The title of this piece is a very good question in my opinion. The question really came home to me recently when I was reading the Calls for Papers in the bi-annual newsletter of the Society of Military History of which I am a member.
It strikes me more and more often that Military History, like other branches of history is increasingly splintered and Balkanized. Much as traditional history is now more concerned with what the average person did than with the trajectory of nations or kingdoms, modern military history seems to focus more and more on the experience of the average soldier instead of how and why wars were fought and won. Many conservatives like to complain of the left’s takeover of academia and I have generally dismissed the idea that it could happen to military history. I am starting to think that I am wrong and the left is usurping the traditional role of military historians to suit some strange social engineering agenda that they unconsciously share among themselves. Perhaps this trend is happening because fewer military historias have actual experience of war than was previously the case.
When I think of military history I think of the tales of wars, campaigns, and battles. How they were fought and why one side was victorious over the other. Let’s face it, war is about battle and battle or combat is the currency of war. Whichever side builds up the better balance sheet in combat wins. The question to me then becomes, as the title of this post states; What is military history? The Germans break military history down into two different schools what they call Kriegsgeschichte and Militärgeschichte.
1. Kriegsgeschichte is traditional military history having to do with battles and how and why they were won. It was pioneered by the old Prussian General Staff in the time of reform after the Prussian defeat in 1806 and refined to precision by Moltke the Elder in the 1860’s-1880’s. If you want to know what it is like just pick up a copy of the Prussian Official History of the Austro-Prussian or Franco-Prussian Wars to see the epitome of Kriegsgeschichte.
2. Militärgeschichte is a new, post-World War II development in German historiography that has slowly gained ground among the rest of the Western world. It focuses on the individual and their experience, or on the social dynamics of military organizations and not so much on battle itself. One of the things I dislike the most about it is the almost constant moralizing in this type of history. Not all histories of this type are moralizing, but enough are that when I find one that is not it stands out even more. I call it the effeminate military history as it seeks to understand the soldiers motivation to kill or tries to describe the ways in which armies get men to act against their own instincts. Some examples of this type of history are Keegan’s Face of Battle and Mask of Command or Doughty’s American Military History and the Evolution of Western Warfare.
Needless to say, I am generally a Kriegsgeschichte type of historian. I think the purpose of military history should be instructive. It should try to find the lessons of successful armies and make them comprehensible so they can be passed on to succeeding generations. I guess you could say I am Clausewitzean in my outlook although I don’t buy his premises completely nor do I think there is or can be an overarching theory of war. War Theory is properly the subject of a whole series of other posts and I will not go into it here. In short, I believe that good military history examines and analyzes battles and campaigns to determine both what the victor did right and what the loser did wrong. It describes the battles themselves and also the tactics, doctrine, and strategy employed by both combatants in an effort to determine the relative effectiveness of the methods employed. I am talking here of discussing the use open vs. closed order battle formations, differing levels of technology, battlefield and strategic maneuver, surprise, and the motivation and morale of the opposing armies just as a start. There is a place for Militärgeschichte type history in military history but focusing on the individual private soldier detracts from explaining the cause of victory. As cold as it sounds, the individual is but a cog in the machine in military engagements, especially battles involving thousands of soldiers. The only individuals who can make a decisive difference in those kinds of battles are the colonels and generals who make decisions upon which the fate of all the others rests. Individually the soldiers of an army can be the best in the world but if they are used fecklessly or unwisely their competence will not make a difference in winning the battle, only in determining the length of the casualty lists.
Military history is not about right or wrong, good versus bad, or the defeat of evil. It is about what one side did better that made his army more effective and thus let him defeat his enemy. In those factors lie the lessons to be learned from studying the wars of the past. At least, that is my view. I would love to hear from anyone that disagrees or even agrees with me.
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