What is Military History (And Why do I Study it)?

On my Facebook feed, I frequently see an advertisement for Norwich University’s Military History program (full disclosure, I’m a master’s degree student there), and the comments that follow the advertisement are a consistent source of wonder for me. It seems most of the commenters don’t really have an idea of what military history is.

The Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 2015. It looked nothing like this, by the way. But this painting is part of history. History = Past Event + Interpreter.

Some question why we study battle plans and tactics all day. Others wonder why we should study war at all. Some dismiss the study as pointless, as what sort of job would a master of military history degree qualify a person for?

First, there is a misconception that military history is the study of tactics and military strategy. That is a part of it, yes, but only as tactics and strategy apply to something that happened in the past. Studying tactics and strategy as it relates to the present and the future is a whole other thing. History requires a past event. Therefore, military history is the study of military matters that happened in the past. This study is not limited to tactics and strategy, though. We study the relationship of the military to the state and vice-versa, the role of the military in shaping perceptions of gender and race, the use of violence as a means of political expression, and the like. When studying military history, knowing how to load a M1 Garand or knowing how to fly an AH-64 Apache will not help you as much as knowing how elections really work, or how public opinion is actually shaped. The ties between the political world and the military world are a big part of what we read and write about.

Secondly, I saw on that post a rather frightening number of replies that suggested it was distasteful to study war, that we should be teaching “peace,” instead. Again, I think we see here another misunderstanding of what it is we study and teach as military historians. We are not in the business of teaching people to kill each other. We are in the business of finding out how and why people are made to kill each other, and to analyze and comment on war as an agent of change in history. War is a constant in human history not because military historians think it’s cool and we want to keep the wars going. If all wars stopped tomorrow, we would celebrate right alongside everyone else, and our jobs would not be in jeopardy one bit. That’s because, again, our purpose is studying the past.

There are lots of different kinds of history: region-based history, like American history or African history; race and gender-based history like Native American history or women’s history; culture-based history like the history of farming in Colorado, or the history of music, or sports, for example. Military history is just one of those different kinds. The key is the word “history.” We have all the same training and ability to scrutinize and synthesize as any other historian. We just specialize in matters related to people under arms.

Lastly, I want to say that I do not study military history because it will help me get a job. I already have a job, and it has nothing to do with military history. Even if my military history degree never helps me land a single minute of employment, I will still consider it worth it. And here’s why: I only get to live one life. The time that I have here is limited, and it’s all I will ever have. When I’m at the end of my time, I want to look back on it and say that I did things that I was passionate about, not necessarily what I was forced to do for money. By studying military history, in audacious defiance of our money-obsessed culture, I’m doing what the hell I want to do with my life. Some people spend their money on trips to the Bahamas. Some people spend their money collecting sports memorabilia. Some people spend their money on expensive camera equipment. I spend my money so I can be a knowledgable person, and so I can understand life. I’m fine with not having a lot of money. What’s more important to me is that I live my life my way, and say what I want to say. That’s why I’m here. I hope that’s how you feel about that thing that you are passionate about. No judging… if you collect Beanie Babies, I say live your life, man. I really hope you get that commemorative purple Princess Diana bear you’ve had your heart set on. But if a war breaks out over it, I’m writing about it!

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