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American Universities Declare War on Military History

daftandbarmy

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Isn’t most American history technically ‘military’ history anyways? I mean, they sing a song about a famous battle everytime they crank out their national anthem....

By Max Hastings.... he's awesome!


"The world applauds the scientists who have created vaccines to deliver humanity from Covid-19. One certainty about our future: There will be no funding shortfall for medical research into pandemics.

Now, notice a contradiction. War is also a curse, responsible for untold deaths. Humans should do everything possible to mitigate it. And even if scientists cannot promise a vaccine, the obvious place to start working against future conflicts is by researching the causes and courses of past ones.

Yet 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.

Fredrik Logevall, a distinguished Harvard historian and author of seminal works on Vietnam, along with a new biography of John F. Kennedy, remarked to me on the strangeness of this, given that the U.S. is overwhelmingly the most powerful, biggest-spending military nation on earth. “How this came to be and what it has meant for America and the world is surely of surpassing historical importance,” he said. “Yet it’s not at the forefront of research among academic historians in this country.”

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. Less than half of all history departments now employ a diplomatic historian, against 85% in 1975. As for war, as elderly scholars retire from posts in which they have studied it, many are not replaced: the roles are redefined.

An eminent historian recently told me of a young man majoring in science at Harvard who wanted to take humanities on history, including the U.S. Civil War. He was offered only one course — which addressed the history of humans and their pets.

Paul Kennedy of Yale, author of one of the best-selling history books of all time, “The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers,” is among many historians who deplore what is, or rather is not, going on. He observed to me that while some public universities, such as Ohio State and Kansas State, have strong program in the history of war, “It’s in the elite universities that the subject has gone.”

“Can you imagine Chicago, or Berkeley, or Princeton having War Studies departments?” he asked. “Military history is the most noxious of the ‘dead white male’ subjects, and there’s also a great falling away in the teaching of diplomatic, colonial and European political history.”

Kennedy notes that war studies are highly popular with students, alumni and donors, “but the sticking point is with the faculty — where perhaps only a small group are openly hostile, but a larger group don’t think the area is important enough.”

Harvard offers few history courses that principally address the great wars of modern times. Many faculties are prioritizing such subjects as culture, race and ethnicity. Margaret Macmillan, of the University of Toronto and Oxford, observes that war is one of the great cataclysmic events, alongside revolution, famine and financial collapse, that can change history.

As the author of the bestseller “Peacemakers,” an epochal study of the 1919 Versailles conference, she has written about the decline in university courses on conflict: “Our horror at the phenomenon itself has affected the willingness to treat it as a serious subject for scholarship. An interest in war is somehow conflated with approval for it.”

Mindless mudslingers have attacked her as a war-lover for making the observation — commonplace among scholars of the subject — that conflicts can bring scientific or social benefits to mankind.

Tami Davis Biddle, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, has written, “Unfortunately, many in the academic community assume that military history is simply about powerful men — mainly white men —fighting each other and/or oppressing vulnerable groups.”

Universities excuse themselves for shunning history by citing the need to address contemporary subjects such as as emotions, food and climate change. Some also urge that students believe they can better serve their own interests — and justify tuition costs — by choosing vocational majors that will enhance their employability. Yet Logevall’s Vietnam is one of the most popular history courses at Harvard.

History sells prodigiously in the world’s bookstores. I have produced a dozen works about conflict, and my harshest critic would struggle to claim that these reflect an enthusiasm for it. I often quote a Norwegian World War II Resistance hero, who wrote in 1948, “Although wars bring adventures that stir the heart, the true nature of war is composed of innumerable personal tragedies and sacrifices, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.”

Those words do not represent an argument for pacifism. Our societies must be willing, when necessary, to defend themselves in arms. But our respective presidents and prime ministers might less readily adopt kinetic solutions — start shooting — if they possessed a better understanding of the implications.

