16 February 2006 by Published in: General News 3 comments

Kevin Levin responded to yesterday’s post on military history in a social hisstory world. Thanks for reading Kevin, and thanks also for taking the time to formulate a thoughtful response. I wanted to respond to a couple of issues raised by Kevin.

First, Kevin said: “Firstly, I hope Eric has more to say surrounding his comment on Rable’s Fredericksburg study. Given that the book won a number of important scholarly awards from reputable institutions it is hard to take seriously the conclusion that it ‘fails to provide a complete view of either the military or social aspects.'” Here’s the response you asked for, Kevin. Your own point–that it has won scholarly awards from institutions–suggests to me that you’re referring to awards by academic institutions. If so, then it’s just furthering my own point, which is that it’s endemic of academic institutions turning their collective snoots up at military history.

As to the specifics, I am far from the only critic to point out that Rable’s treatment of the military aspects–the battle itself–is secondary to the social aspects of the book and that the discussion of the battle is lacking in detail. See the reviews on Amazon.com if you want examples of what I’m talking about here.

My own preference is for Frank O’Reilly’s excellent book, which provides what I believe is the appropriate degree of social history to place the military aspects into their proper context in a traditional, but very well done, campaign study.

Second, I think you’ve misunderstood me a bit, and in re-reading my post, I must claim responsibility for it. I didn’t express myself as well as I might have liked. What I meant to say is that to the extent that understanding the motivations of the fignting man is necessary and important for me to properly do my work, then social history interests me. Beyond that, however, reading books that constitute purely social history is of no interest to me at all. In point of fact, I find them boring as hell, and gave up trying to read them long ago unless they’re something really exceptional.

As to the issues of race and slavery that fascinate you, I find them much less interesting and much less compelling. While I understand that these issues are there as an underlying current, they are not central to what interests me at all. These issues are clearly critical to understanding HOW things got to the point where brothers shed the blood of their own brothers. I get that. However, my interests fall to the tactical level–my interest really begins with the situation once the armies are met on the field of battle. And there, those issues are not much more than vague underlying themes that have little role in understanding why a commander made a tactical decision and how that tactical decision played out. Those are the issues that interest me.

As to the bigger problem, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I also think that Andy MacIsaac also makes some excellent points in his discussion of this issue. Andy is right, of course, that to some extent the two disciplines are inseparable and that we need both. That, in turn, brings me back to my original point: why do the academic historians turn their collective snoots up at military history? If Karl von Clausewitz was correct–and I firmly believe he was–in believing that war is politics by other means, then isn’t military history a logical extension of both political science and social history?

And if that’s true, then my original question stands and remains unanswered: why is that the academic historians treat military history as a red-headed stepchild?

Scridb filter


  1. Thu 16th Feb 2006 at 5:30 pm

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and for clarifying some of your points. I want to respond to a few points, but for now all I will say is that it seems we’ve done an excellent job utilizing this new blogging format to engage one another and others. I feel really good about that.


  2. Thu 16th Feb 2006 at 7:33 pm


    You’re welcome. It’s a good and useful dialogue. I can only help that others find it interesting, too. 🙂


  3. Sat 18th Feb 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Dear Eric: Why do academic historians treat military history as a “red-headed stepchild?” They do, and I’d like to offer three reasons why, given their lights, they must.

    First, there is little cultural or experiential sympatico with things military. Few academics at major universities know anyone in the armed services; fewer still have served themselves. Most, especially those of the Boomer generation, originally cut their teeth in opposition to anything military; many, through sympathy or an unwillingness to challenge PC norms, have essentially barred a military presence from campus. ROTC programs have disappeared from most “prestige” campuses, although the reasons keep changing–at first born of the anti-war movement, the rationale later shifted to claims of discrimination against homosexuals. One suspects that if the military changed its policy on enlisting avowed homosexuals, ban would remain although the reasons would change once again.

    Second, there are few prospects for professional advancement in studying military history. Most of the social sciences have become captive to the hermeneutics of so-called post-modernism–the deconstruction of texts using mind-numbing jargon and often intersecting with obsessions about gender, race, sexual preference and social class. And the ORs’ after action reports, soldier letters and memoirs, and contemporary newspaper accounts offer little “wiggle room” for the kind of interpretive fantasies typical of a Derrida or Foucault. For example, by 5 July 1863, one army remained on Gettysburg’s field and one army withdrew. That is indisputable–there is little “thesis room” to apply current PC preoccupations to the issue. Most academics perceive military history as devoid of platforms to advance current notions of social justice, and hence, unworthy of study.

    Third, given the foregoing, if one wanted to do graduate work in military history at Harvard, Yale or Princeton (to name three), who would serve as a thesis adviser? Harvard’s answer to Civil War history is the dreadful Drew Gilpin Faust, a “feminist” historian who couldn’t explain the difference between a battalion and a brigade. Princeton does much, much better with James McPherson, but even there, the emphasis is a balance between military and social history. Boston University offers another feminist historian in the person of Nina Silber. Columbia’s answer is Marxist Eric Foner, who recently disavowed his own excellent and award-winning history of Reconstruction as insufficiently PC!

    This will change someday, but only by the workings of the actuarial curve. When the current Boomers are forced to let go of departmental and tenure control, a thousand flowers may one day bloom again, including a special rose for military history. Until then, Eric, the public must look outside of academy to find those with an interest in remembering.

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