What is Military History?

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.

8 thoughts on “What is Military History?”

  1. I disagree about what military history is “for.” You argue that it is about informing us about the combat effectiveness of the armies involved. I would say that is one possible purpose or source of “lessons,” but only one, a substantial but nowhere near complete picture of what military history is. It is perfectly legitimate to write books about that or to read books with an eye on that interest. But military history, like all the other branches of history, throws light on the human condition broadly. It tells us where we came from, about humans under stress, human organizations under stress, societies under stress. And it tells us about the things you report – human motivations, the sources and effects of violence, etc.

    By your definition, my dissertation would not be military history (here’s an outdated summary: http://hatlie.de/pdf/dissertation.pdf). But it is all about war. It isn’t everything about war. I leave out almost all the operational aspects – the strategy, operations and tactics. They are only relevant to my story to the extent that they affect the society I am studying. And yet, like I said, the whole book – hundreds of pages – is about war. Without the war, the story I tell makes absolutely no sense, indeed nothing that happens in the book makes sense. It is about what happens to a city during a war (mass evacuation, siege, occupation, military administration, rationing, sequestration, inflation, mobilization, military tribunals, executions, etc.). And then it is about how the different national groups experienced the war, how they perceived it and how they reacted. I would find it a bit baffling if that isn’t considered military history. I would expect it to be of greater interest to some and of lesser interest to others. In your words, it is among the “tales of wars,” although the battles are just off screen, so to speak.

    I do not claim that it must be what interests everyone about that place or period. Some people will find the operational aspects of the capture of Riga in early September, 1917 more engaging and useful than what I say about that event. It required the crossing of a major river and a broad flanking maneuver as well as the use of new infiltration tactics. Was that more interesting than what I say about that event – the disquiet in the city, the plundering by retreating Russian soldiers, the first siting and welcoming of German soldiers on the streets and how that welcome differed depending on who was doing the welcoming, the melodramatic surrender of the partially German city council, and the imposition of German policy? I don’t think so, but I would argue that even those who disagree would see that my story is military history.

    As far as battle-centered military history focusing on the “little guy,” it isn’t really that much of a new thing. Cornelius Ryan was doing it decades ago. Here in Germany, “Der Krieg des kleinen Mannes” was published in the early 1990s. These stories might “detract from explaining the cause of victory” (although I don’t think “The Face of Battle” is guilty of that), but they explain other things. The interests you call “effeminate” – because they involve understanding non-victory-related aspects of war – reflect, to my mind, perfectly legitimate foci on aspects of human history and experience – aspects which are “military.”

    I have found comparatively little moralizing in all of this – either the “little guy” histories of battle or in the cultural/societal histories of war. But I concede that others might read these things differently. If someone writes that some event was a “horrifying experience,” perhaps that is read by some as a condemnation of some perspective or policy. If I portray how the bodies of the victims of the “white terror” (May-June 1919) in Riga were stacked like firewood, that information won’t help an infantry captain negotiate urban terrain under fire, but I’m not taking sides either. I’m reporting what the witnesses saw happen. Am I making war sound horrific? Yes. But isn’t that part of what war is? Similarly, take Drew Gilpin Faust’s book on the Civil War, “This Republic of Suffering,” a brilliant – and perhaps effeminate – study of wartime and postwar culture. She describes some sad events. But I don’t read any moralizing or “good vs evil.” Weren’t they truly sad events? If she doesn’t talk as much about battlefield heroism, then that is a difference is subject matter, not a sermon.

    I would also add that many fellow veterans might also disagree with you. While some veterans, late in life, especially if interviewed on TV, and colored by decades of TV documentaries and Lidell Hart-type reading, speak about operational issues when asked about the war they were in, it has not been my experience that those issues are what the war was about for them. Even if they are but “cogs,” they are millions and their experiences are part of human history, a “military” part of it no less. Indeed, when I interviewed Soviet and American veterans of the Second World War in the 1990s, my interest in strategy and diplomacy seemed trivial to them in some cases. The same applies to the bystanders, factory workers, family members and others who were cogs without guns, but who lived through a war. Is their memory, their personal history, not “military”?

    There is much more to say and gray areas we could talk about (like whether, say, an analysis of how a high school history class today reacts to a memorial from WWI, or whether an analysis of the politics behind a particular war movie about a long-past war is “military” history) but I’ll throw in just one more point for now. Is S.L.A. Marshall’s “Men Against Fire” military history? It is about the little guy, the mere “cogs.” It is about understanding his motivations and behavior in battle. Does that make it “effeminate”? And yet it was written specifically – far more specifically than most of even the most drums-and-bugles-types of battle narratives – with the goal of improving combat performance and hence the chances of victory. I’ll throw that in there to show that even a narrow view of military history will have trouble drawing the line between what does and doesn’t belong.

    We might just disagree about labels. Perhaps you would call my book about a city at war part of a “cultural history of wartime” and not “military history.” That could work. But it would work just as well to have military history remain broad and call the corner of it concerned with “victory” something else – like “operational military history” or something like that.

