Who is to be Trusted with Military History?
Franklin C. Annis
Georges Clemenceau once asserted that “War .. [is] much too serious a thing to be left to the military”. U.S. Service Members would recognize this assertion to be true as applied to modern warfare. Clemenceau’s assertion presents an interesting follow on question. If war exceeds the limits of the military, should the recording of military history also be perceived as a task exceeding the abilities of Department of Defense historians? In this paper, we will examine Clemenceau’s original assertion and if demonstrated to be true will examine the question of who should be responsible for the recording and the examination of military history.
War Exceeds the Scope of the Military
The United States Military recognizes that the military is only one of the instruments of national power. The Joint Publication 1 presents the acronym “D.I.M.E” to describe the various instruments of national power. These instruments are Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic.[i] It should be immediately clear that the military only fully controls one of these domains. The other domains are at least partially controlled by other organizations. When we look at war, we must recognize that the military doesn’t have full control or visibility of all the activities occurring in their four instruments. With full visibility of only one of these factors, we must recognize that any record of historical events produced by the military will be restricted to the limited information they control and what information they can access from other agencies. Therefore, the resulting histories produced by Department of Defense historians are likely to be biased on how they present the impact of military actions because of ignorance of ongoing activities in other instruments of power at the time. With a lack of understanding of the full activities of other governmental agencies, there may be a natural tendency to overly attribute battlefield success or failure on to military leaders and units.
In Joint Publication 1, the military aims to achieved “unified action” on the battlefield. Unified action is achieved through actions that, “synchronizes, coordinates, and/or integrates joint, single-Service, and multinational operations with the operations of other [U.S. Government] departments and agencies, [Nongovernmental Organizations], [Intergovernmental Organizations] (e.g., the United Nations [UN]), and the private sector.”[ii] This demonstrates that the U.S. Military recognizes is it only part of a larger taskforce needed to operate effectively to achieve strategic goals. With so many players involved and some existing outside of governmental control, it would be highly unlikely that Department of Defense historians would have either full access or full understanding of all the activities of supporting partners.
If there is any doubt that the military doesn’t fully control the arena of war, the American involvement in the Viet Nam conflict demonstrates this assertion to be true. While the U.S. Military can claim to have never been defeated on the battlefield, the lack of information and diplomatic control over the people of Viet Nam demonstrates how a war can be lost even when a military can win every battle. The U.S. Government failed to maximize the other instruments of national power, including the informational domain. Much to the disgrace of American Viet Nam veterans, the war that had been fought to an end at the Paris Peace Accords, was shortly lost by American politicians failing to fulfill the military materiel agreements it had pledged to the Republic of Viet Nam.
With Clemenceau’s assertion demonstrated to be true, we now face the harder task of determining who should be held responsible for recording and examining military history. We will continue our examination into what roles that military historians, academics, amateur historians, and veterans could play in the maintenance of our military history. With each of these categories possessing strengths and weaknesses, it may be difficult to determine an optimal solution.
Importance of Military History
Before we examine who should be the “keepers” of military history, let us take a moment to examine the importance of military history. We must first acknowledge that military history cannot be separated entirely from the larger context of history. Military actions are entirely dependent on the cultural and political actions of a society. The famous 19th century Prussian military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz recognized this strong connection from the political arena to military application in stating, “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”[iii] Thus any attempt to study military history without examining the larger historical events of the age, or the reverse, would be doomed to failure.
The dangers of losing control over history has been the topic of countless dystopian novels. In the novel 1984, George Orwell asserted that “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”[iv] These fears are rightfully placed, as our perception of historical events plays a large role in the creation of our social and individual identities.[v]
The study of military history plays a critical role in understanding cultural heritage, preventing unnecessary armed conflicts, and functions as a powerful tool in educating military leaders.[vi] With the significance military history plays in both the field of politics and the development of military service members, abuses or corruption of the field can present direct threats to national security. For this reason, we should be mindful of who is controlling the field of military history.
Moving forward in this paper, we will examine common categories of historians that contribute to the field of military history. We will examine their institutional role (where appropriate) and possible biases that they may carry into the field. Through this examination, we may be able to determine who is best suited to carry and safeguard this critical field into the future.
For want of a better term, we will define “service historians” as the uniformed and civilian historians employed by the Department of Defense. These service members and civilian play a critical role in the preservation of military history and the education of military leaders. On the battlefield, embedded uniformed historians establish policies to determine what records will be saved for historic purposes and conduct battlefield interviews to record experiences shortly after they occur. The role of these uniformed historians cannot be understated as much of their work will be determining what materials will be available for historians to research in the future. These historians will have access to a range of classified and unclassified materials than may take decades before they become available for public access. Civilian historians also support the Department of Defense by conducting oral interviews of high-ranking military leaders, constructing educational materials, and producing official histories for their assigned service. The Department of Defense invests heavily into historians hoping to capture critical information and develop educational programs to improve the combat power of the U.S. Military.
