Normally I don’t write on current events or op-ed pieces, but prominent British correspondent and military historian, Max Hastings, had this to say in a recent editorial with Bloomberg about the direction of military history and war studies in U.S. colleges and universities:
…in centers of learning across North America, the study of the past in general, and of wars in particular, is in spectacular eclipse. History now accounts for a smaller share of undergraduate degrees than at any time since 1950. Whereas in 1970, 6% of American male and 5% of female students were history majors, the respective percentages are now less than 2% and less than 1%, respectively.
The revulsion from war history may derive not so much from students’ unwillingness to explore the violent past, but from academics’ reluctance to teach, or even allow their universities to host, such courses. Some dub the subject “warnography,” and the aversion can extend to the study of international relations.(Hastings, 2021, paras. 3 – 5)
You can find the entire article here.
Max Hastings goes on to make many other good points far more eloquently than I can. More prosaically, I think the article broadly points to the concepts of political correctness and (to some degree) cancel culture. You could probably draw parallels with censorship, as well. The point is that there’s a fear (at least in some circles) of confronting topics that people may find objectionable and grouping those who do study them into an extreme category. If you study military history, then you must be some jingoistic nationalist. As with many things, that’s a gross oversimplification that ignores the finer points of the topic.
From what I can tell, military history has generally been viewed with some derision and scorn in higher education. Very few colleges or universities in the U.S. actually offer degrees in “military history” itself. You can, of course, obtain degrees in history, but any study specifically within the sub-field of military history will have to be done on your own time. Perhaps you’d write your thesis or a term paper on a military operation. However, I’ve always got the feeling that military history isn’t viewed as a very serious subject in U.S. academia. It’s almost as if it’s perceived as a sort of low-brow topic meant for meat-headed morons who are easily amused by big guns, big explosions, and gratuitous violence. Obviously, no true scholar would dare stoop so low when they could study a true intellectual field that requires real (i.e. superior) intelligence, such as language, literature, or a science.
Well, I’m going to have to disagree with the snobs. In case you couldn’t tell from this blog, I study the Pacific Theater of WWII. More specifically, I research the Imperial Japanese Navy and its doctrine in comparison with that of the U.S. Navy. I read a lot of military history, study operations, and research weapons, strategies, and tactics. While I may not be a genius or a wealthy socialite, at least I can think, speak, and write in complete sentences.
Does all that time spent on researching the Pacific Theater make me some warmongering extremist? I certainly hope not. I study the Pacific Theater because of my interest in military history, WWII, and my academic background as a Japanologist. I’m curious as to why governments can sink so heavily into extremism and militarism like Japan did and what kind of lessons we can learn from that conflict. That being said, I have no overt desire to relive any of the battles of the Pacific War (or of any war for that matter), and I in no way condone the war crimes that Japan or any country (including the U.S.) committed during that conflict.
The study of WWII, in general, is the study of one of the pivotal moments in modern history which changed the course of mankind. It altered the geopolitical landscape as we know it and its effects are still felt, even to this day.
Other Reasons to Study Conflict
I can think of a couple of other reasons to study military history and conflict: complacency and distance.
There are lots of clever sayings about studying history. George Santayana is famous for quoting that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Complacency can be deadly, and history is filled with examples of people and governments that failed to heed the warning signs of impending disaster. Comfortable in their idyllic lives, they suffered a rude awakening once the sledgehammer of reality came down. By then it was too late, and people were left struggling to catch up. Now, nobody has a crystal ball to predict the future, nor a time machine to go back and correct past mistakes, but being at least partially prepared and planning ahead of time is better than having no plan at all.
The second reason for distance addresses the fact that most of us will never see an actual war with our own eyes. Sure, the news media can broadcast images and videos of wars, but the majority of them fail at showing the daily reality of it. Military operations aren’t some kind of non-stop firefight. The majority of people serving in uniform in a war zone are in support roles and don’t experience the shooting war outside of the wire.
Regarding this distancing of our society from the realities of war, I’m reminded of a scene from the 1993 film, Patlabor 2, directed by Mamoru Oshii. Two characters are having a philosophical discussion on the validity of Japan’s pacifistic stance following their defeat in WWII and the implications of maintaining that pacifism and peace at the expense of indirectly supporting and benefiting off of proxy wars during the Cold War. One of them, Arakawa, a JSDF intelligence officer, says to police officer Gotoh:
While we gladly reap the benefits that come from war, we distance ourselves from it. We banish war to a realm beyond the TV screen, forgetting that…. No. We pretend to forget that we ourselves are on the rear lines of the battle. Remaining in denial about a fraud like this will bring down a great punishment on our heads.
