John Lynn on Military History

by Brett Schulte on June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

NOTE: Hat tip to John Maass at A Student of History blog.

John Lynn, Professor of History at my alma mater, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, has an excellent article up at the National Association of Scholars web site. Professor Lynn has been teaching, researching, and writing about military history for many years longer than I’ve been alive.

As an aside, I was fortunate enough as a non-History major (Math/Computer Science) to take a class with Professor Lynn on “Warfare Since 1815”. My sister had the opportunity to travel with Professor Lynn to France over a portion of one summer as well.

Regular readers will have undoubtedly read entries here and on other Civil War blogs about the various aspects of Civil War history (political, social, and military history) and how these should tie together. Lynn’s definition of military history and military historians is very interesting to me:

At the outset, let me offer my working definition of the field: military history is the study of military institutions and practices and of the conduct of war in the past. This definition frustrates those whose real interest is in the causes or the consequences of war. Certainly these are terribly important matters and involve military factors, but they are much broader than military history per se. Doubtless, some would disagree with my definition, but I will stick with it.

And let me also make clear what I mean by “military historians.” They are those who write military history, whether this work comprises their main scholarly effort or simply part of it, and whether or not they define themselves as military historians. Consequently there are many individuals, for example Geoffrey Parker or James McPherson, whose interests and scholarly work goes beyond military history, but whom I would still call military historians because a significant part of their output addresses the history of military institutions and the conduct of war. The important thing is not what they call themselves but what they do.

Lynn goes on to write about why military history is important:

For me, war—no matter how regrettable—is of obvious importance in history. Its costs in lives and fortunes are undeniable. It can determine regimes, borders, and economies; it can decimate or destroy peoples. The conduct of war can have incalculable human and cultural effects, as both world wars demonstrate. But even those who would deny the ultimate impact of particular wars cannot dismiss the social, cultural, political, and economic importance of military institutions and practices. These institutions and practices have defined social orders, a fact that is particularly obvious in societies ruled by military elites. Combat and the preparation for combat have also strongly influenced cultural values, for example, attitudes towards violence, self-sacrifice, obedience, and gender. Concepts and systems of political representation, leadership, and hierarchy have often been based on military participation. And the tremendous costs of maintaining military forces, particularly in the early modern and modern worlds have monopolized resources and shaped economies. All this merits our attention and justifies regarding military history as a distinct field.

Lynn sees three different genres of military history:

  1. Popular Military History aimed at a wide audience: Popular military history appeals directly to a broad audience. Its origins probably go back to when early humans regaled their comrades with stories of daring and skill in battle. From the campfire tale it became poetry and song, and later took the form of written accounts. Today, television provides a new format for popular military history. I remember when the Arts and Entertainment Network (A&E) showed so many programs on war that critics chided that A&E actually stood for “Armies and Enemies.” Now, we have the History Channel and the new Military History Channel to captivate American viewers, who are almost certainly mostly male
  2. Applied Military History aimed at a military audience: Applied military history is typified by its utility, specifically for the military profession. Some of that utility lies in the military’s desire to create an esprit de corps and to boost morale. But more important is the use of military history as part of the professional education of officers and as a guide in establishing doctrine and planning and waging war.
  3. Academic Military History aimed at an academic audience: Academic military history is much like the study of other historical specialties: its goal is to understand the past for its own sake; its standards demand the same high level of scholarship; and its intended audience is, above all, the community of historians. It boasts scholarly journals similar to those of other history specialties: the Journal of Military History, War in History, and War & Society.

Lynn’s discussion of “New” Military History is revealing and reflects my own views on the subject. While it is important to study all aspects of a war, it is still important to study the combat aspects as well. People who study war for war’s sake do not deserve to be ridiculed or dismissed by certain portions of academia:

During the last thirty years, three trends in academic military history have most impressed me. The first has been the “new military history” which first saw light in the 1960s and 1970s. This scholarly trend, which is hardly “new” any more, emphasized social and institutional history. It reflected the historical tastes of the time before the linguistic and cultural “turns.” The fact is that campaign and battle histories and military biography are not the rule but the exception in academic military history, and the “new military history” exaggerated this tendency. Its great contribution was to encourage much broader contexts; its major problem was to downplay the central role of combat. The new military history seemed almost happier with armies at peace than with the messy business of war. Consider such works as André Corvisier’s magisterial L’Armée française, Peter Karsten’s Naval Aristocracy, and the considerable number of books with “war and society” in the title, for example John R. Hale’s excellent War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450–1620.

In the latter part of the article, Lynn spends a great deal of time writing about the current state of Military History within academia. The following paragraph in particular seems to ring true:

While most historians would like to forget about military institutions and the conduct of war, military historians believe that military institutions and practices are fundamental to societies, that societies cannot be fully understood without reference to socially sanctioned, organized violence. While most historians consider war to be a byproduct of more important factors, military historians are far more likely to see war as an independent variable that must be understood in its own terms. And although international violence is regrettable, military historians are likely to see it as inevitable in history and to insist that it cannot simply be wished away in the past, present, and future.

I love the way Lynn sees people who study the currently “fashionable” topics in history, which is absolutely referring to race, class, and gender studies:

While a strategy for anchoring the field of military history concerns me most, in the long run what should concern us all is promoting and preserving historical studies in their full range. A limited selection of fashionable approaches to history studied in isolation is by its very nature a distortion. We gain by broad inclusion, not by narrow exclusion. Should the study of the conduct of war and military institutions be lost as a serious historical subdiscipline, it is not simply military historians who lose; it is all of us. My reading of the trend of the historical profession today is that commonly, although not always, incorporation of a specialty in vogue seems to entail piling on new positions in that field at the cost of eliminating other kinds of approaches. The philosophy seems to be that you cannot have too much of a good thing, but in historical studies that is a myopic argument.

So as not to simply rehash Lynn’s article, which you should go read in its entirety, I’ll clearly state my own views as they relate to the study of the American Civil War specifically. Yes, race, class, and gender studies, especially as they apply to the Civil War, have been neglected in the past. Yes, it is a good thing they are being studied more broadly now. However, they should not be studied so universally that other VALID historical topics are similarly discriminated against now as these other topics were in the past. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right. Keep in mind of course that these topics can be mixed in various books and should be. Mentioning slavery repeatedly in a tactical study of the first day of Gettysburg makes about as much sense as mentioning the Holocaust in a tactical study of one of the beachheads at Normandy. However, in a book discussing the tactical study of a battle where internment camps were found, for instance, it makes perfect sense. A Civil War parallel would be discussing slavery in a book detailing Sherman’s March, because many newly freed slaves trailed the columns in an effort to escape their masters. A study on Ft. Sumter might include quite a bit of material on the political and social events which led to the start of the war, with slavery as the prime topic of discussion as the main cause of the war. I’m glad I started reading blogs and writing my own, because without that experience, I would have never believed how skewed the views of some people really are and how quick some people are to dismiss those who study war for war’s sake.

A lot of what Lynn wrote resonates with me. If you are interested in military history as it applies to the Civil War or just in general, I think you will find his article illuminating. Go read it!


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