Official Historians and Academic Historians
It is one of the peculiarities of the historical profession that those who do official history for the military services and other government agencies are largely anonymous to the broader academic community of historians, including, to a degree, academic military historians. Are official historians really so disconnected from their academic counterparts? Or, is it that academic historians are aloof and disdainful toward official history and thus purposefully ignore the work and world of official historians? There has always been a gap between academic and official historians, but the gap is getting smaller, and will continue to do so if academic and official historians make efforts to simply better know each other. Official and academic historians who do military history are trodding a similar path, but they are doing so in two entirely different worlds. Both seek truth in history, and both want to establish and maintain a sense of historic mindedness in their audiences, be they students, service members, or the American public.
Take the Army, for example. The duties at the Army Center of Military History (CMH) include maintaining lineage and unit histories, writing official histories, carrying out public history tasks, and undertaking other special assignments. There is a public and not-so-public side to what Army historians do. The public sees the publications, the museums, and public programs, but not the command historians in Iraq or Afghanistan collecting oral histories and documents in combat theaters. Nor does the public see the immense effort required to research, write, and publish official history. Bureaucratic regulations, pressures, and priorities certainly influence, and often delay, the work of official historians—that is the nature of the world in which Army historians do history.
Academic military historians are generally familiar with their official counterparts, but the broader academic community of historians tends to be largely unaware that the services employ historians, much less “do” history. Even though they may have heard of CMH or Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC), they likely know little of what goes on at these mysterious places. The CMH library at Fort McNair, which houses a magnificent oral history collection, is really not set up to handle visiting researchers nor is it CMH’s primary mission to do so; rather, the library is there to assist official historians in doing their jobs. Nevertheless, it does welcome researchers. The Army Heritage and Education Center’s new facility at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, is not only set up for public researchers but welcomes them with open arms. It is one of the most user-friendly archives anywhere. Many social, cultural, and other historians are willing and able to bring non-traditional approaches to traditional military history topics, yet because they are unaware of CMH or AHEC, they miss out on the archival wealth held by the services. Likewise, official historians can be unaware of these approaches and methodologies that could be of real help to their own work.
Sometimes academic historians also have false perceptions about official military history. Are official histories “real” history? Is the historical accuracy and analysis sometimes sacrificed to make the Army look good? Are these official histories “real” publications? These are not irrelevant questions. On the other side, there is a sense of academic elitism, which is a real issue among some official historians, and which contributes to their sense their professional isolation. There is a kernel of truth to the idea entertained by some official historians that once you have gone over to the “Dark Side” of official history, you can never return to the sunlit virtuousness of the academic world (although some have managed to do it).1 What is needed, it seems, is a bridge between the two.
The Society for Military History (SMH) is an excellent means of connection between official and academic military historians, and indeed between both and the broader official and academic history communities. Through the SMH’s Journal of Military History, the leading scholarly journal in the field, official and academic historians alike have been able to keep up with recent scholarship as well as contribute articles and reviews. The annual meeting of the SMH is the best bridging of this gap between academic and official military historians. The Center for Military History, AHEC, West Point, the Department of Military History at the Command and General Staff College, and the Combat Studies Institute, among others, not only send sizable contingents to this meeting but are also increasingly leaving a significant mark on the program. Panels have included both academic and official historians who present papers on official history as history and the role of history in military education. Official Army history publications from CMH and the Combat Studies Institute are often part of the book exhibit, as are materials from Air University Press. The Air Force routinely has a table in the exhibit area to recruit advanced graduate students and newly minted PhDs to pursue jobs and careers as official historians, particularly attractive propositions as the academic job market for military history remains tight.
The annual SMH meeting is attracting more attendees and presenters from other fields of history. “Presidential Panels” allow organizations such as the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the Society for the History of Technology, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and others, to participate on the program. This brings scholars to the SMH meeting who might not ordinarily attend and exposes SMH attendees to new fields and methodologies in history. More people attending from outside traditional military history broadens us as historians and gives official historians exposure to the broader discipline.
