Military History: By Whom, for Whom?

Historians' panel centers on what it takes to write good military history. Hint -- it's not brass.

January 8, 2016

ATLANTA -- It’s an old question: Does one have to have military experience to write and teach military history? Panelists at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, all of them military veterans and academics, offered fresh perspectives on the matter here Thursday. And while their responses differed somewhat, a common thread emerged: strong evidence and scholarship and -- hopefully -- good writing should matter more than personal insight.

Aaron O’Connell, an associate professor of U.S. military cultural history at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps, had the strongest reaction, saying the “‘he or she hasn’t served’ arguments are largely a symptom of a broader problem in the historical profession today.” Namely, he said, there's “overemphasis on questions of identity and authenticity, which tie the quality of the scholarship to the background of the author” -- rather than the quality of the writing and the research.

Just as one shouldn’t have to be gay to write a history of gay Americans or a woman to do women’s history, he argued, “if you think personal experience is an essential criterion for doing history, then you invalidate any inquiry into a period before your own life experience.” He called for an end to such arguments, lest historians be reduced to memoirists.

Illustrating his point, O’Connell detailed a conversation he’d had with Harvard University Press leading up to the publication of Underdogs in 2012. Whereas he’d clearly indicated that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve inside the book, he said, the press wanted that biographical detail on the outside, ostensibly to sell more copies.

Ron Milam, the panel’s moderator and a professor of military history at Texas Tech University, said he’d had a similar discussion with the publisher of his book on junior U.S. officers in the Vietnam War. The press wanted to indicate it provided an “inside” view, based on Milam’s military service, he said, but a colleague warned that promoting a book as a memoir might hurt his chances at tenure. The press prevailed. But Not a Gentleman's War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War still helped Milam still earn tenure.

O’Connell said, “Frankly, I think military service carries too much weight in the decisions of presses to publish.” He noted that reviewers and online commenters on his work, too, always mention or argue over the significance of his service.

Historians themselves reinforce experiential boundaries to the detriment of the discipline as a whole by typically leaving the whys of war to the diplomatic historians and the more basic questions of how and when to military historians, O'Connell added. Wars are important, with the ability to affect world economies and cultures, and should be studied and understood from a variety of perspectives.

Fellow panelist Gregory A. Daddis, an associate professor of history at Chapman University and director of its master of arts in war and society program, said that military history is truly interdisciplinary when done properly. Moreover, he said, average Americans have more experience with the topic than they think. The “enduring” nature of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a “national story,” in that “this problem of war and fearing others and the search for security has become a part of [the American] identity.”

Panelist Cameron McCoy, a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve who’ll soon defend his Ph.D. dissertation in history at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed, saying that local communities often forget they’re part of the war story, with their yellow ribbon programs and other efforts to support U.S. military personnel.

“Military history is often misconstrued, typically falling into the category of ‘little to no intellectual skill required,’” McCoy said. “Eradicating the notions that military historians do nothing more than provide chronologies of battles and generals -- a ‘great man’ approach to history -- at times has proven to be a mean task.”

But the 21st century has ushered in “greater pathways of access beyond generals and battles,” McCoy said. The incorporation of “[society, culture] and politics on a nation’s ability to prosecute war have become common areas of inquiry within the field of military history,” he added, naming examples, such as how the aftereffects of the nuclear bomb shaped Japanese politics and social mobility of minorities in relation to U.S. military service.

O’Connell argued that fields such as American studies -- where he began his academic career -- are even more committed to the idea that identity equals legitimacy (he said he’d regularly been accused by his former cohorts of participating or collaborating in an “imperial project” for wanting to write a cultural history of the Marines, for example). And these “credentialing games” are worse still in American society more broadly, he continued, “where veterans are able to go on the news and appear credible on any number of extraordinarily complex military or political developments simply because they’ve worn the uniform or served in a combat zone, or belonged to an elite group,” such as the Special Forces or Navy SEALs.

