The American Historian

Beyond “A Company, B Company” History: A Military History State of the Field

John David Southard

There are many academic historians who perceive military history as a field that clings stubbornly to gratuitous narratives of guns, battles, and commanders. Those who confine the field to its traditional roots certainly have evidence to support this claim. Popular presses and retail bookstores, cognizant of the American public’s interest in war, pad their catalogs and shelves with an abundance of traditional military histories written by academics and non-academics alike. Yet traditional military history today lacks the commanding presence it once enjoyed in college and university history departments. Since the 1970s historians have increasingly circumvented the field’s traditional framework by amalgamating social, cultural, economic, and political themes with military and war-related topics. This “new” military history (new in that it is different from traditional military history) engages themes that battle narratives typically ignore, such as masculinity and gender in the machismo-filled world of war, the experiences of African American and Chicano soldiers and veterans, interactions between American soldiers and foreign armies, and the inextricable relationship between war and society, to name just a few. Over the last forty years, then, military history has adapted to the changing nature of the history discipline and evolved into a much more diverse and dynamic field.>

Traditional military history continues to maintain relevancy in academia, but only to a certain degree. Many academic historians simply have grown tired of chronological battle narratives that lack a broader context. In response, some traditional military historians have argued that their field is disdained simply because critics are jealous of its commercial success. But the truth is that academic historians have soured on unoriginal traditional military history, not the field as a whole. Many historians—some without a military history background—have used traditional military history narratives as integral pieces of research projects with a much wider scope. In order to keep military history vibrant, its practitioners must continue to embrace and expand the field’s progressive historiographical developments.

The spark for “new” military history was ignited in the 1960s and 1970s, when traditional military history and its professional practitioners began to gradually diminish in number and influence in academic history departments. There was increasing demand for scholars whose research centered on formerly overlooked fields such as African American, labor, and women’s history. As the military historian Robert Citino observed in 2008, “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.” In other words, military history became just one of many more specialties offered by history departments. In the 1970s military historians such as Peter Karsten and Gerald Linderman helped to provide the groundwork for the outpouring of “new” military history over the succeeding decades.

As evidence of the field’s increasing diversity, historians of varying backgrounds and specialties currently form the intellectual nucleus of military history. The definition of a military historian today no longer refers exclusively to someone who claims military history as his or her specialty.[1] Many modern military historians emerged from graduate school as experts in environmental, political, diplomatic, or cultural history. Yet they have since used their specialties and backgrounds to offer fresh and perceptive analyses of the history of the military, war, and warfare. For example, in War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes (2012), the environmental historian Lisa Brady demonstrates how the environment, particularly agriculture, shaped the planning and execution of successful Union military strategy. In an e-mail exchange, Brady told me, “I absolutely see myself as an environmental historian first and foremost, but I am also a military historian.” Kyle Longley, a self-proclaimed military historian who first specialized and published books in diplomatic and political history, has done a great service for military history, especially Vietnam War scholars, by situating the Americans who fought in Vietnam within the context of their diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Brady and Longley represent just two of the many historians in recent years who have added military history to their academic repertoires.[2]

Despite the field’s development, military history has failed to shed its perception as a field focused narrowly on guns, ammo, and airplanes. According to Wayne Lee, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, modern military history “is often found guilty by association with applied and popular military history.”[3] Lee’s argument aptly applies to what I call “A Company, B Company” military histories. A major propellant for the popularity of traditional military history, “A Company, B Company” books offer day-by-day and in some cases hour-by-hour accounts of battles and operations, often intermixed with dialogue between soldiers. Works of the late Stephen E. Ambrose, who received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, epitomize “A Company, B Company” history. Ambrose was best known for his inspirational and intimate million-selling books about American soldiers in the European Theater of World War II overcoming astounding odds to emerge victorious over Nazi Germany.[4]

Indeed, there are hundreds of books dedicated to specific operations, battles, and campaigns such as D-Day or Gettysburg. Granted, many military historians have published important works on landmark battles, some of which deal with their significance in American culture and memory.[5] Yet the number of these “new” military histories dealing with a particular battle pales in comparison with the seemingly countless “A Company, B Company” narratives. Moreover, such traditional military histories typically avoid incorporating non-military topics into the overall grand narrative, which speaks to the heart of the issue at hand: some military historians ignore social, cultural, and political topics. Mark Grimsley, a military historian at Ohio State University, notes that while the history community has actively sought to blend war and military affairs into their research, military historians “were too busy writing about our subject in a way that did not connect with the concerns of non-military historians.”[6]