Academic and official historians need to crosspollinate on conference panels beyond the SMH. This is admittedly difficult for some official historians, as they may lack the time to prepare papers or may not be able to present on current official work they are doing. In recent years, the AHA and the OAH have increasingly opened their annual meeting program to military history papers and panels, especially the so-called new military history.2 The program for the 2009 AHA meeting in New York City, for example, included a panel called “Men at War: Evolving Perceptions of Masculinity and Military Service in the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” with presenters from both universities and official history agencies. The SMH and the George C. Marshall Foundation have sponsored the Marshall Lecture at the annual AHA meeting for several years (the 2009 Marshall Lecture featured Paul Kennedy), which attracts both academic and official historians. On the official side, history agencies from across the services should band together to exhibit at both the AHA and OAH meetings. The Center of Military History recently did so at the AHA meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 2008. Exhibiting official work to academic historians is an important step in educating members of the AHA as to who official historians are and what they do. The potential benefits offset the financial costs, surely.
Recent historiography articles on military history in the AHA’s American Historical Review and the OAH’s Journal of American History have been positive steps toward better connections among academic historians and between academic and official historians. In the October 2007 issue of the American Historical Review, Robert Citino’s superb review of what he called “Military Histories Old and New,” outlined the exciting recent scholarship in military history. The March 2007 issue of the Journal of American History featured a roundtable of essays assessing the value of cultural analysis in military history, which included a contribution from Tami Davis Biddle, a professor at the Army War College, the senior service school of the Army.3 The October 2008 issue of the OAH Magazine of History was dedicated to teaching military history and recent developments military history scholarship. The November 2009 issue of Historically Speaking, the bulletin of The Historical Society, featured a thorough examination of the “state of the field,” written by some of the best military historians, including Roger Spiller, an emeritus professor at the Army Command and Staff College.4
From the academic end, graduate program coordinators and dissertation advisers in history need to break out of the traditional of demanding that degree recipients pursue academic employment, lest the degree be wasted. Official history as a career path should de facto be part of the job search, as evidenced in “Historian’s Rocky Job Market,” in the July 11, 2008, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Some are steering their graduates toward various public history careers; why not official history for the United States military? Many of these positions are well-paying, exciting jobs that offer good benefits and security. Graduate program coordinators need to conduct workshops on applying for government positions, especially in using the USAJobs web site.5 Some professional military education schools and official history agencies already advertise on H-NET.
The opportunities are there. Academic and official military historians are bridging the gap. Each can contribute by themselves, but we could do much more by working together. To do so, academic historians need to understand not only what military historians do, but also what official military historians do. Official military historians need to educate the broader academic community and be open to new methodologies being developed by their academic brethren. Official and academic military historians need each other so that together we can continue to promote the importance of military history, and in turn promote better appreciation for the connections between broader academic and official history. To that end, let’s dedicate ourselves to continue bridging the gap.
William Thomas Allison is professor of history and chair of the department of history at Georgia Southern University, where he teaches military and diplomatic history. He is a current member of the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee and also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Military History. He is author of The Tet Offensive (Routledge, 2008) and Military Justice in Vietnam (Kansas, 2007), among other works. The author gratefully acknowledges the insightful and constructive comments he received on this article from colleagues in the official and academic worlds.
1. See, for example, J. Samuel Walker, “‘Now, Is This Your own Work, Or . . . ?’: Reflections on the Value of History,” Passport 39:2 (September 2008), 39–40, for the point of view of an official historian.
2. The “new” military history has been around since the 1970s and needs a new name: how about “military history”?
3. Wayne E. Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” Journal of American History 93: 4 (March 2007), 1116–42; Tami Davis Biddle, “Military History, Democracy, and the Role of Military History,” ibid., 1143–45; Brian Farrell, “Mind and Matter: The Practice of Military History with Reference to Britain and Southeast Asia,” ibid., 1146–50; Marc Milner, “In Search of the American Way of War: The Need for a Wider National and International Context,” ibid., 1151–53; Brian Holden Reid, “American Military History: The Need for Comparative Analysis,” ibid., 1154–57; Ronald H. Spector, “Teetering on the Brink of Respectability,” ibid., 1158–60; Wayne E. Lee, “A Final Word,” ibid., 1161–62.
4. The Historically Speaking forum included essays by Brian McAllister Linn, Dennis Showalter, Roger Spiller, Robert M. Citino, and Victor Davis Hansen.
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