When asked by Gotoh if it’s God who will punish them, Arakawa replies:
In this city [Tokyo], everybody is like a god. Accessing other realms of existence without having to move an inch. Gaining insight into realities that they’ve never seen nor touched themselves. It’s just that these gods can’t be bothered to do anything. If the gods won’t do it, people will.
Of course, Arakawa is arguing that Japan, for all of its pacifism, ultimately has blood on its hands. People just pretend that these things don’t happen because they happen in some far-off place. Later in the film, Gotoh even quotes from James Dunnigan’s book, How to Make War when he says:
The farther away from the slaughter, the more optimism replaces reality. Reality is often nonexistent at the highest decision-making levels. This is especially true when you are losing a war.Dunnigan, 2003, p. 346
Dunnigan is more broadly referring to how the media’s portrayal of war influences the public’s perception of it. If our only concept of war and the military is based on what we see in the news, then we tend to get a very biased view of things which only further exacerbates that distance from reality.
Going further, the study of military history shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as mere entertainment. The snapshots of war that movies and video games depict, while visceral and occasionally thought-provoking, do little to help the audience synthesize the long-term aspects of human conflict. That’s where the subject of history comes in.
From a broad perspective, history can be characterized as a narrative detailing the causes of events, the course the events took, and the consequences that the events had. As Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris (2000) note history is concerned with human actions within society and the particulars of how changes occurred over time (p. 248). It helps students build up logical relationships between events.
The problem is that, whether through the news or entertainment, we’re effectively conditioned to the idea that war is something that happens in “other places of the globe” and it doesn’t touch us. In contrast, studying military history, while not necessarily getting us closer to the on-the-ground reality, is a way to gain a larger perspective on the workings of a conflict and the geopolitical region(s) it’s tied to. From an academic standpoint, it often forces the student to become aware of the historical geopolitical background of these wars and the effects that they ultimately had. In that regard, it moves the subject beyond the realm of simple “warnography” or “military porn” that’s solely focused on the shooting and the gore, and into the realm of history and its sub-fields. By removing courses on military history, we’re removing the opportunities for students to examine our most destructive failures as nations and societies and use them as teachable moments.
Studying military history probably won’t usher in world peace any time soon. However, the more we research it, the better we can gain an understanding of events to mitigate the effects of laxity and de-contextualization. Furthermore, we shouldn’t dismiss the study of military history, or write it off, as some kind of pubescent fascination with violence. The more you learn about military history, the more opportunity you have to build relationships between the causes and effects of conflicts. Through this study, we can learn a great deal from our failures when we take an honest look at them.
In the Classroom: Confronting the Unpleasant Facts
I give a lecture to students at the beginning of the year in history class. I emphasize that students will learn about a lot of unpleasant things in history. In fact, the deeper you dig into the unpleasantness of history, the more you realize that there is no such thing as “the good old days.” Additionally, I tell students that they’ll learn things they won’t agree with. I’m not asking them to agree or disagree with the actions of historical people or events, but just to understand that they happened. Furthermore, I don’t want them to confuse understanding with belief. I’m teaching history, not some religious dogma. You may find a historical topic disagreeable, and while you may find it relatable, I don’t expect you to take it personally. In fact, I’ve read many student papers on horrific topics like genocides, war crimes, lynchings, serial killers, etc. However, they were decent pieces of historical writing and I didn’t dismiss them simply because I found the topics objectionable. (The debate on assigning moral judgments to history is for another time.)
Like many fields, education picks up on the current climates and public sentiment. In the article, Hastings (2021) further mentioned that more faculties are favoring classes that focus on race and minority relations (para. 10). There’s nothing wrong with that, and given the current political/cultural climate in the U.S., I would say that it’s appropriate. History teachers across the country are teaching (or being forced to teach) curricula and standards that focus on our checkered past of racism and discrimination. Subsequently, students are having to confront their own realities and the unpleasantness that that entails.
In my experience, this focus on culture and race is also true at the secondary level, as well. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. To be clear, I have no problem with teaching content about race or social justice issues, however, I do have mixed feelings about how we’re going about it. On the upshot, it forces students to examine the unpleasant facts of our past in a manner that allows them to make connections with today’s society. In that respect, it can hit very close to home for many students, particularly if they have personal connections to these marginalized groups. So it certainly is still doing justice to the historical method. On the downside, the myopic focus on these topics removes the opportunities for students to become aware of other causal factors in historical events and it limits the perspectives through which students can examine history. The truth is that not all teenagers are going to engage with history through the lens of culture and race, important though it may be. I, for one, prefer a more moderate approach and we should always remember that there are many different interpretations of history. To solely study one interpretation through a particular lens or bias, simply because it’s currently “in vogue” or relevant, runs the risk of excluding other potentially important viewpoints. Subsequently, I’ve found that the best engagement occurs when students can choose their own approach and topics when learning history given that you can study history from virtually any perspective, from the arts to the sciences.
