Ain’t Gonna Study War No More…?

I teach two separate military history courses here at Reinhardt University. In them, the first thing we look at is the state of the field within academia. This term I assigned for initial discussion an article by the British military historian/journalist Max Hastings, entitled “American Universities Declare War on Military History.” He points out that history majors now account for only 2% of male undergrad degrees, and 1% of those for females. And that within that small universe, students who take any military history classes are miniscule. Most American colleges and universities teach no courses on the the topic at all. (Hastings did not provide precise data on this. But I did look up, at the Society for Military History site, a list of US and Canadian universities that offer the MA/PhD in military history. There are 19 in this country, and three in our northern neighbor. This is out of 3,982 universities in America, and 97 in Canada.)

Why? Military history is popular with the public, with students, and with alumni. Hastings, based on his own experience and a number of conversations with prominent military historians, says it’s because (too) many academics detest the subject as “warnography.” That studying war somehow equates to approving it. And that it’s also racist. He quotes Tami Davis Biddle (PhD, Yale), former U.S. Army War College professor, that “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.” That would, of course, be news to the Chinese, Ottoman, Persian, Egyptian, Aztec and Arab armies of the past.

Mamluk Egyptian Warrior, c. 1500 AD. No doubt amused at the idea that only Europeans fight wars.

Hastings also points out that “our respective presidents and prime ministers might less readily adopt kinetic solutions–start shooting–if they possessed a better understanding of the implications.” Did no one in the Bush Administration bother to remember Vietnam before invading Iraq? (Or learn anything about Arab v. Persian and Sunni v. Shi`i, I might add?) Ditto for Britain leading the charge against Muammar al-Qadhafi. Yes, NATO bombing help overthrow him. But now Libya is a failed state, with several regional governments and an entrenched ISIS presence. “David Cameron….might have made less of a mess…had he accepted the advice of some people who understood both war and the Muslim world better than his ill-informed Downing Street clique.”

Hastings does admit that “it would be absurd to pretend that the study of the past is a guarantee against repeating its mistakes.” But we should be glad that JFK had read Barbara Tuchman’s WWI book The Guns of August not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis flared up. Kennedy was thus well aware that “a local flare-up…could precipitate a global catastrophe.”

Hastings opens and closes his article by invoking the coronavirus pandemic. No one thinks studying the effects of diseases on human history is “pro-disease.” Studying war should be just as important–and just as unobjectionable.

[The  title of this blogpost comes from one of the lyrics in the great African-American spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” which dates back to the Civil War.]