Why is military history in retreat at universities?

In 2019, Trip Advisor rated the Canadian War Museum the second-most important destination in Ottawa, just after the nation’s parliament buildings.

The museum’s more than 500,000 on-site visitors, and tens of thousands more online, as well as travelling exhibitions across Canada, are all signs that Canadians, like their counterparts in the United States, Britain, Israel and New Zealand, have an almost insatiable interest in military history.

“And yet,” says Tim Cook, an award-winning and best-selling historian at the Canadian War Museum, “you’d think, with the interest in the museum, my books and those of people like Jack Granatstein and Ted Barris, the two universities in the city and those across the country would have military history programmes instead of a smattering of courses.

“But, even though I teach a few courses at Carleton University [in Ottawa], military history is in bad odour; it doesn’t fit with the present view of most universities.”

While McGill University and University of Toronto offer some military history courses, at both of Canada’s most prestigious universities, you can go all the way through your history PhD and never take a military history course.

The nation’s only military studies department (outside military colleges) is at the University of Calgary. Tellingly, the Peace and Conflict Studies programme at British Columbia’s University of the Fraser Valley requires only two or three courses in military history.

Cook’s lament was shared by professors Nick Lloyd (King’s College, London), both Jenn Finn (Marquette, Milwaukee) and Joseph T Glatthaar (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and Yigal Sheffy (Tel Aviv University, Israel).

Lloyd, who points to the success of his books, including the highly regarded, Passchendaele: A New History (2017), as well as the best-sellers of Sir Max Hastings, James Holland and Andrew Roberts, as proof that the general public is interested in “meaty, operational military history”.

“But that’s deeply unfashionable at universities today because they have been captured by the Left,” said the academic director of the RAF Division and reader in military and imperial history in the defence studies department at King’s College.

“Military history is seen as something that should evolve into social issues, such as the history of labour. Operational histories are seen as parochial and militaristic,” added Lloyd.

To emphasise this point, Lloyd told University World News that his PhD supervisor, Dr John Bourne, was once told by a colleague at Birmingham University that he regarded the Centre for War Studies, that Bourne founded, as “a source of moral corruption”.

Surprisingly, says Glatthaar, given the large footprint the American military has in the United States, with the exception of his own university and some state universities like Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin, “military history has fallen off pretty dramatically. It is not seen as ‘politically correct’.”

Or, as Yale University historian Paul Kennedy told Hastings for a recent Bloomberg article, “Military history is [seen as] the most noxious of ‘dead white male’ subjects.”

Kennedy also asked rhetorically, “Can you imagine Chicago or Berkeley or Princeton having war studies departments?” Though some military history is, no doubt, covered in courses, the course calendar for Harvard’s undergraduate department of history does not list a single military history course.

Glatthaar points to many of the same reasons Lloyd and Kennedy do for the decline and adds that when scholars retired at other schools, they were not replaced.

“As a result, though there is sometimes adjunct faculty teaching a course or so, it’s not the same as having a full-time faculty member teaching. They provide a presence on university committees where the important decisions about curriculum are made.”

Yet, for a number of reasons, the University of North Carolina has been able to maintain a high enrolment in military history.

“To a large measure, I think it’s because we offer it, and students find it interesting,” Glatthaar says.

Secondly, the single largest employer in North Carolina is the US military; the state is home to Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, the largest Marine Corps and Army base, respectively.

“A huge percentage of students have either been in the military or have had friends and-or family in the military. So there is not the kind of hostility to it that you’d find in selected other states,” he says.

Marquette University is one of the few other American universities to have a military history major. But, according to Finn, it is under the same pressure as the rest of the humanities are.

“Administrators do not see the value in the humanities as opposed to money-making disciplines like nursing or computer science,” she says.

In 1970, 6% of American undergraduate males were history majors and 5% of females were. Today, the percentages are 2% and 1% – these percentages do not, as professors and administrators are wont to say, represent ‘bums in the seats’.

The central role played by the Israeli Defence Force in Israel had not led Israeli academics to focus on military history.

Sheffy draws a distinction between security studies, which focuses on policy or is oriented toward operations, drawing lessons for the present and for the future, and military history, which, by contrast, enhances our knowledge of the past.

Israeli professors shun the second for two reasons. The first is lack of documentation; most of the Israeli files relating to the Suez Crisis (1956), Six-Day War (1968) and the Yom Kippur War (1973) remain closed and all of the Arab archives are closed.

“Without these official sources, most Israeli historians don’t want to go into these areas.” says Sheffy.

The second reason echoes Cook, Finn and Lloyd. “Many Israeli academicians feel that they don’t want to be connected with what they see as militarism in Israel,” he says.

As is the case in the English-speaking world, the absence of military history from universities does not equate to an absence of an appetite for it by the general public.

However, whereas, in the English-speaking world, popular historians may, for example, argue about whether the strategic bombing campaign of Germany hastened the end of the war in Europe, in Israel, popular military history is subsumed within the nation’s political debates.