Some of the staunchest supporters of traditional military history have characterized their field as under siege from historians who focus their research on issues of race, class, labor, gender, and sexuality. Some have even insinuated that antiwar activists turned historians have actively strategized to banish military history to the unsavory margins of academia. Some military historians have argued that social, cultural, and political historians are not qualified to teach or even research military history.[7] And some military historians excoriated historical associations and academic history journals for allegedly ignoring military history. In a 1997 essay, John A. Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reported that he had sifted through twenty years of American Historical Review articles to find military history conspicuously absent. Lynn charged that “they are out to get us, and military history has been compelled to receive the ‘cutting edge’ like a bayonet in the guts.”[8]

For the most part, however,the military history community has encouraged the continued diversification of the field and welcomed all historians, despite their thematic backgrounds. According to Robert Berlin, the executive director of the Society for Military History (SMH), the society’s membership has doubled in the last ten years to about 2,700 individuals. The annual SMH conference features a vibrant atmosphere in which a diverse group of military historians present an array of paper topics. However, there seems to be a sharp contrast between the dynamism of the SMH conference and the military history job market. Many recently minted military history Ph.D.s (and some not-so-recently minted) have found that jobs for military historians are few and far between.[9]

Amid the growing popularity of new military history in the 1970s, the prominent military historian Dennis Showalter made “A Modest Plea for Drums and Trumpets,” arguing that military historians should not dismiss the battles and operations that have formed the “essence” of military history. Since the study of combat is what differentiates military history from other fields, military historians should continue to study battles and operations. Yet we must also embrace a willingness to seriously engage non-military history topics, and present the actions of “A Company” and “B Company” within the broader context of American and World history.

 

An earlier version of this essay was published online in 2012. See John Southard, “Crayons, Fraternities, and Military Historians: The Perception and State of American Military History,” Tropics of Meta, Sept. 27, 2012, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/crayons-fraternities-and-military-historians-the-perception-and-state-of-american-military-history/.

The endnotes for this article can be found on page 47.

 

[1] Justin Ewers, “Why Don't More Colleges Teach Military History?,” U.S. News and World Report, April 3, 2008, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/04/03/why-dont-colleges-teach-military-history.

[2] Lisa Brady, War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (2012). Kyle Longley, Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam (2008); Kyle Longley, The Morenci Marines: A Tale of Small Town America and the Vietnam War (2013).

[3] Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” Journal of American History, 93 (March 2007), 1116.

[4]See for example Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (1992); Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day (1994); and Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers (1997).

[5] On Gettysburg, see Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (2003); Thomas Desjardin, These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory (2004); and Jennifer Murray, On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933–2012 (2014). On D-Day, see Michael Dolski, Sam Edwards, and John Buckley, eds., D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration (2014).

[6] Mark Grimsley, “Why Military History Sucks,” n.d., http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/grimsley1/sucks.htm.

[7] See discussions on this issue in various fall 1996 H-War discussions titled “Teaching Military History” and “Teaching US Military History” at http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=lx&list=H-War&user=&pw=&month=9610

[8] John A. Lynn, “‘Rally Once Again’: The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” n.d., >http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/grimsley1/dialogue/lynn.htm. Italics in original.

[9] One military historian wrote in 2011 that those seeking military history jobs will “never get a break” in American universities because tenure-track positions in history departments “are held by the Vietnam generation of stay at homes.” He recommended that job-seeking military historians should look towards “the more adult system” in the U.K. See H-War discussion post at http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-war&month=1101&week=b&msg=O03rrNxWFsJ5Lxfp6ATxVA&user=&pw. Over the last three years, a relatively small number of academic history departments have created positions specifically tailored for “military history.” One must note that department searches for specialists in the “American Revolution” and “Civil War” do not apply inherently or exclusively to military historians. Some point to the government and postgraduate military schools as sources of ample employment for military historians. The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, have also been sources of employment for military historians. Yet acquiring a job with the government has its own set of formidable bureaucratic and political obstacles.