Give War (History) a Chance

DR JONATHAN BOFF

This post was written to continue the debate Dr Matt Ford sparked with his ‘Towards De-Militarising Military History’ which ran on Defence-in-Depth last week. Dr Jonathan Boff is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Birmingham. His new book, Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front, will be published by OUP in March 2018.

In his post ‘Towards De-Militarising Military History’, Matthew Ford responds to recent critiques of the field by suggesting that ‘demilitarising’ the sub-discipline would be a positive step towards framing interpretations of Britain’s military history in more progressive ways. Yet what he means by this is far from clear.

If by ‘demilitarising military history’ Dr Ford approximately means ensuring it is not solely the preserve of the professional military academies, then this is an argument Michael Geyer made in 1993 when he argued that ‘a Delbrückian improvement of military history entails lifting military history out of its presumed autonomy. This makes military history useless as an auxiliary science for military professionals. Military history as part of general history cannot remain the service of the military and retain a shred of credibility. It can flourish only as civilian history of military action.’[1] But I’m not sure the argument stands up: it’s not clear, in the UK at least, that military history is ghettoised into the military schools at Sandhurst, Shrivenham, or elsewhere. For all the excellent research undertaken in such places, there is much good work done also in civilian universities and indeed outside academia altogether.
If Dr Ford means something larger, then I think one needs to be careful: losing touch with the realities of war risks a return to the worst excesses of the ‘War and Society’ approach, and risks completely losing touch with military realities in doing so. John Lynn expressed it neatly: “When the “new military history” displays its strong tendency to pursue matters peripheral to fighting, it forgets that armies are about coercion and combat and, thus, abandons the essentials. Practitioners of social military history have tended to nip at the edges of the field, and so have more decorated than transformed it.”[2] As Sir Michael Howard has argued, only when “the tidy outlines dissolve and he [the historian] catches a glimpse of the confusion and horror of the real experience… can he begin to discover, if he is lucky enough not to have experienced it at first hand, what war is really like.”[3] War is inherently messy and hateful: it is important for the health of the body politic that we never sanitise it. You can’t, and shouldn’t want to, ‘demilitarise’ military history in this way.

For me, the point is less about ‘demilitarising military history’ than it is to break down artificial boundaries between ‘military history’ and ‘the rest’ in the first place. For Michael Howard, who knew well of what he wrote, ‘the historian who studies war, not to develop norms for action but to enlarge his understanding of the past, cannot be simply a ‘military historian’, for there is literally no branch of human activity which is not to a greater or lesser extent relevant to his subject…War has been part of a totality of human experience, the parts of which can be understood only in relation to one another.’[4]

Splitting the discipline up into artificial silos entails greater loss than gain. The distinction we need to be worrying about is not that between Military History and Other History, but between Good History and Bad History.

[1] Michael Geyer, ‘War and the Context of General History in an Age of Total War’, Journal of Military History 57:5, pp. 146-8.

[2] John A. Lynn, ‘The Evolution of Army Style in the Modern West 800-2000’, International History Review Vol XVIII (1996) pp. 505-545: 543.

[3] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, in Michael Howard (ed.), The Causes of Wars (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1983), p. 216.

[4] Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford: OUP 2001 [1976]), p. ix.

Image: Royal Canadian Military Institute library via flickr.

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