The intent of military historians is twofold. While the intent of accurately recording the historical events of the U.S. Military is considered paramount, this historical research is done with the hopes of capturing strategic, operational, or tactical insights that can provide advantages during the next martial conflict. In this way, the selection of historical battles or conflicts to be studied by service historians may be less about providing new insights into the historical record and more about a systematic approach and development of educational resources to improve current military performance through a selected study of history.
There is a risk that service historians may introduce bias in their research as an attempt to protect their organizations (intentionally or unintentionally). Recently, a question raised about the failure for the U.S. Army to release a history of the Iraq war entitled “The United States Army in the Iraqi War.” While this report isn’t considered to be an “official history”, there was significant concerns about the accuracy of the report after being commissioned by generals that were responsible for the surge during the Iraq war. One could imagine how a report may be impacted knowing that it would have to be approved by the military leaders involved in the actions that were being researched. The failure to publish the finalized report has generated significant concerns and has resulted in members of Congress calling for its release.[vii] This situation raises grave concerns on service historians being able to accurately and honestly record and publish the histories of their organizations.
One interesting example of a service historian’s bias in recording history might come from one of the oldest examples of military history. If Homer’s Iliad is studied closely, it is to be noted that the character Achilles is the only Greek that displays the impact of combat stress. There surely were more examples of combat stress injuries and even cowardice that occurred during the Trojan War. But given Homer was dependent on the income of wealthy Greek families for retelling this story, these types of negative behaviors of other soldiers from prominent families were likely removed from the record to safeguard this income of the storyteller. While this is an extreme example, and most would not recognize the Iliad in the modern understanding as a work of military history, we cannot help but consider the possible pressures that might arise in a service historian to modify the historical record to protect his/her own career or the honor of their organization.
Out of the three asserted purposes for the study of military history, service historians provide the majority of one function (education of future military leaders) and provide limited support for the other two (providing sense of heritage and preventing needless conflicts). Service historians are only limited in supporting the two public purposes of military history by there exposure to the civilian community. While there is attempts to conduct public events to share the research of service historians to the public and most research is accessible through the internet, this outreach is limited. With the critical function of educating future military leaders often exceeding the staff and resources available, service historians and their respective branches often lack the ability to engage with the larger community in a meaningful fashion.
In this paper, we will use the term “academic historians” to refer to historians working in an academic environment, namely college professors. While some may assert that public historians, or those working in public facing institutions like museums can also be included in this group, for the sake of this research we will address public historians separately. Academic historians or history professors are responsible for the creation of historical research and the instruction of history classes in an academic environment. The research they produce is specifically intended for the limits of the academic audience, although is may sometimes gain popularity in the larger community. In recent era, this research is often placed behind “pay walls” of academic journals that limits the exposure to the general public.
The academic field of history have suffered in the recent years as almost 50% of history PhD graduates fail to find tenure track positions in the United States.[viii] This along with budget cuts and more emphasis on practical skill acquisition in college has caused a massive constriction of history departments. In many colleges, history classes are now limited to survey or “intro” level courses to history. As a result, both the amount of history and the specialization of history courses students are exposed to are rapidly shrinking. As social movements are placing more emphasis on diversity programs, opportunities to be exposed to historical fields such as military history are now being replace with minority or women’s history requirements.
Over the 20th century there was considerable narrowing in the political diversity among college professors. This trend continues today. A study of political registrations of professors at the top 40 American Universities found the ratio of Democrat to Republican history professors to be 33.5 to 1.[ix] While being of a member of either political party doesn’t negate one’s ability to study history, when too many of any specific political ideology is present there is a real threat of groupthink. This is especially true in academia where tenure is gain through consensus, scholars are increasingly narrowing the aperture of acceptable scholarship in fear of offending their fellow professors and damaging their professional careers. In the modern era and especially with a President as controversial as Donald Trump, there is a real question if an unbiased history of his National Security policy and direction will be recorded when less than 3% of elite scholars align with his political party.
Of the three asserted purposes of military history, academic historians typically excel at the prevention of needless wars. Ever since the 1960s and the U.S. evolvement in the Viet Nam conflict, the United States academia has had a noted anti-war message. In many universities, academic professors also play an important role in presenting military history to Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets provided they instruct a course within the scope and standards of the U.S. Military. Academic historians also play a critical role in providing a common sense of heritage, however there is a question if this community can do so without the introduction of a significant degree of political bias.
