In the Line of Historical Fire

Scholars of war and the military consider how the Iraq conflict changes their responsibilities and careers.
January 10, 2006

Brian M. Linn's area of expertise is a war in which a U.S. invasion of a far-off country was almost immediately successful in toppling a government -- and in setting off an insurrection that took years to put down and that had far-reaching consequences.

Linn, a professor of history at Texas A&M University, is the author of two books on the U.S. war in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, which many people think of (if they think of it at all) as a footnote to the Spanish-American War. Linn's expertise has had him much in demand of late, as policy makers, journalists and others grapple with issues raised by the war in Iraq.

For the military historian, war is by no means a blessing. Sure it may produce source material for a new book, but it also probably means that people will attempt to put your research (which may or may not be relevant) into the framework of a current war. It means demands on your time that probably won't advance your standing among historians. Of course, a war may also make your research more relevant than ever before, as Linn has found.

When historians gathered this weekend in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, military historians organized a session to talk about their unusual situation right now. Panelists included historians who work in academe and those who work in the military -- all of whom said they face credibility issues. Those in academe must contend with those in the military who think they are scandal-mongers or irrelevant, and with academic colleagues who question whether they are sufficiently critical of the military. And scholars in the military -- even those with solid publication records -- face questions from academics about whether they are legitimate.

For military historians, a war is at the very least a chance to get some attention. In the history field as a whole, war history (like diplomatic history) is not a hot field. At the AHA session, which drew a full house, the audience appeared older and was notably more male than the average session. Phrases like "war against terrorism" were used repeatedly, without air quotes. It would be unfair to characterize the panel as pro-war, however, and some of the comments were quite damning of the Bush administration (although in understated ways).

Mark Stoler, a professor of history at the University of Vermont, said that the good military historian must constantly "shatter myths" -- while shifting among audiences. Stoler, who said he considers himself both a military and diplomatic historian, said he has three audiences: students, the public, and the military.

Members of all of those audiences turn to military history hoping that it will "offer a redemption story," and most of the time it doesn't, Stoler said. "I tell people, if you want a redemption story, go to church, go to synagogue."

But the audiences also differ. It's relatively easy to shatter myths held by undergraduates, Stoler said, because "their levels of ignorance are extraordinary." (Example: A student recently identified Guadalcanal on one of Stoler's exams as "the body of water that connected Europe to the Middle East oil fields during World War II.") Since undergraduates don't know much, "it easier to challenge their myths," Stoler said.

For the military, he said, the major problem he faces is the tendency "to confuse history with commemoration."

Some of the areas that Stoler said historians should do more work on -- and share with their various audiences -- are the role of chance in war, the interaction between political and military forces, and the role of civilian supremacy in the U.S. government.

Richard H. Kohn, a professor of history and chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author or editor of numerous books about military history and the relationship between civilian and military leadership in the United States. Panelists all joked about how the press calls they receive in wartime offer them their 15 minutes of fame. But Kohn said that time spent by military historians with journalists should be viewed seriously.

Kohn said that he typically has two to three serious conversations with journalists a week and that he views these discussions as an extension of "the teaching function" of a professor. Keeping up with current events enough to be helpful to reporters comes at "a cost," he said, to research projects. But it's a cost worth paying, to reach the many people who would never read a professor's book or attend a lecture.

"When people are asking for us, we'd better not hide in the library," he said.

Two speakers at the meeting work for the military -- and they faced skepticism from some in the audience about their independence. "I know I'm widely seen by some as a court historian," said Randy Papadopoulos of the U.S. Naval Historical Center. Both Papadopoulos and Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, said that limits have never been put on their research or their views. They said that in some cases, their findings were restricted for use within the military and in other cases may have been ignored, but they were not prevented from following through on their ideas.

Papadopoulos has just finished writing a book about everything that happened in the Pentagon on 9/11. His book will explore such issues as how military culture influenced initial reactions -- many people ran to the places hit hard, rather than away, from an instinct to go where help was needed. He also found that there was one demographic group overrepresented among those killed at the Pentagon on 9/11: black women, who make up a large portion of the federal work force.

Comparing the 9/11 attacks to other conflagrations in buildings, Papadopoulos found very little history about such situations, and had to go back to the Triangle Factory fire of 1911 to find an incident that attracted historians' interest.

Crane's work relates more directly to Iraq. A West Point graduate (with a Stanford University Ph.D.), Crane spent most of his career in the Army, including nine years teaching at his alma mater. When he left the Army, he said he had a hard time getting hired as a scholar by the Army War College because, he said, "they assumed a historian would be irrelevant and want to live in the past."

In fact, Crane co-wrote a report for the college's Strategic Studies Institute -- published in 2003 -- that outlined many of the problems that have come to hinder the U.S. forces since they gained control of Iraq's government. The report warns of the "how difficult this was going to be," and specifically predicts likely sources of tension, the possibility of significant casualties among U.S. forces, and other issues. The report was based on in-depth study of past U.S. military occupations, and study of Iraq.

As an example of the kind of situation identified by the report, Crane noted that government officials always like to talk about an "ideal vision of transition" after a war in which U.S. military forces turn over control to U.S. civilian forces who in turn give control to indigenous forces. But the capabilities of the indigenous forces are always much slower to rise than expected, and the U.S. military role tends to last much longer than expected.

Crane said that one of the myths currently in circulation is that there was no planning by the U.S. government for the problems it would face in Iraq after Saddam was gone. In fact, Crane said, his report was but one of many attempts at planning. The problem is that these efforts weren't coordinated or considered, not that they didn't exist, he said.

Those critical of the war may be relieved to know that his most recent assignment was to conduct a study -- again based on history -- of how the U.S. military disengages from a country. But here too, the history suggests that any positive outcomes may not be visible for some time.

"We use history to show how difficult it is to build democracy," Crane said, noting that after the Civil War, "it only took us 100 years to build democracy in the American South."

His studies and those of other historians, Crane said, show the need for political and military leaders to take history seriously. When it comes to advising those who run the country, Crane said, "we've conceded the field to political scientists," and he urged his fellow historians to make their perspectives better known.

Linn said that military historians face a different problem in academe. "Many of our academic colleagues are pretty hostile to the war on terror and the Bush administration," he said, and academe "doesn't treat the study of war and military history seriously."

The public takes military history much more seriously, he added, noting that military historians can sell serious work to a broader group of people outside academe than most other historians can. "Our books can have a great deal of impact outside of academia, while many of my colleagues write for each other," he said.

There is a "real temptation," Linn said, to leave academe and work in think tanks or other places where the pay is better. But he said that would be a mistake and he urged his colleagues in academe to stay put. In the world of Washington, he said, everyone must work on "hot issues." Whatever knowledge he brings to the table today about insurgencies comes from the fact that he was studying the issue when there was no debate on Iraq, Linn said. A scholar who comes to an issue for its historical significance, not because it is hot, may in the end have the ideas that matter, Linn said, and that's the kind of research academe alone nurtures well.


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