Archive for August, 2007

Measuring the Glass Half Full

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

David French has just applauded Victor Davis Hanson’s lament over the state of military history. I’ve already taken issue with Hanson’s condemnation of the current state of the field. In French’s posting, he refers to “the shrinking pool of true military historians.”

This is simply not the case.

Forgive me for rehashing a couple of posts I made to H-War several months ago.

The American Historical Association has actually produced some data. Using its guide to history departments, which lists faculty by specialization, the Association has tracked changes in the geographic and thematic interests of historians from 1975 to 2005. For those not familiar with the guide, faculty may choose three geographic and thematic areas of interest / specialization. I, for example, am listed as “Russia/ USSR, military, South Asia.”

In online tables provided by the AHA, more detailed than the information on offer in the January 2007 issue of Perspectives, we do not find a clear decline in military history. In fact, the absolute number of historians claiming expertise in military history has grown substantially. The table can be referenced here.

In 1975, 2.4% of the 4,367 faculty (hence, just over 100) identified as military historians. 29.9% of departments had a military historian on the faculty. Those Percentages fluctuated over the next 30 years, and in 2005 hit 1.9% of 15,487 faculty. That implies an absolute increase in the number of military historians to nearly 300. The proportion of departments with a military historian on staff increased to 35.2%.

Those figures aren’t perfect (they don’t include many small and community colleges, for example), but they’re the best we have, and they do not show military history in decline.

Now perhaps French meant to emphasize the “true” in his “true military historians,” i.e. operational history as opposed to the various permutations of war & society. If so, there is still no evidence to substantiate that claim. We have anecdotes about people studying, say, gay legionnaires, but neither one bit of data to suggest that there is more or less of this than there used to be, nor any figures to show that race / class / gender military history has displaced operational military history. The increase from 100 to 300 military historians in history departments tracked by the AHA makes for an awfully big tent.

A Glass Still Half Full . . .

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

A Glass Still Half Full . . .

Victor Davis Hanson, classicist and pundit, has added to the chorus of voices bemoaning the decline of military history. (And Mark Bauerlein pointed me to it.)

I certainly agree with Hanson’s point that people ought to know more military history than they do. They ought to know a lot more of a lot of history, but that’s another story.

What I question is his contention about the state of the field. To quote,

“The academic neglect of war is even more acute today [compared to when Hanson did his Ph.D] Military history as a discipline has atrophied, with very few professorships, journal articles, or degree programs.”

What’s the actual evidence Hanson offers for this claim of atrophy?

“In 2004, Edward Coffman, a retired military history professor who taught at the University of Wisconsin, reviewed the faculties of the top 25 history departments, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. He found that of over 1,000 professors, only 21 identified war as a specialty.”

As a good classicist, Hanson should know a logical fallacy when he commits one: a measurement at one point in time cannot show decline. Certainly I think there ought to be more military historians than there are, particularly at top universities. But until someone goes back and counts for 1984, or 1964, we simply have no evidence of decline. Indeed, as I suggested in my last post, the actual figures suggest the number of military historians in American academia has tripled over the last thirty years.

And very few journal articles? Well, there’s War in History, now on volume 14 (meaning it did not exist in the alleged good old days). And War and Society, first published in 1983. And, of course, the Journal of Military History, which back in the good old days was, as Military Affairs, exactly the kind of thing military historians didn’t want their non-military history colleagues to see. In its present incarnation, it’s a top-notch scholarly journal. In our own field, there’s the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, which (to beat a dead horse) did not exist in the good old days. And, of course, the intelligence history and diplomatic history journals that have an awful lot of interest to the military historian.

And degree programs? I can name five serious programs in military history by reflex: Duke / UNC, Kansas State, Ohio State, Temple, Texas A & M. North Texas is building one. That certainly does not exhaust the places where one can get good training. Take the ten members of this website’s frontoviki. How many came from the big five? One.

Let me repeat: I do think more people should know about military history. But we do not help our cause by making clearly fallacious arguments about how the field is on its last legs.

Russian Aviation: What’s New is Old

Friday, August 24th, 2007

[Cross-posted at Dictatorship of the Air]

On Tuesday the Russian Federation’s eighth International Aviation and Space Salon (widely known by its Russian acronym MAKS) opened to great fanfare in the city of Zhukovsky outside Moscow. Held bi-annually since 1993, the Salon has become one of the world’s most important aerospace gatherings. According to state organizers this year’s celebration, MAKS-2007, is the largest in history. 583 Russian companies and 243 foreign firms representing 110 countries are taking part. Before the closing ceremonies on Sunday, the Salon is expected to attract in excess of 650,000 visitors who will be treated to typical air show fare including exhibition halls and displays, simulators, and numerous acrobatic demonstrations headlined by the “Russian Knights” flying team.

Despite its recent origins (the first Salon was held in 1992), MAKS is steeped in history. As President Vladimir Putin proudly noted in his welcoming address, MAKS “continues the longstanding tradition of aviation parades and air show holidays that has always existed in Russia.” His statement was no boast. Tsarist Russia opened its first “International Week of Aviation” in April 1910, just three months after Los Angeles-area aviation patrons hosted the first such meet in the United States. Dozens more events were held in Russia during the years leading up to 1917. In the Soviet period, public air shows, exhibitions, and spectacles were commonplace as Communist Party leaders exploited aviation to generate public faith in (and foreign fear of) their country’s military might.

