Conference Report: McMullen Naval History Symposium 2017

DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

The role of history in the education of modern militaries is a topic which has been under debate almost continuously for centuries. Whilst it is common knowledge that many of the military leaders and thinkers who continue to be venerated in the halls of service academies the world over prioritised the study of the past, the challenges of the present produce a sense of proximity and of urgency which can make their example seem antiquated. The past appears different; Napoleon didn’t do cyber, Clausewitz faced an obvious enemy, and Moltke wasn’t worried about an interconnected network of globalised networks when he planned the German army’s train schedules. Yet if, as Marc Bloch claimed, ‘history is, in its essentials, the science of change’, then the past must be at the heart of attempts to deal with the problems of the present: how better to identify change than to understand continuity, and how better to educate the mind than to examine problems the real world has thrown up?

On 14-15 September a group of scholars from around the world came together at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland to debate these very issues. The McMullen Naval History symposium is a biannual event hosted by the Academy’s History Department, which seeks to showcase the latest research in the field of naval and maritime history, and to make it accessible to the next generation of officers of the United States Navy. As with most situations in which historians interact with military professionals, the event posed challenges and opportunities to both. As Rear-Admiral (rtd) James Goldrick RAN argued in his keynote address, modern navies – like all armed forces – must resist the temptation of a solely (or even overtly) technocratic approach to education and personal development. Doing so risks eroding a force’s capacity to deal with uncertainty and complexity, challenges fundamental to the nature of warfare due to its essentially human nature. Moreover, whilst the past cannot and should not be reduced to a series of ‘lessons’, militaries can and must seek to understand and exploit their historical experience if they are to avoid repeating earlier failures. Learning at this, the institutional level, and developing a pool of historical corporate memory on which to draw ought to be viewed not as an easy target to cut from a strained budget, but as an important means of avoiding costly pitfalls and failures both today and tomorrow.

Yet, as Admiral Goldrick argued, it is not adequate for historians simply to address militaries with an air of intellectual superiority and detachment. Scholars are quick to champion the merits of historical education, yet all too often either baulk at the prospect of bringing the past into conversation with the present, or produce work which is inaccessible to a military audience due to the style in which it is written or the venues in which it is published. The vicissitudes of the academic publishing world are well known and widely remarked upon, but the issue of style is one upon which we all might pause to reflect. The same can be said of the interaction between scholarly enquiry and the modern military. As some of the discussions which ran in parallel to the event made clear, this is an issue over which some within the academy feel deeply uncertain, citing concerns about ‘weaponization’ of research to justify policy. Such practice is, quite clearly, to be condemned and avoided (as historians who work with the military would be only too quick to argue). Yet arguably more damaging is the creation of an artificial barrier between military education and the broader discipline of history. This is a challenge for both sides: for the military to seek engagement with historical study beyond campaign history, and for historians to bring a wider range of historical techniques, perspectives, and arguments into the sphere of military education.

The McMullen ran a busy schedule of panels, offering wide-ranging chronological, geographical, and conceptual insights. It was particularly refreshing to see a high proportion of papers on eighteen and nineteenth century topics, eras often overlooked in the modern military syllabus. Highlights included papers from PhD students such as Louis Halewood (Oxford), Alex Howlett (King’s), and Peter Keeling (Kent) all of whom are pursing ambitious and innovative new research agendas. Louis’ research into the role of the maritime sphere in shaping conceptions of collective security in the Great War era promises to challenge a number of established shibboleths, and Peter’s examination of the relationship between nineteenth century British liberalism and military affairs offered some thought provoking ideas about the interface between political ideology, public opinion, and the armed services.

My own panel explored the issue of strategy from three different perspectives; those of national policy and diplomacy, government oversight and co-ordination, and theorising about war. Again, I was impressed by the excellent research and thought provoking contributions of my co-panelists Anna Brinkman and Paul Ramsay, who along with numerous others demonstrated the strength of the early career community of scholars working in this area. Equally stimulating was the excellent commentary offered by Prof Andrew Lambert, who reminded us of the importance of thinking about strategy in both an historical and practical sense: historians ask different questions and have access to different information than practitioners, and appreciating both perspectives is vital both to achieve a full understanding, but also in order to make history useful in the present. These are issues upon which working with the military has benefitted my own thinking immeasurably, and which ran through numerous other papers at the conference.

The McMullen was an excellent event which left me with much to reflect upon for my own work moving forward, and with a great degree of optimism regarding the future of the discipline. As I sit on the flight home writing these few lines, I’m reminded of the unending dialogue between the past and the present, and encouraged to continue participating in the conversation.

Image: US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, via Wikimedia commons.

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