    • The whole point of my writing this post was to try and get a conversation started. It should be obvious from my content that I am getting ready to disagree with you 100% on what constitutes military history. Just because there is a war in the story does not military history make. I subscribe to the old style view that strictly military history is there so that soldiers can study wars and how to win them, period. If a work does not advance that goal then it is not military history. That may be, probably is, a simplistic view. But I am not averse to simplistic views. My problem is with the mass of history that calls itself military in which the war is but an act in a larger play or even worse, secondary to the story to be told. Your work about Riga and World War I is a perfect example. It is not military history, it is probably war history, but military history it is not.

      You have not refuted my €œcog€ argument. I do not claim that individual stories are unimportant as a rule. I say they are unimportant in the context of military history. Did my actions in Iraq in 2005-2005 have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war? No, they did not. As an aggregate though, my actions and the actions of the thousands of others I was deployed with did have an impact. Decisive though, was the impact of the decisions made by the commanders from division on up. Because their decisions impacted the way I and others fought the war. I was just a cog and while my story may interest some, it has few if any lessons to impart about how to go about winning a war. That is my point.

      I am not even saying that the things and types of history I deride in my post don€™t deserve to be told. They most assuredly do. I just think they need another moniker than military history. That is why I point out the German separation of military history into two branches as an example that should perhaps be emulated in the English speaking world.

      SLAM€™s €œMen Against Fire€ is a fabrication with no basis in reality, that has been established for years but a certain segment of historians cling to it just like they cling to Ambrose. I have covered that and the 70+ year hoax he has pulled in another post. As I point out in that post both Grossman and Marshall have made their careers on the claim that most soldiers don€™t fight. It is a patently flase claim but out there nonetheless so the gullible can lap it up. I don€™t understand the logic behind making that claim, but it is there.

      I stand by my initial assertion that the only true military history is that history that has a lesson to impart about how wars were fought and how victory can be achieved. I don’t say that other types o history surrounding war are not worthy of being written, just that they should not be passed off as military history when the military part is secondary to the story they are trying to tell, they are still history though. And I do not have a problem with any type of history as long as the facts and evidence support the tale.

    • My point on Marshal is not whether it is true. That is another issue. The point is whether it is military history.

      I think your position here is more normative than descriptive. It is about how you would like the field defined, and comes close to what one might find in the “military history” section of a popular book store or perhaps close to what is taught at war colleges (interestingly not called “military colleges,” perhaps because of the broader meaning of “military.” Here, however, I am reminded of the work of Mark Moyar, who teaches at one of those colleges and whose work probably doesn’t fit your definition.). Your definition does not reflect what “is”, what it is as generally understood by those who spend their lives “doing” it, but rather your dismay with where the field’s center of gravity has moved over recent decades. That is a legitimate concern if you don’t like what you see.

      The German Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt publishes stuff that would fit your definition, but also lots of stuff that wouldn’t. For the U.S., when I browse through the titles of articles in the “Journal of Military History,” my guess is that about half of what is there isn’t, by your definition, “military history.” I don’t have my old copies with me, but I’d wager that most of the books reviewed there wouldn’t either. But there it is in the leading professional journal on the subject of military history. That is also my impression when I read the calls for papers at the SMH webpage (for example “We view military history broadly across time and encourage material, social and cultural approaches, as well as military themes informed by other social sciences like archaeology and political science”). In both these examples we have highly trained, competent, dedicated professionals calling what they do “military history,” but not writing about battles or focusing on explaining who won.

      (Browsing further, I just saw that even the Australian Army Journal is calling for papers on “culture and the army.”)

      Regarding my work on Riga, I find it a bit absurd to consider the war “secondary,” as you imply. As I said, nothing I tell about in the book makes sense without the war. You can decide that this isn’t “military” history as you envision it. I don’t need that label and don’t generally call myself a “military historian.” But it is most certainly about the war(s) and, going back to my first point here, many people in the field would recognize it as military history or at least as being of interest to those who call themselves military historians. If Chickering’s book on Freiburg in the First World War – and unlike Riga changing hands several times, Freiburg wasn’t even taken during the war – was reviewed in military history journals, then “Riga at War” would be, for many in the field, “military history.” I haven’t checked, but I wager it was.

      My take in this follow-up boils down to an argument from authority, of course. As I said, I think the conflict is between your normative vision of what the field should be vs. what the field, in practice, under that label, is or has become.

    • You are absolutely right that I/we are arguing about labels. I have not claimed that other “war” related areas are not worthy of study, they certainly are. I am simply arguing that Military History should be defined narrowly. I also recognize that this is a battle I am going to lose. I am not attempting to denigrate anyone€™s contribution to historical knowledge, only determine the proper niche for different topics and subjects.