MAKS is, by definition, an international event. However, its primary purpose has always been to showcase and promote the accomplishments of the Russian aerospace industry. President Putin’s opening day assertion that his government’s main task “is maintaining our leadership in the production of military aviation technology,” [emphasis added] should be understood in this light. It’s a classic example of “compensatory symbolism:” the historic propensity of Russian officials to exaggerate technological accomplishments and military standing in order to mask weakness and deficiencies vis-à-vis foreign rivals. That President Putin should sense a need to embellish the truth doubtless stems from the precipitous decline in Russian air power that followed the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and from continuing doubts about the current status of the post-Soviet air weapon. (more…)

A Glass Half Full

Friday, August 17th, 2007

Scott’s introductory post talked about the recent tempest over the place of military history in academia. As an historian, I like to think historically, and two things struck me about this latest dispute when it broke out last winter.

The first is that it isn’t anything new. Ron Spector’s able survey of military-historical navel-gazing, itself a response to Wayne Lee’s history of military history, gives a number of examples of predictions of the imminent destruction of the field. One that I personally remember quite well is John Lynn’s article “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” coming out as it did just as I finished my Ph.D and tried to find a faculty job.

And the second thing that struck me about the decline of military history? It’s wrong. We’re ten years past Lynn’s article and military history isn’t dead yet. While I would never say that all is well and all good grad students get jobs, and I’ll talk about the problems I see in a later post, the field of military history is remarkably healthy. Quality research gets published by a number of presses and in a range of rigorous journals. Bright young scholars continue to enter the field. Students flock to military history courses. The reading public gobbles up serious military history unlike almost any other field. Also unlike other fields of history, military history enjoys a wide range of practitioners. As Jeremy Black observed in Rethinking Military History, the military history community is a unique blend of academics, practitioners, and enthusiastic lay people, all of whom enrich the whole.

And the numbers aren’t bad. As I argued on H-War several months ago (also picked up on Mark Grimsley’s War Historian), data from the American Historical Association suggests that the number of military historians in American academia grew from about 100 in 1975 to 300 today. That does not include the large number of military historians employed throughout the Defense Department.

Much of the supposed decline of military history is simply a matter of perception. The greats retire, and their replacements are nowhere to be seen. Retirees are by definition people with long careers, and they can’t help but be replaced by those less distinguished. But everyone has to start somewhere–even John Erickson was a nobody once, hard as that may be to imagine.

And the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union in particular? It seems to me that things are even better. While I am naturally convinced that as a group we are both smarter and better-looking than the average, there are more objective considerations in our favor. No field of military history has ever enjoyed the bonanza of sources that we have enjoyed since the fall of communism. Access is still far from perfect (another future post), but it would take decades for a much larger cohort of scholars to exhaust what the new archival materials can tell us.

Another point in our favor–few of those interested in Russian military history come out of a program devoted to military history. Relatively speaking, the big military history programs like Ohio State have produced relatively few of the people represented by this blog. I don’t mean to disparage the quality of those military history programs–I work in one–but I see the benefit of being trained in a program where I had to justify the relevance and important of military history to those who were quite skeptical.

So what does that mean for this blog? As I see it, there is a enormous amount of interesting work being done on Russian / Soviet military and international history, and an even bigger range of work that ought to be done. What I’d like to see this blog do is bring that work to a wider audience, and talk about where that new research changes our understanding and where it doesn’t. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Welcome to The Russian Front

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Last October, National Review Online columnist John J. Miller sparked a lively Internet debate with the publication of an article titled “Sounding Taps” in which he decried the allegedly dismal status of military history on American university campuses. Citing such factors as “an ossified tenure system, scholarly navel-gazing, and ideological hostility to all things military,” Miller alleged that military historians have been virtually driven from the field by “tenured radicals” more concerned with “social justice” and the study of “race, sex, and class.”

Miller is hardly the first commentator to raise questions about the status of military history in the academy. Just four months earlier, historian Fred Kagan (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute) weighed in with a piece on “Why Military History Matters”. Still, Miller’s observations touched some raw nerves…especially those of Ohio State University’s “War Historian” Mark Grimsley. Grimsley took issue with Miller’s description of a field in decline. In a series of testy web and e-mail exchanges, he repeatedly took aim at Miller’s “tendentious” musings as the politically inspired “crocodile tears” of a wingnut who, in fact, “doesn’t give a lusty crap about academic military history.” Respondents at the History News Network’s group blog Cliopatria were similarly reserved in their comments on the matter. Whether one agrees with Miller or Grimsley, neither or both, one thing is certain: “Sounding Taps” got people’s attention. The subsequent publication this past May of another high-profile piece by The New Republic’s David Bell suggests that something more than synchronicity is at work here. People have been talking about academic military history.

This is a good thing. And it’s something we’d like to see continue.