Towards De-Militarising Military History


This post builds upon an earlier debate on the politics of Britain’s military history and the state of modern military history. It re-frames that discussion in relation to a powerful recent critique of aspects of ‘military history’ in the History Workshop Journal, which will be expanded upon in a forthcoming article for the British Journal of Military History. Dr Matthew Ford is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex and founding editor of the British Journal of Military History. His latest book, Weapon of Choice: Small Arms and the Culture of Military Innovation was published by Hurst & OUP in 2017.

Following the EU referendum, Britain is once again seeking to redefine its role in the world. Public discussions have sought to re-frame the UK as a global, outward looking country, drawing on an apparently benign imperial past. This has produced something of a schism between those who support claims about Britain’s historic civilising mission and those who question the idea that the British Empire is a suitable model for orientating a debate concerned with the future.

As scholars have investigated how imperial order was maintained, they have rightfully explored the limitations of a narrative that emphasises British beneficence and produced a close examination of how Britain’s armed forces were used to sustain empire. At its most critical this has shown that, far from being a force for good, Britain’s armed forces were just as capable of repression and atrocity as the armed forces of any other nation.

By pointing out the inadequacies in the way Britain’s armed forces are represented in its military history, however, there is a danger that critical scholars undermine their ability to engage in the public debate. Survey data shows that the public’s understanding of the military is limited, partly because Britain’s armed forces are at their smallest in centuries. This isn’t to say that interest in the armed forces is low but it does point to a gap in the shared social experiences between society and the services. One of the main routes for bridging this civil-military gap is through military history.

Unfortunately, however, despite its importance for framing the public debate, military history has long been ridiculed by ‘proper’ historians. Perceived as socially and intellectually conservative, military historians often reside in military academies where they must teach an overly militarised and misrepresentative form of history. Military historians, it is held, focus their attention on the details of operational technique, of tactics and technology. They are thus seen as unwilling to apply theory and progressive methodologies and, as a result, propagate a form of drum and trumpet nationalism. In this way, they fail to ask the tough ‘why’ questions that, for instance, examine why some social groups are privileged even as others become the targets of violence.

Caricatured in this way, military historians thus occupy a cultural space at odds with a prevailing academic logic that has emerged from and been enabled by Britain’s membership of the European Union. With one in six of British academics originating from the EU, University life has become even further de-nationalised. The result is a cultural context in which scholars have been free to ask challenging questions and recover narratives in ways that previously would have been unthinkable. Set against this backdrop military history is understandably seen as anachronistic.

The problem for critical scholars, however, is that if they truly seek to recast a public narrative of Britain’s military past along progressive lines, then almost certainly they will need to get involved in military history. Publishers and popular historians well understand the public appeal of books about war. Dismissing this reality and criticising from the sidelines does nothing to re-shape public understanding but merely cedes ground to those with more conservative dispositions.

Only by taking our responsibility as public intellectuals seriously can critical scholars stand some chance of framing an interpretation of Britain’s military history in more progressive ways. Such an effort would have the beneficial side effect of demilitarising military history.

Image: 92nd Highlanders and 2nd Gurkhas storming the Gaudi Mullah Sahibdad at Kandahar 1 September 1880 by Richard Caton Woodville Jr., via wikimedia commons.


6 thoughts on “Towards De-Militarising Military History

  1. A very interesting argument. I am an amateur, but published, military historian and I coincidently work in a non-academic role in a University Humanities department. Whilst they are all very pleasant, there is a definite snobbery or at least indifference from some academic historians towards the study of military history (I was the only student on my MA with any interest in this area and got gentle ribbing from the academics as well). There is a definite sense that many in the academic community see military history as being filled with amateurs or anoraks and that it has little bearing on their own areas of interest.
    What is perhaps ironic is that there is more interest from the general public about military history than perhaps any other area of history, with sales of military history books and magazines far out stripping any academic sales- certainly the readership for articles I have had published in mainstream magazines have a far higher readership than the academic journal articles published by my academic colleagues.
    I will end with one telling anecdote- whilst an undergraduate I studied a module on Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century and whilst we had two week’s worth of seminars on ‘gender’ in the period, not once was the Napoleonic Wars and its impact covered…


  2. When you speak of “one in six of British academics originating from the EU” I can only assume you are imagining that Britain is not part of the EU. Which is a bit proleptic, t put it mildly./


  3. When you speak of “one in six of British academics originating from the EU” you appear to be assuming that Britain is not part of the EU, which, at least for the time being, is not the case. I imagine the true figure is more like “five point something”


  4. Military History definitely needs to move beyond the details of operational technique, tactics and technology. There are plenty of enduring lessons to be learned from wars past, but a focus on how a pikeman formed a square, or a how a Spanish Guerrilla resisted Napoleon, limits the lessons for modern day military and political leaders. There’s no reason Military Historians can’t look in depth into the tactics and strategies of the day, while also looking at the social aspects and systems that bring folks into conflict. Even if one is a staunch conservative, they would have to admit there is a lot to learn from why different folks come into conflict, and how they win, instead of just focusing on the immediate battlefield.


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