Being a sensitive issue, racism sometimes brings out the political views of students and their parents. I’ve gotten my share of emails from parents who expressed their “disappointment” about the current social studies curriculum/standards (which I didn’t create) and its examination of history through the lens of social justice. I have to explain to these parents that these educational standards were selected by the state’s Department of Education and the curriculum was created by the school’s department chair; I’m just teaching what I’m told to teach by the powers that be. While their child may be really into studying WWII, unfortunately, we’re not covering that topic at all this semester (or any war, for that matter) and instead are focusing on underrepresented and marginalized groups in history. Any further complaints should be addressed to the relevant contact. (I’m sure there’s an argument in there about me “blindly following orders” like the Nazis did, but that’s for another time. Haha!)
To play devil’s advocate, this is a high school history class and not a military history course, so we can’t just sit around solely studying battles and wars just because Johnny has a fascination with war movies, World of Tanks, and German machine guns. In fact, the sheer breadth of history means that we can’t linger too long on any single topic when we only have one semester (or one school year depending on your circumstances) to cover the curriculum. This is one of the reasons why it seems like your history class just “skims” over topics in a cursory manner. We have a lot of content to cover and we need to move through the topics. Additionally, public education in America, for what it’s worth, tends to have a very liberal agenda and cringes at the notion of studying warfare on the idea that it would encourage jingoism in teenagers. (I’ll write another post where I discuss playing a war game in a high school World History class.) The reality is that if you really want to study military history, then your best bet is probably to attend a military academy (or ROTC), and subsequently, a staff college.
Going back to why we shouldn’t rule out military history, warfare, much like any sub-field of history, can be examined from various other perspectives, such as politics, economics, sociology, and even art. In WWII alone, there were units defined by their racial makeup, such as the Tuskegee Airmen or the 442nd Nisei Regiment. Historians, like John Dower, have written books examining the racial tensions between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific Theater, and others have published collections of oral histories detailing the experiences of citizens in various nations that experienced the war. There’s no reason to exclude any perspective or sub-field of history in favor of another, but those decisions are ultimately above my pay grade. Through whatever lens high school students learn history, it’s important that we don’t shy away from the unpleasant facts. Both racism and warfare are unpleasant. The trick is making these topics resonate with students. To the still-developing teenage mind, history tends to happen in a vacuum unless given more context. If we ignore one approach to history to focus on another, then we deprive students of further context.
Finally, conflict is a broad category that encompasses not just warfare, but peacekeeping and humanitarian operations among many others. These are referred to as Operations Other Than War (OOTW). These operations further underscore the military’s relationship to a citizenry. For example, in the U.S., the Army and Air National Guard are frequently mobilized to render assistance during disasters. The Coast Guard operates as both a federal law enforcement agency and a military service that ensures the security of America’s maritime domain and the safety of recreational boaters. Research universities and defense contractors are tapped to study the viability of weapons and to provide further expertise in various fields (for better or for worse). Even the internet itself has origins as a Department of Defense computer network and was used for military, business, and academic purposes prior to becoming more mainstream in the 1990s. The point is that the military and the military-industrial complex do have some level of integration into society in America, even though less than 1% of American citizens are serving in uniform.
Studying conflicts in an academic setting isn’t done for entertainment, nor is it about getting some vicarious thrill through the violence. It’s about searching for reasons and solutions to our mistakes through an educational format. While we can’t study military history at the secondary level to the same depth as an undergraduate or graduate student, it can still be examined from any number of perspectives and tied to a variety of topics. Regardless of focus, basic historical methods still apply and students should be encouraged to examine history from a variety of perspectives while being made aware of causal factors and consequences. Military history studies the flashpoints in human history that are easily recognizable, if only for the suffering that they inflict on others. While wars and conflicts don’t constitute the sole points upon which history pivots, the multitude of perspectives from which they can be studied shouldn’t be ignored, nor should they be completely dismissed on the basis of being intellectually unfashionable.
Dunnigan, J.F. (2003). How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the 21st Century. Quill.
Furay, C., & Salevouris, M.J. (2000). The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (2nd ed.). Harland Davidson.
Hastings, M. (2021, January 31). American Universities Declare War on Military History. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-01-31/max-hastings-u-s-universities-declare-war-on-military-history.
Oshii, M. (Director). (1993). Patlabor 2: The Movie. Production I.G.