Empty Chair No More

Closely watched, lengthy search for a military historian at Wisconsin ends with a hire, perhaps suggesting the field is healthier than critics charge.
July 2, 2009

When conservative critics look at the field of history, one much repeated charge is that departments have obliterated fields like military history in favor of multiculturalism. And for those who have questioned the academy's commitment to military history in recent years, no institution has been more of a target than the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Wisconsin has for several years been trying to fill an endowed chair in military history and the length of the search (extended in part to raise more money) left some suspicious. "The ostensible reason for the delay is that the university wants to raise even more money, so that it can attract a top-notch senior scholar. There may be another factor as well: Wisconsin doesn’t actually want a military historian on its faculty," said a 2006 article in National Review. The piece added that "for all intents and purposes, military history in Madison is dead. It’s dead at many other top colleges and universities as well. Where it isn’t dead and buried, it’s either dying or under siege."

As of Wednesday, military history is in fact alive and well at Madison -- with John W. Hall in place as the first Ambrose-Hesseltine Professor in U.S. Military History. And as to other fears expressed in that National Review article and elsewhere, such as that leading universities were keeping military history alive only by setting loose cultural studies scholars to analyze the military, Wisconsin landed itself an Army major with an impressive combination of military and academic credentials.

Hall is a West Point graduate (who has taught there as well) and has worked most recently as a researcher in the Future Warfare Division of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. With a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he is an expert on "irregular wars" -- those involving counterinsurgencies or forces other than governmental armies. In September, Harvard University Press will be publishing his book, Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War. And Hall is working on a second book for Harvard, about the military history of Indian removal in the United States.

In an interview, Hall noted that he grew up in Wisconsin and said that the position he is starting is a "dream job," both for the subject matter he'll teach and write about and for being at Madison. "It's the only position I would be willing to leave my Army career for."

Hall said he was "well aware of the discussion and debate about the supposed demise of military history," but he questioned the accuracy of the reports. "Since I began my graduate training in 2001, I've seen a lot more discussion about the demise of military history than actual evidence and support of that discussion," he said. "It's not as bleak as some people have made it out to be."

Data from the American Historical Association back up Hall's view that military history -- while not nearly as popular as other subfields -- has not disappeared. In 2005, only 1.9 percent of historians at four-year colleges identified themselves as military historians, down from 2.4 percent in 1975. But during that time period, the percentage of history departments at four-year colleges with at least one military historian has gone up, to 35.2 percent from 29.9 percent. (While it is true from the data that history fields associated with study of race and gender have gone up in both categories, there is no evidence that those gains came from military history -- although diplomatic history took a major hit during those decades.)

Hall also said that there are limits to focusing on whether a professor is called a military historian. "The way I wrote my book defies easy categorization," he said. He added that some of the "most insightful books about military history" in recent years have come from scholars who aren't identified as military historians. He cited as examples John Dower's War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, Patrick Griffin's American Leviathan: Empire, Nation and Revolutionary Frontier and Jill Lepore's The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of Identity. Dower, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is known as a Japanese historian. Griffin, of the University of Notre Dame, and Lepore, of Harvard, are both identified as historians of early America.

"I view as military historians many people who don't call themselves military historians," Hall said.

And those like himself, who do call themselves military historians, in fact have long mixed military, social, political and diplomatic history in ways that defy the stereotype of only producing work "about drums and bugles."

Mark Grimsley, a military historian at Ohio State University who is currently a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College, said that he thinks the debates over military history's status have been oversimplified. Grimsley, through his teaching, writing and blog called Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, has argued that there are problems for military history, but that they aren't as straightforward as some suggest.

Ohio State is known for its strong military history program. But Grimsley noted that although many colleges and universities don't have a program in military history, they have a single professor with an interest in the field, and such professors receive support from their colleagues. He doesn't believe that other historians are hostile to the subject matter, although some commentators like to describe the work as "besieged," he noted. The real problem is simply "an incuriosity" about military history. While many military historians feel a duty to keep up in some way with a range of their colleagues' fields, many other historians "do not feel obliged to know very much about military history."

Grimisley said that he sees Hall's hire as part of a trend in which departments are embracing military historians "whose work connects strongly with other historical fields."

And that can be very good for the scholarship, Grimsley said, provided that it is not viewed as an either/or choice on some of the "traditional concerns" of military history. "I'm known as someone trying to expand [military history], but I wouldn't be very good if I didn't know a lot about commanders, campaigns, strategic policy making and other traditional concerns. Just because they are traditional does not mean that they are unimportant."

Robert H. Berlin, executive director of the Society for Military History, said that members of the group have been watching the Wisconsin search and that many were "very excited to see it filled."

Berlin said that he has seen consistent student interest in taking courses in military history. He added that he's seeing renewed interest from graduate students as well. In part, he said, this is because the society's leaders noticed "a lot of gray hair" at its meetings and so decided to start publicizing its programs to graduate students and creating small stipends to help them attend meetings. At this year's meeting, he said about 90 of the 450 attendees were graduate students -- more than double the total of grad students just a few years ago.


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