Old Military History in New Bottles

by Fred Ray on July 7, 2006 · 0 comments

I may as well weigh in on the military history debate also. My take, speaking as a reader and after reading a lot of it, is that at present amateurs write the best military history. By far.

By amateurs I mean “not professional historians.” Some examples are Gordon Rhea and Eric Wittenberg, both lawyers who somehow overcame the curse of legal writing, school teachers like Jeffry Wert, and NPS people like the Kricks, Scott Hartwig, etc. I find their work better because they write well, have an obvious passion for their subject, and want the reader to care also. This comes through in their work, and in sales. Gordon Rhea’s books on the Overland Campaign sell well, Mark Grimsley’s does not. There are exceptions (Simon Schama comes to mind) but in general the skill sets needed to advance in academia seem to be quite different – even antithetical — than those needed to write a readable book. Thus much of the output from university presses tends to be pedantic at best and descends into the absolutely unreadable. If this appeals to you, by all means buy them, but I get very frustrated in wading though page after page of class dialectic to get to the action on the battlefield. Personally I’m not interested in “branding” a product – I can make up my own mind whether the book is any good or not.

I find many of the “new” historians woefully bereft of even basic knowledge of how the military works and of its tools of the trade, which may be one reason they give short shrift to the actual events of the battlefield. Few have been in the military, many are highly critical of it as an institution. Yet it’s very difficult to understand what happened without knowing something about what formations were used and why, the ranges and effects of weapons, and so forth, just as it’s difficult to understand even basic physics without some knowledge of mathematics.

It’s also off-putting to be lectured to, and with many of the “new” books I squirm just as uncomfortably in my seat as I used to in school. Much of what passes for analysis is the recycled radicalism of the 60s (read your Marcuse for a primer). This may have been new and daring 30 years ago, but it has settled into a stifling orthodoxy which apparently no one is willing to challenge. Thus invariably, no matter what the actual facts, the White Power Structure will be found to be oppressive and illegitimate, the contributions of women and minorities under appreciated. White men are bad, Southern men worse, and Confederates worst of all. And so forth. Many of today’s historians are all too eager to bring the reader (and their students) to the “right” conclusion. Do not look here for new ideas.

Kevin Levin said: “If our collective goal is to see ourselves as unified and the war as part of the inevitable march of freedom, then it is not surprising that our historians ignored the darker aspects and unresolved issues that related to the war.”

This, to me, is simply the current version of Whig history. Just as historians of the 19th Century tended to see the march of history as leading inevitably to the liberal Britain of the turn of the century, or Marxists to the Worker’s Paradise, too many of today’s historians see it leading to the sort of multicultural utopia currently in vogue on college campuses.

So I’ll stick with the pure item. I’d rather prowl the skirmish line with the lads in blue and gray than worry about their social aspects.

ADDENDUM:

Just for an example, let’s consider the blitzkrieg. Few would dispute that the concept had a major effect on war in the 20th and 21st Centuries, but do we really need to discuss the Nazis to understand it? Some might consider it a product of National Socialism, but a closer look would show that it derived directly from the “storm” tactics of WWI, which in turn were made possible by the way the German army utilized its leaders.


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