Before resorting to force, governments, as well as military commanders, should always ask: “What are our objectives? And are they attainable?” Again and again — in recent memory, in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — those questions were neither properly asked nor answered, with consequences we know. Governments succumb to what I call gesture strategy.

Part of the trouble lies with the military, sometimes over-eager to demonstrate “the utility of force,” or rather, to justify their stupendous budgets. More often, however, blame lies with politicians ignorant of the difficulties of leveraging F-35s, cruise missiles, drone aircraft and combat infantry to produce a desired political outcome.

It is extraordinary that so many major U.S. universities renounce, for instance, study of the Indochina experience, which might assist a new generation not to do it again. Marine General Walt Boomer, a distinguished Vietnam vet, said to me five years ago, when I was researching that war: “It bothers me that we didn’t learn a lot. If we had, we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.”

Biddle has written: “The U.S. military does not send itself to war. Choices about war and peace are made by civilians — civilians who, increasingly, have no historical or analytical frameworks to guide them. They know little or nothing about the requirements of the Just War tradition … the logistical, geographical and physical demands of modern military operations.”

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is not a stupid man. But he might have made less of a mess of U.K. foreign policy had he accepted the advice of some people who understood both war and the Muslim world better than his ill-informed Downing Street clique.

In 2011, the chief of the British defense staff, General Sir David Richards, begged Cameron not to drag the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Libya. But the prime minister, in the spirit of a boy scout, wished to do a good deed in a wicked world by promoting the overthrow of President Moammar Al Qaddafi. The rest — the Western intervention and the murderous chaos that has persisted ever since — are, alas, matters of record.

It would be absurd to pretend that study of the past is a guarantee against repeating its mistakes. But the world has cause to be grateful that in 1962, JFK read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” about the outbreak of World War I. Kennedy thus went into the Cuban Missile Crisis conscious of the peril that a local flare-up — as in the Balkans in 1914 — could precipitate a global catastrophe.

The Oxford professor Sir Michael Howard, who died in 2019, was my close friend and mentor over 50 years, the wisest human being I have ever known. In the 1950s, he created the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, which prospers to this day.

Even more important, he was among the founders in 1958 of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The IISS came about because some brilliant intellectuals, on both sides of the Atlantic, were fearful of the peril of war. They dismissed the feasibility or even desirability of unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Rather, they sought to promote understanding, among NATO and Warsaw Pact members alike, that nuclear conflict must be ruled out, because its consequences could not conceivably advantage even a supposed victor.

Howard describes in his memoirs his own first visit to the U.S. in the spring of 1960, “as a missionary on behalf of the Institute.” He found Washington “a military capital” with “almost more uniforms on the street than I remembered in wartime London”:

There was an electric excitement in the air that I found terrifying. This, I thought, was what Europe must have been like before 1914 … This seemed a people who, in spite of the Second World War and Korea, had not really experienced war, and who found the prospect an invigorating challenge. It was in just such an atmosphere, I thought, that wars began.”

Howard became even more alarmed after attending a lecture on nuclear warfighting given by Hermann Kahn at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. Some RANDSmen whom he met were debating how long it might take Los Angeles to get back to “normal” after a nuclear attack.

It was in this climate that Howard and like-minded academics promoted debate, in Europe and America, about responsible strategy and defense. Today, almost everyone who knows Cold War history recognizes that all the talking — international conferences, seminars, formal dialogues — played a significant role in averting a nuclear showdown. Not for nothing is the IISS Journal, then as now, entitled Survival.

To those who knew Michael Howard or read his writing, it would be fantastic to suggest that because he devoted his life to the study of conflict and international relations, he thus spread the pollution of war, or advanced a doctrine of force. By implication, however, such is now the conviction of many great North American institutions of learning.

A few years ago, a history department in the Canadian Maritime provinces was offered a fully funded chair in naval history — and rejected it. Paul Kennedy told me recently that he is amazed by the lack of interest in naval affairs at U.S. universities, “since we are by far the greatest naval power in the world, and the global naval scene is heating up enormously.”