“If, for example, a writer goes to the [1948] War of Independence, they are not interested in finding what happened in the past but, rather, what strengthens their case or argument. Were we right to conquer the areas north of where the UN Resolution [No 181, that established Israel] allotted to us?” says Sheffy.

Wars as cataclysmic events

While military historians agree that their subject is intrinsically interesting, their main argument for the perseverance of the field belongs to the disused term: civics.

If you asked Americans, Glatthaar says, what were the most important national events of the past three centuries, they’d answer the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II and, in the 21st century, we’ve been at war almost the entire time.

“Military history is important to know because the military plays a vital role in the nation,” says Glatthaar. “War is a cataclysmic event and affects the institution [ie, the military] and it, in turn, affects the society from which it comes.”

Finn, whose speciality is ancient warfare, believes military history provides an important – and different – lens to understand the world.

Her courses in ancient warfare cover strategy, tactics and weaponry. But, it is leadership that she thinks is most relevant to students today.

Among the lesser-known military leaders of the ancient world she teaches about is Quintus Sertorius (d 73 BC), who, in addition to understanding the Roman way of war, was adept at forming alliances.

“He fought beside Pompey in Spain, but afterwards sided with the Plebian Party and led a rebellion in Spain.

“He not only understood the Roman way of war, he was able to make alliances with the local tribes, and was able to lead them to victory over Roman armies [in the mid-70s BC] and established, at least of a while, peace. Ultimately, however, the Romans defeated him,” she says.

Part of the human condition

Like Lloyd et al, military historian Glyn Harper at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, has found himself having to justify his scholarly area: World War I. In one exchange, he responded to a criminologist who accused him of being a warmonger: “War is part of the human condition. Just because you are a criminologist that doesn’t make you a criminal.”

In contrast to the situation at British, American and Israeli academies, military history is taught in each of the Kiwis’ six universities.

Harper cites three reasons for why military history flourishes in New Zealand’s universities.

The first is that universities have appointed scholars who are interested in it. Massey has four military history professors who teach a total of 11 courses divided between the department of history and the department of defence and security studies, which is for military officers; students can take courses from either department.

The second is that the courses are popular with students.

“The popularity is not hurt by the fact that the New Zealand Defence Force has a high profile – and has because of Peacekeeping for the past 30 years,” Harper says.

The popularity is also due to the centenary of World War I and, especially, the memory of the terrible losses the ANZACs suffered at Gallipoli in 1915.

While Harper does not accept the facile argument that New Zealand became a nation on the shores of the Dardanelles a century ago, “there’s hardly a New Zealand family that is untouched by Gallipoli. Most young people feel the need to go to Gallipoli and you can see their interest in the crowds on ANZAC Day [25 April].”

Another major difference between New Zealand and other countries is the effect of the New Zealand Defence Force’s effort to incorporate the Maoris’ age-old warrior culture.

Accordingly, Harper’s courses examine the Maori in World War I and the Maori battalion in World War II, which fought in Greece, North Africa and Italy. “This material helps make studying the New Zealand military more acceptable.”

The combatants’ viewpoint

All of the historians interviewed for this article produce works and teach courses that, while explaining the ‘drum and bugle’ aspects of military history, are sensitive to the experience of the soldiers at the sharp end of the military spear.

Cook’s most recent books, for example, focus on the soldiers’ experience in each of the world wars. In both his undergraduate and graduate courses, Glatthaar has his students conduct interviews with people who have experience with or in the military.

Since he interprets experience with or in the military broadly, this assignment gives his students, who are almost 60% female, a great deal of leeway.

“A large number of the male students focus on traditional military topics,” he says, His female students, however, range widely.

One memorable paper was by a female student who interviewed her great-grandmother, who saved her son from the Bataan Death March in April 1942 – by running up to him after he had fallen, giving him the opportunity to hide under her flowing skirt.

Another told the story of one of the few African-American Marines in World War II.

Like Glatthaar, Sheffy notes that, before he retired last year, his female students, who accounted for about 50% of his students, were less interested in tactics and strategy, and examined the legal and social aspects of the Israeli military.

University administrators who are uninterested in supporting military history courses and programmes and professors who accuse military historians of being warmongers refuse to acknowledge that the days of a battle a week are long gone.

As Finn notes, “Warfare is the most primitive of human activities. We’ve been fighting over tangible and intangible assets for all of civilization; it is a staple of human existence and understanding it is important.”

Ignorance of military history is, quite literally, ignorance of the reason why most lines on the map are where they are. More often than not, the line – a border – indicates where one or another army stopped moving forward.

Nathan M Greenfield is a North America correspondent for University World News and the author of five military histories of the Canadians in both World Wars. He has exchanged information with both professors Lloyd and Cook. Later this year, his book, Executing Justice: The Medicine Hat POW Camp Murders, which tells the story of the killing by German POWs of a German POW in 1943 and another in 1944, the investigation and the subsequent trial that led to the last mass hanging in Canadian history, will be published.