Public history is an emerging field of history that presents history directly to the public. Public historians would work in the field of military history would include those that work in military themed museums and battlegrounds. The United States is blessed to have over 35,000 public and private museums.[x] It is difficult to estimate the number of these museums that present military history as it is common for even small-town museums to present military displays. With the definition of public histories ranging from distinguished institutions like the Smithsonian to local private museum, the quality of historical scholarship displayed in the field of public history varies wildly. The academic backgrounds of public historians can range from individuals with PhDs from noteworthy academic programs to those with no formal education in the field of history.
Unlike academic history, public historians get much broader exposure to the public. However, their exposure is significantly limited in terms of time. Unlike academic historians that have exposure to students for an entire semester to cover a historical topic, public historians’ exposure to the public is often measured as a matter of minutes. This creates concerns about how complex historical topics can be accurately conveyed to the public in such short durations. There are some legitimate concerns that some public history exhibits might be presenting history in an overly simplified manner that misses much of the critical nuances of history.
Additionally, since public historians are much more dependent on the interest of the public to attend their exhibits, there are concerns that public interest directs research into non-scholarly directions. Public historians might be pushed answer questions that are of the public’s interested that don’t have enough scholarly evidence to truly speculate upon. Not having the governmental funding available like academic institutions, public historians are influenced significantly more by market forces in designing their exhibits and programs.
In recent years, there have been attempts to increase the scholarly rigor within the field of public historians with the creations of professional organizations such as the National Council of Public History and the American Alliance of Museums. However, with the diversity of the museums within the United States, it is unlikely that even with the best efforts of these organizations that the credibility of all museums could be lifted to an “academic” standard. For this reason, we must look with suspicion on this field of history and take to time to individually evaluate the quality of museum displays.
Of the three asserted purposes of military history, public historians typically excel at the providing a sense of cultural heritage. This is especially true on the local level where state or county museums can present the military history of local inhabitants. In many cases, public historians can play a powerful role in preventing needless military conflicts as exhibits about the horrors of war prove to be popular with the general public. However, many of the oversimplified military exhibits in the United States may tend to romanticize military conflicts and have the reverse effect. Public historians can also play a critical role in educating the next generation of military leaders. This is especially true in the preservation of battlefields. The practice of “staff rides” or battlefield analysis on actual battlefields is one of the best educational techniques for military leaders.[xi] These experiences can be exceptionally moving as services members encounter the “power of place” as they connect an intellectual military exercise with historical battlefield realities. While we can look with the skeptical eye on the quality of scholarship of public historians, the impact and influence the public historians is unquestionable as they have a larger audience than most other historians.
Popular historians produce historical products specifically for profit. This field could include activities like history themed commercial television channels, YouTube channels, and even some video games. The academic quality in these products varies widely. The typical format of these presentations often oversimplifies historical events to focus on one or two key factors during the typically short-duration of these products. In some cases, they produce attention grabbing products like Morningstar Entertainment series “Deadliest Warrior”. This TV series pitted warriors from different times and societies against each other using computerized models. While the series had some historical value in analyzing the historical weapons for various cultures, the attempt to reduce warrior cultures into statistics to run computer model comparisons vastly over-simplified the concept of military history and battlefield realities. While these series did present some useful historical data, like most popular historian products, it did so with a considerable number of non-academic assertions.
Before we dismiss the field of popular historians as being dangerous to the academic field of history, we must recognize that popular history can provide powerful motivation to learn more about military history. There is even some anecdotal evidence to suggest that video games like Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty may have increased the cost of surplus military firearms, as gamers are now seeking to acquire military history artifacts. Because of the wild variation in quality of popular history products, we will not made specific claims about how this fields fulfills the purposes of the study of military history.
The last group we will discuss are veterans. While this group of individuals may not be the first to come to mind when discussing the field of military historians, we cannot dismiss the value of the first-hand experiences that can be relayed by combat veterans. There seems to be a great distrust of veterans in the academic community. This distrust may be rightfully founded. On an individual level, one personal account of war would not be sufficient to understand the full complexity of the political and military engagements of that war. Veterans have been noted to have strong personal biases towards their own experiences. This can range greatly from extreme hatred or extreme support for their military service. We could compare the writings of the German WWI veterans and authors of Erich Maria Remarque and Ernst Jünger to see the polarized extremes in support of their wartime experiences.
