Civilians and Military History

By Jason Smith


Until about the age of ten, I used to command a large armada of model warships that I navigated around the living room carpet of my childhood home, hoping desperately for a crack at the enemy fleet that lay somewhere beyond the kitchen, which was never outside the range of my diminutive dive-bombers. In those childhood dreams, I was the envy of Nelson and Halsey, the scourge of Yamamoto. My parents were certain that I would one day grow up to be a great admiral. Boyhood dreams aside, I realized quickly that a life devoted to military service was not for me. I was not a warrior by nature, not inclined to the kind of mental and physical hardships that military service demands; I even shied away from fights in the schoolyard. While still in my teenage years, I decided that I might become the next best thing. If I would never join the ranks of the admiralty, perhaps I could study and write about them.

My apprenticeship as a military historian has, on many occasions, brought me into contact with those in the field who either work for the military, or who, at one time or another, were active service members. I have encountered them at conferences, at archives, as authors, and as fellow students. The collaboration of these military scholars with civilian military historians gives the field a unique character. It is a hybrid which, as a civilian, I have found to be both challenging and beneficial.

In a recent article published in the May 2007 issue of Military History, civilian military historian Mark Grimsley asked why military history mattered to the common lay reader, those interested in what he and his colleague Allan Millett term “inspirational military history.” Grimsley suggests that for these readers (mostly men), and even for himself, military history is one way by which men negotiate socially constructed rites of manhood. By reading military history, he argues, they somehow inherit a kind of masculinity only reserved for those who have experienced the heat of battle. They live vicariously through Patton and Alexander the Great. Grimsley’s thesis is borne out by my own experiences as a boy commanding the fleet to the decisive battle, but always from the safety of my own living room.

My interest in military history, however, has grown past this amateurish appeal to encompass a broader conception of military affairs, incorporating larger question about the role of war and the military in society, culture, and the environment. Yet if I am truthful, I must admit that part of me is painfully aware of the boundaries of my experience, of my own unrealized rite of manhood through military service.

At times, this lack of experience is a distinct disadvantage. I stick out like a sore civilian at the Washington Navy Yard, or at the United States Naval Academy. There, with my Dictionary of Naval Terms in hand, I struggle to decipher a language seemingly premised on the acronym. As a civilian, and a young graduate student, it is a language utterly foreign to me. I am accustomed to GWOT and CINCPAC, but I might, on occasion, confuse UNREP (Underway Replenishment) with SITREP (Situation Report). This is perhaps the most harmless example of a larger point. To some degree, my understanding of the military culture of America’s armed services will be a distant one.

A more difficult dilemma is whether I am qualified to study the military, having no relation to it save my personal interest. Can I capture life before the mast having myself sailed little more than a canoe down the Delaware River or a ferry to the Statue of Liberty? Can I write about the anticipation, the thrill, the fear, the gruesome aftermath of battle having never witnessed it? These are troubling questions for a civilian military historian. On the surface it calls into question my credibility and it scoffs at the supposition that I really “know” the events of which I write and teach.

Yet the longer I mull over these questions, the less they disturb me. After all, some of the best scholars of masculinity are women. Not every environmental historian is a card-carrying member of Greenpeace. Thirty years from now, a scholar and veteran of the Green Zone writing a history of the current Iraq war may understand little of the nature of fighting in Fallujah based solely on his or her experience in that war. Moreover, some of the best military histories are not confined to the battlefield, or to military institutions, but speak to broader conceptual changes over time. The historian with military experience is not more eminently qualified than the civilian to make such connections. Ultimately, life in the modern American military hardly resembles life at Fort Leavenworth in 1850, or on the Asiatic station in 1880. The past is a foreign battlefield to all historians, military and civilian alike.

Different experiences will, of course, lead to different interpretations. This, I am convinced, is all for the best. Despite seemingly divergent interests within the field, historians of both persuasions have enriched organizations like the Society for Military History. As a civilian military historian, I bring a healthy suspicion to motivations underlying armed conflict. I also attune my thinking to broader historical trends, using the military to further refine my understanding of larger historical forces. But, as a civilian, I recognize the limitations of my own understanding and I appreciate the ways in which historians with military experience can enrich my own work


Here I think it is important to recognize and accept that there is no consensus to the question of “what is military history?” or the equally important question of “why does it matter?” The field is contested terrain. Military historians have spilt a lot of ink in a seemingly paranoid attempt to justify the legitimacy of their field within academic bounds and placate the alleged guardians of academic propriety. At the same time, other historians preface their forays into the field with the clichéd “I am not a military historian,” while nonetheless displaying an interest in some aspect of military history. Such a disclaimer speaks, on one hand, to the suspicion with which military historians sometimes perceive new methodologies and, on the other hand, to the ridiculous stigma that some in academia attach to the study of war and military institutions.

As a young student, my interest was piqued by the operational histories of Samuel Eliot Morison. As an undergraduate I appreciated the changes in the field brought about by the “New Military History” (now perhaps more aptly characterized as the Old New Military History). As a graduate student I embrace the work of those who too often feel the need to introduce themselves as non-military historians. These methodologies are all integral elements of a well-rounded, nuanced, mature field. It is a field enriched by the need to satisfy different audiences and by the need to ask very different kinds of questions. It would be a mistake to strictly sub-divide its practitioners, to alienate those historians who work at the periphery of several fields, or to quibble over one determinative philosophy of military history. Such diversity is a testament to the field’s health, not to its underlying weakness.