Problems in historiography

Military history has for a long time occupied an uneasy position in the field of historiography. It has never altogether disappeared but it has nevertheless come very far down from its earlier heights. Ancient or traditional historical accounts from Homer to Clarendon focused on military and political history to the exclusion of almost everything else. Modern historians, however, are apt to focus on the sometimes neglected because unglamorous causes of history at the expense of traditional set-piece battle descriptions and campaign narratives. This is on the whole a good development. Historical scholarship has broadened to include far more than the government-level narratives that characterized the work of early historians.  Historians now look deeper beneath the surface for explanation, with the result that modern scholarship has overthrown outdated and incorrect interpretations and is producing an ever more sophisticated understanding of history. But while a small number of historians continue to produce first-class works of military scholarship, the discipline of military history on a whole has become unfairly neglected. An unfortunate side-effect of this neglect is that the public’s considerable appetite for military history is now filled almost exclusively by a wide range of popular works. While many of these works are excellent, others lack the rigorous scholarship demanded by the academy. The whole field of history suffers as a result.

A reexamination of the importance of military history is long overdue. The optimistic predictions of Fukuyama et al notwithstanding, the world is no less violent today than it has been at many points throughout its history. The future historians of 2010 will have no shortage of military topics to discuss. Moreover, we are just now gaining the distance necessary to look back on the great conflicts of the twentieth century dispassionately and critically. Excellent scholarship produced in the last decade has begun to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the First World War and dispel lingering misconceptions. The next decades will see the publication of accounts of these wars that will be in a real sense definitive. Military historians have plenty of very important work left to do.

But the proper response to this challenge is not to revert to the old methods of military historiography. These methods shouldn’t be discarded completely – but they should be used alongside newer techniques. John Keegan’s Face of Battle argues for a new way of writing about the experience of battle. Recent developments in historiography can improve military institutional, intellectual and operational history as well.