Many, indeed most, academic institutions across the continent are infected with an intellectual virus that causes them to reject study of subjects that seem to some faculty members distasteful. This represents a betrayal of the principles of curiosity, rigor and courage that must underpin all worthwhile scholarship.

MacMillan demands: “Do we really want citizens who have no knowledge of how our values, political and economic structures came into being? Do we ever want another president at the head of the most powerful country in the world, such as Donald Trump, who asserted that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in response to terrorist attacks, and was right to be there?”

In Britain, by comparison, history continues to thrive. About the same number of students embark on first degrees in the subject as take law. Post-graduate studies are especially popular. Some 30 institutions offer War Studies programs. On the European continent, those at Stockholm and Leiden Universities are particularly respected. The problem — we might even call it the repugnance — appears an explicitly North American phenomenon.

North America’s great universities should be ashamed of their pusillanimity. War is no more likely to quit our planet than are pandemics. The academics who spurn its study are playing ostriches. Their heads look no more elegant, buried in the sand."



https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/a...sIP8Bt1gaZgcuiKmI-7nK1PU7wCrVzw-HeJJhEDvSTQMg
 

CBH99

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Very depressing.

On a positive note, I work with a LOT of younger people in one of my jobs. Like a lot. On average, about 1000 every weekend or so.

And while some are the typical young brats who allow social media to dictate their thoughts & beliefs... I'm consistently really impressed with how sick and tired THEY ARE of how PC things have become, and how well informed some of them are.

It gives me hope LOL but I've had some really interesting chats with some of them, and leave the chat feeling "We may not agree on everything, but this kid is down to earth & sick of the BS too"


Lets just make sure Canadian universities don't follow the same path
 

Humphrey Bogart

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The irony of this is funny. It was Academics who in the 50s and 60s thought they knew best and marginalized the Military Officer Corps in the decision making process in Washington and elsewhere.
 

cavalryman

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Would invoking George Santayana be in poor taste at this point? Asking for a friend.
 

daftandbarmy

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Would invoking George Santayana be in poor taste at this point? Asking for a friend.

Never poor taste to tell the truth!

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.
 

FJAG

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In a capitalist system, however, isn't a shortage of universities that teach history (because their aging faculty were all hippies in the sixties and seventies and too intimidated to wander out into the real world and get a real job) and a glut of students interested in studying history just another opportunity for someone with an entrepreneurial spirit?

🤔
 

Kilted

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It's not contained to the States. I have done history courses at RMC and another university that might also be located in Kingston. There is a significant difference in how history in general is presented. At the other university I did a two semester Canadian history course that didn't even mention the War of 1812. Some of the courses were more concerned with social causes, that they almost forgot about everything else.
 

daftandbarmy

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In a capitalist system, however, isn't a shortage of universities that teach history (because their aging faculty were all hippies in the sixties and seventies and too intimidated to wander out into the real world and get a real job) and a glut of students interested in studying history just another opportunity for someone with an entrepreneurial spirit?

🤔
Because tenured educators are known as phenomenal entrepreneurs? ;)
 

Blackadder1916

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In a capitalist system, however, isn't a shortage of universities that teach history (because their aging faculty were all hippies in the sixties and seventies and too intimidated to wander out into the real world and get a real job) and a glut of students interested in studying history just another opportunity for someone with an entrepreneurial spirit?

🤔

Is there "a glut of students interested in studying history" or is it that universities (in their entrepreneurial spirit) have recognized what the market wants - a degree that leads to a well paying job? Is there a shortage of universities that teach history or is it, to somewhat keep to the topic, more that courses dealing with a particular subject - the military- are not always available when someone with such an interest wants to include it on the way to earning a degree. Yes, the focus of courses are often the result of the particular interest of the professor but that doesn't necessarily mean that universities have "declared war" on military history, it's more likely that Hasting's view of a deliberate singling out of military history should probably be more nuanced as per this 2008 article on the same subject.

