Conference Report: Society of Military History Annual Meeting, Ottawa, April 2016




The annual meeting of any large professional body or learned society usually produces a wide-range of panels and papers, to which it is impossible to attend all, and between which there is usually a limited relationship. They are an opportunity for old and new colleagues from across the globe to connect and reconnect, and share their latest research.


The annual meeting of the Society of Military History is usually unexceptional in this regard: an enjoyable conference where like minds meet, discuss new ideas, and drink gin. It is a valuable occasion, when intellectual juices flow, and new avenues of research unearthed.


This year’s annual meeting was different in one key way: there was an overriding theme to most of the panels which I attended, and conversations which I had, which actually generated a collective spark of excitement.


Military historians have long felt, justly or unjustly, rightly or wrongly, pigeonholed as the persecuted minority in the community of historians. Turns out, we’re not alone. Most historians feel that their particular genre is not taken sufficiently seriously. This has led in recent decades to the ossification of historical genres, creating boundaries between sub-disciplines which could never be crossed.


This is a simplification of reality, but I would be surprised if many of my colleagues did not recognise its characteristics.


The theme of this conference – ‘Crossing Borders, Crossing Boundaries’ – turns out to have been more than a literal reference: many of the papers and panels broke the imaginary boundaries which have stratified some aspects of historical study for the last few decades. Historians discussed the challenges they faced incorporating different historical genres and disciplines into their research.


How does a military historian overcome the challenges of writing history that draws on the ideas and methodologies of intellectual history or environmental history, social history or cultural history? How does the social historian or the environmental historian, get to grips with the challenges presented by military history?


It became quite apparent that different sub-disciplines and genres have much to offer each other. This will be no surprise to most, but, as I have written in previous posts, if the discipline of military history itself is to stay relevant, it must adapt and innovate. It is now unfathomable how we can get an accurate picture or understanding of historical military activity without considering wider social, environment and cultural factors.


This conference certainly helped break down these boundaries. My own paper discussed the relevance of environmental and intellectual considerations when trying to understand how the British Army of the eighteenth century learned from war, and adapted as a result of that experience. In a similar vein, other papers analysed the intellectual linkages between different fronts in the First World War.


An impressive theme explored the border between society and the military. Discussions were had about the impact of the military on the locality in which it served, creating challenges of interpretation and transforming local culture and society in colonial and post-revolutionary America. In a related theme, new research was outlined over how members of the military in the same period ritualised their military service, transforming themselves from civilians to soldiers and back again when their commission ended.


Other papers explored the interaction of military and society throughout the ages. The traditional historiography on the subject argues that once in the military, it was the fraternity of arms that motivated soldiers. This conforms with national memory of war: the relationship between the soldiers – the band of brothers – seems to trump, in particularly strained and stressful circumstances, blood ties. Papers exposed the incoherence of this narrative. Soldiers instead maintained their blood ties, and evidence suggests that these brought more succour than did the so-called fraternity of arms. Such discussions exposed the nuanced relationship between militaries and the societies from which they are born.


At the same time, the utility of military historical methodologies to wider historical study was discussed widely. Military history is often the history of personal experience, a microcosm of societal and cultural phenomena, and the flashpoint in the intersection of themes in masculinity and gender history.


In February, at a conference which strived to expose the same linkages, the president of the Society of Military History, Professor Jeffrey Grey, argued that as military historians, we should take our opportunities where the arise. In Ottawa this year, opportunities for the expansion of the subject arose in multiple ways and shapes.


To see what you missed, check out the programme here. And if you’re interested in finding out more about the SMH, check out their website here.


Image: View of Ottawa from the Conference venue.


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