Open University

War And The Historical Profession


David A. Bell
Having just written a book called The First Total War (pre-orderable here), the problem that David Greenberg raises is one I've thought about quite a bit. In a sense National Review's Miller, and the many "operational" military historians who have complained about the disappearance of their subject from the universities, are right to complain about liberal bias. What they don't realize, though, is that this bias--or rather, propensity--goes much deeper than they think, and is also, in an important sense, intellectually justifiable. It is much more than just a question of most professors having little sympathy for the military, and being opposed to most recent American military operations, although these things are true.

More fundamentally, as sociologists like Hans Joas
have argued, the historical profession's problem with war goes back to the origins of the modern social sciences in the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century. The founders of these disciplines were mostly progressive, in the context of their day, and mostly believed that warfare was something fundamentally irrational and primitive that would disappear with the triumph of "civilization." Therefore, war was simply not something whose processes could be usefully elucidated. Marx is a good example here. His work went largely towards understanding conflict within societies. International conflict was something he spent much less time on, and saw as fundamentally a distraction. Workers of the world, unite!

As long as history remained as much an art as a science, committed to narrative approaches, it was not really affected by all of this. The great nineteenth century historians--Michelet, Macaulay, Parkman, Ranke--all gave pride of place to war, and did a great deal of what would now be described as "operational" military history. But when historians embraced the social sciences and largely abandoned narrative in the twentieth century, they took on the social sciences' assumptions and interests, and therefore turned away in large part from military questions. The reductio ad absurdum of all this was Fernand Braudel, whose work implied that warfare was little more than the "foam" of "event history" tossed up by the deeper currents of geological and economic history. Ironically, Braudel drafted much of his masterpiece, The Mediterranean, while sitting in a German prisoner-of-war camp!

Now, we can deplore all of this, and we should--the great narrative historians had a much better sense of the fundamental importance of military history than we do. But we can't simply ignore it. The fact is that "operational" military history remains separated by a large gulf from the principal intellectual concerns of the academy. Not always, of course. Some of the best recent work in military history, like Paul Kennedy's, engages deeply with economics and political science. Yet the fact remains that most operational military history is written without much connection to our most important intellectual traditions in the social sciences and humanities, and to the questions raised by Marx, Weber, Durkheim, etc. etc. etc. And, yes, it suffers as a result. On the whole, it tends to be more technical, less open to interdisciplinary dialogue, and less self-aware than most other areas of history. As Sir John Keegan, who is a very very good military historian, once complained: "N ot even the beginnings of an attempt have been made by military historians to plot the intellectual landmarks and boundaries of their own field of operations." This is not a statement that could possibly be made about cultural history, social history, economic history or political history.

Now, there are alternate intellectual traditions that could come into play here to help redress the situation. There is a social scientific tradition that took war more seriously in the nineteenth century, but it tended to be shaped far too much by Social Darwinism and simple racism, and has been discredited. There is also a juridical tradition, which itself has not escaped a political taint--its most impressive thinker, Carl Schmitt, was a vocal supporter of Hitler and his anti-semitic policies. Nonetheless, this tradition is one that scholars concerned to take war seriously are now reaching back towards, ever so gingerly.

In short, yes, this is a question of liberalism. But the "liberals" who are really to blame here are not the familiar American "tenured radicals" whom the National Review so loves to hate. They are named Montesquieu, Condorcet, Benjamin Constant and Karl Marx.

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