. . .

Instead, most of the historians interviewed by U.S. News believe the study of war, like several other, more traditional historical disciplines such as political and diplomatic history, has simply been de-emphasized as the field has expanded since the 1960s. Amid that decade's social upheaval, historians finally began examining the plight of the many groups overlooked by scholars in the past, from women and African-Americans to factory workers and gays. Military history, as a result, fell out of favor. "It wasn't just that people were antiwar and didn't want to read books about war anymore," says Citino, "History itself splintered into a number of different approaches. Suddenly, if you were a history department that had pretensions about being world class, you had to cover a lot more bases." While the number of specialties in history departments expanded, budgets did not. Some subjects got squeezed. . . .

A lot of times, like most things involving the public purse, it comes down to the basic question - who's paying for it?

Oh, as to the comment about hippies getting a job in the real world, the same was said to me when I went into (and retired from) the CF.
 

Navy_Pete

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Good read, thanks!

I think the bit about a lack of real education about what global war entails providing a lack of context for decision makers is an important one. The best anti-war arguement I've ever seen was a tour of battlefields like Vimy Ridge followed by a walk through a cemetery with 10s of thousands of tombstones. Seeing hundreds of graves for 17, 18 and 19 year olds really blew through any empty war propaganda.
 

Brad Sallows

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History isn't the only discipline under pressure. Traditional humanities are all suffering.

1. Piece of paper is ticket to better jobs.
2. Piece of paper is hard to earn.
3. People would like piece of paper to be easier to earn.
4. Piece of paper is also expensive.
5. In Canada, cost of getting piece of paper is heavily subsidized, so financial risk of pursuing easier piece of paper and ending up at Starbuck's is somewhat mitigated.

The expansion of easier programs at the expense of harder ones is just a consequence.
 

RangerRay

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I’ve heard Margaret Macmillan fret about this on several podcasts recently. She says that uni administrators are aghast that anyone would want to study war or military history, thinking that these programs glorify war. It’s really sad.
 

The Bread Guy

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History isn't the only discipline under pressure. Traditional humanities are all suffering ...
Yup - and this should be remembered when we hear some calling for an end to all humanities disciplines - something babies and bath water.
 

CBH99

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History isn't the only discipline under pressure. Traditional humanities are all suffering.

1. Piece of paper is ticket to better jobs.
2. Piece of paper is hard to earn.
3. People would like piece of paper to be easier to earn.
4. Piece of paper is also expensive.
5. In Canada, cost of getting piece of paper is heavily subsidized, so financial risk of pursuing easier piece of paper and ending up at Starbuck's is somewhat mitigated.

The expansion of easier programs at the expense of harder ones is just a consequence.
Not only that, but the shorter & easier programs are often times more practical and applicable to well paying jobs - so like you said, the risk of taking the course and working elsewhere is smaller, and mitigated.

I'm thinking office medical assistant courses, unit clerk courses, X-Ray technician, etc etc. These courses run between a few months, and 2 years (which actually is significantly less when you look at how the semesters are arranged) and these folks are almost guaranteed well-paid employment in the healthcare field upon graduation.

Really does make it look like a better option than a 4 year degree which 'may' get you a job in that field. But, as we all know, it also may very well not...


0.02
 

Brad Sallows

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I was thinking about traditional 4-year university programs, and the difference in degree of difficulty between, say, traditional philosophy or history or language or literature, versus "X studies".
 

daftandbarmy

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I was thinking about traditional 4-year university programs, and the difference in degree of difficulty between, say, traditional philosophy or history or language or literature, versus "X studies".

Recently we've hired a couple of people out of the Masters in Management program at UBC. It combines a BA/BSc (any discipline) with a business focused Master's Degree. Bachelor + Master of Management Dual Degree | UBC Undergraduate Programs and Admissions

They have been excellent ambassadors for the program so far. If it had existed when I was going to University I would have jumped at it in a heartbeat.
 
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