militaries’ worlds, but also how soldiers and armies perceive the world around them.

Even if the military historian is concerned exclusively with the age-old question of how well armies fought, Lynn’s argument applies: “the way militaries think is the most fundamental element of their effectiveness.”6 We cannot understand what officers in the past were seeing and understanding, unless we first grasp how they thought. Indeed, Lynn demonstrates “the influence of conceptual culture on the reality of combat” for a variety of cultures and eras.7 The upshot of culture in general terms is that two hypothetical armies might be similarly equipped, but that in no way means they will understand the same set of circumstances similarly. The choices that the commanders of these armies perceive are shaped by culture, whether that is military culture in the broadest sense, specific aspects of military culture such as strategic culture and leadership culture, institution-specific cultures, or broader cultural “givens” that trancend the boundaries of the military.

Without accounting for culture, Zuber’s efforts to “work through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation” run the risk of amounting to little more than a war game set in the past, but based on modern-day assumptions. That is how Schlieffen studied the ancient Battle of Cannae, but it is no way for the historian to work who aspires to understand “how things really were.” Yes, there is a need for good, detail-oriented histories on war planning and military operations, but those histories must take into account the different historical contexts, including the professional culture in which operational decisions were made.


  1. See p. 14 of this translation, which was visible to me on the preview offered by Google Books. 
  2. Besides offering well-reasoned arguments based on solid evidence, the book reprints sources not considered by Zuber. See also pp. 24–52 of my dissertation, which analyzes the debate as it stood right before the German edition of this book appeared in 2006. 
  3. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988). 
  4. According to his website, Zuber served from 1970 to 1990. 
  5. See Gerhard P. Groß, Mythos und Wirklichkeit: Geschichte des operativen Denkens im deutschen Heer von Moltke d.Ä. bis Heusinger (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012). 
  6. See John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Kindle ed., preface (“Requiem for the Universal Soldier”). 
  7. Lynn, Battle, e.g., chap. 4 (last sentence of “Images and Ideals of Combat in the Age of the Enlightenment”). On war and culture, see also Wayne E. Lee, ed., Warfare and Culture in World History (New York: New York University Press, 2011), and Williamson Murray, “Does Military Culture Matter?,” Orbis 43, no. 1 (1999): 27–42.