      The trend is to open up fields of study in the social sciences such that just about anything is fair game. I am simply saying that doing so defeats the purpose of military history in particular as I see it. It is a deconstruction of military history. To dilute the field so much lessens the importance of the specialty of military history. If we can write about anything and have a war going on somewhere that might affect the narrative secondarily and call it military history then why not just get rid of the military all the way and just call it history. The vast majority of world events have been shaped by or shaped war, so therefor is not just about everything €œmilitary history?€

      I am an SMH member myself and yes, I think some of what makes it in there is not strictly military history as I would call it. An article appeared in last April€™s issue that is what actually got me started on this train of thought in the first place. It is: Nate Probasco, €œThe Role of Commoners and Print in Elizabethan England€™s Acceptance of Firearms,€ The Journal of Military History 76 (April 2012). It actually won an award for being one of the best articles of the year. I think it was a good article, but not military history, unless you automatically equate firearms with the military and thus voila, military history because it was about guns and the past.

      I think I defined what I consider a reasonable definition for military history quite well. You can agree or disagree, that is your right. I realize that many, if not most, military historians would disagree with my definition. To me that just reflects the current state of the discipline, not whether I am right or wrong. Consensus does not make truth, it only makes for agreement.

      My definition stands: 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.

      Lastly, whether Marshall lied or not is certainly germane to whether what he wrote is military history or not. How can anything not based on facts be considered history in the first place, much less military history? Maybe we should call such works pseudo-history since they claim to paint a picture of the past that did not happen.

    • I’ll cede the point on Marshall’s book. It would be another disagreement on labels. I’ll look up your blog story on the hoax.

      I think we agree in substance. The field is very broad and I can see being against that or wanting the label to be narrower, at least. I’m not, and given how the term is used by people in the field, I think what I do counts (hence my bafflement at it not counting). But if that changed and my book were no longer “military history,” I wouldn’t lose any sleep. I would then be a “military historian” only in the sense that I have taught a few classes in that field and read a bunch of books on it. I also put a bit more emphasis on it in my non-military-history classes than most of my fellows, just like I do with religion. Institutionally, I think the battle is in fact long lost, as the JMH shows. In the popular imagination, however, I think battle or campaign narratives are what most people think of when they hear the term “military history.”

      Even given your interests, however, there will be a gray area, I think. That is completely normal, however. No field of study or endeavor is ever completely delineated and isolated from neighboring fields.

      What is of further interest, and where we might disagree more substantively – or at least we would have, say, five or six years ago when I was a bit further “left” than I am today – would be the issue of whether this has harmed the field as such. I have the impression that the expansion of the field into cultural and societal niches has improved both the usefulness and the reputation of military history. For a long time, there were fewer and fewer chairs, fewer academic research projects, etc. of military and diplomatic history. They counted as rather shallow fields of research and writing – more like writing about a chess game than about people. That trend has been reversed and new journals and conferences have arisen.

      This has:

      – …raised the status of the label.

      – …and it has done so by making the field explain more and cover more, attracting more people.

      – …not reduced the amount of research being done in your more narrow definition. On the contrary, I wager that the production of that kind of book has grown. I don’t know this for a fact, however.

      – Indirectly, it has also raised the status of talking about the kinds of things that fit your narrower definition. When I was studying history in a German university in the 1990s, few of my fellows knew the difference between a division and squadron. That information was of no interest. Today, you can know that stuff and not be considered odd or somehow “militaristic.”

      Both military and religion share the odd attribute in the popular imagination that if you know about it, you must somehow be involved in it or somehow vaguely “in favor” of it. I recall giving a talk about the separation of church and state a couple of years ago. Before the talk, someone asked me “So where do you preach?” He assumed that anyone who knows about religion must be seriously religious. Similarly, when we used to play military simulation games at the university in Konstanz (Germany), almost everyone interested was a reservist.

    • I don’t think the a slight broadening of the field is necessarily a bad thing. i think we have to be careful about making it so broad that the term “Military history” becomes meaningless however. That is the main thing I am railing against in my post.

    • Your whole second paragraph is flawed. If the battles are “just off the screen” as you say,then that’s not military history, it’s a different field of history (social, economic, etc.). I can write all I want on the leadup, causes, or aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, but if I omit or only briefly report naval strategy,fleet size, and tactics, then what I write isn’t military history. The purpose…or A purpose…of military history is to examine why and how a side won or lost. If you only write briefly about battle strategy, then you are defeating that purpose.

    • I have the impression that your response here doesn’t really engage my whole point. See at least my last paragraph as well as the second paragraph. I concede that we might just be arguing about labels. That is of interest to people who want to delineate the competencies of university chairs or decide which articles to publish in which journals. But beyond the institutional matters (which are ultimately about money), when looking at the “thing” itself, the field, I see lots of gray area and no universally recognizable core to the field beyond the idea that it should have something to do with collective violence.

      Importantly, you agree that there are other purposes beyond just determining which side won. To me, that opens up the field to a very wide range of subjects.

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