In Defence of Military History

This post follows on from an entry by Dr. Matthew Ford, Dr James Kitchen and Dr Stuart Mitchell on Chilcot and the Politics of Britain’s Military History.

DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

The notion of an academy remote from public discourse and disinterested in government policy is an attractive stereotype. Aspects of the academic discipline of history could certainly produce such an impression. There is a strong body of thought within certain areas of History that considers any attempt to use the past to inform current debate as bordering on ‘instrumentalising’ previous experience. For some scholars the past was a simply an entirely different world, one which ought to be understood solely in its own terms and not compared to the present lest such an endeavour lead to inaccurate and misleading deductions.

This argument has always appeared less convincing to those engaged in the ‘traditional’ areas of historical enquiry – political, diplomatic and military history – which have their roots in statecraft and military staff colleges. From their outset these sub-disciplines have sought to influence and educate practitioners. Yet in twenty-first century Britain, their ability to do so appears to be in an alarming state of decline.

Historians engaged in the study of politics, power and military force find themselves firmly out of fashion and under-represented within the academy. Outside of the staff college environment, one can count the number of chairs in military or naval history at UK institutions on the fingers of two hands. The ‘cultural turn’ in history in evidence since the 1960s may have produced a valuable, more egalitarian record of the past, but it has been accompanied by a noticeable contraction in support for academics studying topics which can inform government and the public about the use of armed force.

Indeed, a divide now exists between the academic study of war, the general public, and the policy-making community. This matters because it has a direct bearing on the UK’s capacity and willingness to use its armed forces in an intelligent and well-informed manner to defend its people and its interests.

Defence was conspicuous largely by its absence in the 2015 general election debates. Similarly, this week’s parliamentary debate on the renewal of Trident has been conducted with minimal public engagement or (seemingly) interest. If the population is disengaged with key issues of national security and strategy, it is unlikely fully to support or believe in decisions taken by government. Equally, the absence of history from discussions of international affairs risks each issue we face looming large as a challenge without precedent or answer. Such obstacles may exist, but if we lack an understanding of historical context, how can identify them as such and focus our actions on them appropriately?

If we are to create a more beneficial interaction between the academic study of war, the general public and the body politic, three key issues must be surmounted:

 Diminishing role of history in education & public life

The majority of the population does not take an active interest in historical research, even if they are engaged with history in a broader sense. Modern media presents a wealth of alternative entertainment offerings and whilst historically based content does feature regularly, the marketplace is hugely competitive. Thus, whilst reading history does remain a popular leisure activity, reading in the traditional style is in precipitous decline – particularly amongst younger people. This presents a major challenge to a discipline whose pinnacle of achievement is likely to remain the sole-authored monograph.

History also appears to be of decreasing importance within secondary education. Leaving university level education aside – afterall most people’s exposure to history ends after leaving secondary school – the quality and purpose of history teaching has been an area of intense debate in recent years. Critics like Niall Ferguson note the huge gaps in understanding and knowledge that many students arrive at university with (and those studying history at a higher level are presumably amongst the most interested in the subject and thus a sample of the most knowledgeable about it). In a survey conducted at one UK university, it was found that only 34% of arriving undergraduates reading history knew who the monarch was at the time of the Spanish Armada, 31% knew the location of the Boer War, 16% knew who commanded British forces at the Battle of Waterloo and just 11% were able to name a single British Prime Minister from the nineteenth century. Ferguson blames a curriculum which provides no real picture of the grand sweep of history, focusing instead on distinct episodes with no apparent relation between them.

Regardless of what one views the specific shortcomings of secondary school history to be, it seems reasonably clear that history is not viewed as a core subject. Thus, even if people are minded to study the past independently upon leaving education, they may lack the foundations necessary to do so in the most effective and enjoyable manner.

Availability of Cutting Edge Research

Those of the public who are minded to engage in depth with historical research are constrained from doing so by the academic-publishing process, which is simply not aimed at providing a conduit between the latest scholarship and the general reader. Whilst the growth of open access publications such as the British Journal of Military History is a welcome innovation in this regard, the fact remains that the majority of top journals appear unlikely to follow this route in the near future. So long as the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and other career considerations push academics in the humanities and social sciences to prioritise quality of research (one indication of which can be place of publication) over reach, this situation seems unlikely to change.

Much the same can be said of book publishing. The desirability of writing for highly regarded university presses is constantly emphasised and re-emphasised to academic staff by their institutions, yet even if one is successful in doing so the result is likely to be a monograph with a price tag of £60 or more. This is far outside what a general reader is likely to consider to be a reasonable price for a book, yet because such a monograph is essentially the gold standard for promotion, it will remain what many academics strive for. The result is that many of the most talented historians who write about conflict are faced with a choice between following the ‘safe’ route of academic publishing or risk the opprobrium of their institution for ‘wasting’ valuable research time by writing a ‘popular’ book, which may not be eligible for submission to the REF. Thus, the ‘military’ history available to the general reader on the high street is totally unrepresentative of the output of the academy as a whole and continues to be dominated by ‘big books by blokes about battles’. Some books of exceptional quality certainly do bridge the divide, but if only a small cross-section of the academy penetrates the popular market (and these often senior professors for whom the REF is often less of an immediate consideration) then those scholars producing excellent new work within the field cannot be faulted for operating within a system of promotion they did not create or for following the ‘academic career’ track.

The government’s attempt to remedy this situation – ‘impact’ – raises as many problems as it solves. Impact is defined as ‘any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Education, or the transmission of knowledge or ideas is not prioritised. Thus, academic staff are encouraged to participate in endeavours which produce a measurable change in public views or attitudes, rather than simply seeking to share their work. How the public can change their minds on a topic about which they have no fixed view is unclear. The practical result is to disincentivise some activities which may serve to bridge the gap between academia and a general audience.

Mass Media

If new forms of media represent a challenge to the popularity of history, they also surely present a wealth of opportunities for disseminating research and engaging a wider audience. Blogs, videos, podcasts and social media are all exploited widely by the academic community as means of providing free access to new research and ideas. However, mass media – radio and television – continue to command a wider audience than even the most successful blogs and Twitter accounts, often reaching far into the millions. This presents a hugely powerful vehicle for reaching a broad audience, but also confers a weighty responsibility on programme makers who may provide the totality of an individual’s knowledge of an historical episode.

This produces difficulties for both editors and academics. Those in the media need the courage to strike the appropriate balance between education and entertainment, providing opportunities for academics to translate their work to a popular audience. Academics must become more willing and more able to articulate their research in an accessible, engaging manner that does not presume fore knowledge or descend into scholarly minutiae. This ought to be more effectively supported by government policy and by universities, as media work currently falls outside of the ‘impact’ criteria in the majority of circumstances.

 

Britain undoubtedly needs to develop a more sophisticated understanding both of its own armed forces and of the role military power can play in international affairs. If not, we risk ill-informed public pressure obliging the government to shy away from important decisions that may be in all of our best interests. Military history can and should provide an excellent means of improving this understanding. But to blame historians for an unwillingness to engage, to produce work quickly enough or to write with a broad audience in mind would be to consider but one small part of a far larger problem. Until more people are provided with the necessary tools and interest to engage with the past in a meaningful way, until academics are freed to reach a more popular audience without compromising their careers and until the media and the academy partner more effectively, the best new military history is unlikely to reach as far beyond the walls of the academy as is necessary to have a discernable impact upon wider society.

Image: Book stacks, The British Library (1978-97) by Colin St John Wilson via flickr.

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