Claiming intellectual “turf” based on such credentials is to engage in a kind of “intellectual tribalism,” he said. (Another portion of O’Connell’s paper focused on the “tribalism” among various U.S. services and allies he said he observed during his time in Afghanistan, and cautioned any historian studying decision making during the war to look outside proscribed chains of command to understand who really had the “wasta,” or clout, to get things done.)

Ultimately, O’Connell said, the “two extremes of uncritical endorsement for and uncritical rejection of military expertise feed each other and the result is growing distrust on both sides, which conservative pundits depict as a culture war between the liberal, hippie professors and freedom-loving patriots.”

So is there any place for personal experience? O’Connell said yes, but only insofar as it relates to the immediate subject matter. So, for example, the chapter on rule of law -- or the idea that people should be governed by fair legal systems, not individuals and their potentially arbitrary decisions -- in his forthcoming volume on the U.S. war in Afghanistan is written by a rule of law adviser. Likewise, the Washington politics chapter is written by a former ambassador. Such experiences “supplement, but do not replace, the academic training and skills needed to write the history of this war that we participated in,” he said.

What about writing history as it’s unfolding, in an official military capacity? Daddis, of Chapman, deployed to Baghdad in 2009 with to serve as the Multinational Corps -- Iraq Command Historian (he retired as a U.S. Army colonel). Much of what he wrote will remain classified for decades, as were the Vietnam-era military histories he now benefits from as a scholar of that war. Daddis described the process as “disquieting.”

“Would I be too critical, purposefully searching for evidence that the Americans and their Iraqi counterparts were simply brushing off bad news in an effort to demonstrate progress in Iraq?” he remembered asking. “Or would I be writing an overly optimistic official history, parroting the declarations of the command in which I served so that some future historian would disparage my work as just another piece of army propaganda?” Did his opinion matter, he wondered?

Daddis’s work is made up of interviews with senior U.S. and Iraqi officials, through which he said he noticed a stark difference between what interviewees were reporting, what he was seeing and what the U.S. media was saying. While the sectarian violence was worsening on the ground, he said, major U.S. newspapers were running stories about Iraq’s apparent stability. Daddis tracked some of these discrepancies, and similarities he saw between Iraq and Vietnam, in an unofficial journal he kept while there.

In late 2009, he wrote, “At what point does a war begin to unravel? When is it that commanders are no longer in charge of events, no longer in control of their destinies or those of their soldiers? Was there a specific point in time, a mark on the calendar, when [U.S. Army Gen. William] Westmoreland recognized he would not see the Vietnam War to a successful conclusion? When was it that the Soviets in Afghanistan, or the British a century before them, realized theirs was a lost cause? Is losing based on an event? A realization? An acquiescence?”

In Daddis’s case, only his military officer status could have afforded him the opportunity to write the history of the war as it happened. But despite this “unfettered access,” he said, language and cultural education was not a prerequisite for the small team of historians to which the task fell. Moreover, he said, “instruction on how to conduct oral histories with combat soldiers and their leaders was often rushed, and few had any experience on writing an official, organizational history, especially one at war.”

O’Connell said a particular challenge of writing about unfolding U.S. military history is that takes "guts" to call the outcome. His forthcoming book argues that the Afghanistan war was a failure based on specific U.S. goals. But time could prove him wrong, he said.

Questions, including one about incorporating theory into military history, led to an interesting discussion during the question and answer period. O’Connell said that while theorists such as Michel Foucault underpin much of his work, he largely reduces them to footnotes. That’s because he wants to his writing to be accessible to the widest audience possible -- not necessarily to academics or military enthusiasts alone.

McCoy said he’d been asked in a recent job interview whom he wrote for -- military or civilian academics -- and how he imagined it would be received. He said he also was asked whether he was a military historian or an American historian. His response -- that he wrote for both, and he was both -- seemed to produce some skepticism, signaling academe may still have a way to go in accepting a new kind of military history.

“‘Who are you writing this for?’ seems to be a question for a lot of military historians,” he said. The right answer should be “accuracy,” or “marshaling evidence.”


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