One possible reason for the strong bias of veterans is the desire to find meaning in their wartime experience. While some veterans will reject all meaning and become strong antiwar advocates, others have the opposite reaction. Veterans that suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Moral Injury, or the loss of their peers, may be biased to find positive results to their wartime experience in an attempt to find “meaning” to their and their fellow veterans’ sacrifices. The Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl studied this search for meaning and as a result developed logotheraphy (meaning-centered therapy) to treat the psychological injuries of trauma.[xii]
Veterans can play a critical part in fulfilling all the roles of military history. Regardless of a positive or negative reaction to their wartime experiences, the personal stories of why the individuals went to war can enrich our understanding of our cultural heritage. Listening to the stories of the losses and suffering and seeing firsthand the injuries of veterans can act as a strong deterrent against needless wars. And regardless how small of a role the veteran played in war, their stories can relay critical information to inform the next generation of military leaders. While many veterans will never receive any formal instruction in the field of history, they still can play an important role in communicating the history of the U.S. Military.
As we have moved through the examination of various communities involved with military history, there has been areas identified in each of these communities that present a risk for bias. Service historians may unknowingly alter the recording of history to protect the honor of the military. Academic historians may currently be influenced by a significant degree of groupthink that prevents a full and open exploration of ideas. Public historians through their limited time with the audience may present an overly simplified version of military history. Popular historians, driven largely by market forces, are likely to follow trends that are profitable verses truly academically refined. Finally, veterans can be deeply impacted by the psychological impact of war and their experiences are limited to only a tiny fraction of the totality of the military conflict they participated in. Georges Clemenceau was correct to asserted that “War .. [is] much too serious a thing to be left to the military”. But just as war exceeds the limits of the military, the importance of recording and researching military history likely exceeds the ability of any subcategory of military historians.
In the end, we need all these groups of historians to continue to study and share their research in an open marketplace of ideas. While each of these categories may present flaws in their approach to military history, when consumed together as a community and not as individual experiences, the strengths of one category of military historians reinforces the weakness of the next. In this way, the popular and public historians might spark the interest to study military history in citizens while the academic historian presents them with well-researched courses on military history. The stories of veterans might encourage the next generation of citizens to enter military service while service historians produce the educational materials to ensure they can dominate the modern battlefield. Each of these categories of military historians has an important role in advancing the understanding of cultural heritage, avoiding unnecessary wars, and providing for the education of military leaders.
Annis, F. C. `Why Study War?’, Small Wars Journal (2018).
Clausewitz, C.V. On War (London: Trübner, 1873), Para. 24. (Accessed: 5 January 2019).
Frankl, V. E., Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Fourth Edition (Boston: Beacon, 1992).
Institute of Museum and Library Services, Government Doubles Official Estimate: There Are 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S., (19 May 2014), (Accessed: 13 January 2019).
Joint Publication1: Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), p. I-4, (Accessed: 5 January 2019).
Langbert, M., A. J. Quian & D. B. Klein, ‘Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology’ Econ Journal Watch 13(3) (2016) p. 433. (Accessed: 5 January 2019).
Lui, J. H. & D. J. Hilton, 2010, `How the Past Weighs on the Present: Social Representations of History and their Role in Identity Politics` British Journal of Social Psychology (2010), (Assessed: 5 January 2019).
Orwell, G. 1984 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949), Book 1, Chapter III, Page 35.
Robertson, W. G. The Staff Ride, (Washington, DC: 1987).
Speier, J. & R. Gallego, Congressional Request (24 October 2018) (Accessed: 6 January 2019)
Wood, L. M. & R. B. Townsend, ‘The Many Careers of History PhDs: A Study of Job Outcomes, Spring 201’ A Report to the American Historical Association. (Accessed: 13 January 2019).
[i] Joint Publication1: Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), p. I-4, (Accessed: 5 January 2019).
[ii] Ibid. p. II-8.
[iii] C.V. Clausewitz, On War (London: Trübner, 1873), Para. 24. (Accessed: 5 January 2019)
[iv] G. Orwell, 1984 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949), Book 1, Chapter III, Page 35.
[v] J. H. Lui & D. J. Hilton, 2010, `How the Past Weighs on the Present: Social Representations of History and their Role in Identity Politics` British Journal of Social Psychology (2010), (Assessed: 5 January 2019).
[vi] F. C. Annis, `Why Study War?’, Small Wars Journal (2018).
[vii] J. Speier & R. Gallego, Congressional Request (24 October 2018) (Accessed: 6 January 2019).
[viii] L. M. Wood & R. B. Townsend, ‘The Many Careers of History PhDs: A Study of Job Outcomes, Spring 201’ A Report to the American Historical Association. (Accessed: 13 January 2019).
[ix] M. Langbert, A. J. Quian & D. B. Klein, ‘Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology’ Econ Journal Watch 13(3) (2016) p. 433. (Accessed: 5 January 2019).
[x] Institute of Museum and Library Services, Government Doubles Official Estimate: There Are 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S., (19 May 2014), (Accessed: 13 January 2019).
[xi] W.G. Robertson, The Staff Ride, (Washington, DC: 1987).
[xii] V. E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Fourth Edition (Boston: Beacon, 1992).