Ain’t gonna study war no more

Military history has almost vanished from academia, especially in ‘elite’ institutions. This is probably related to that strange Bellesiles incident, and the trend toward Kumbaya models of prehistory in archaeology and anthropology.  It’s not just that academic historians don’t publish on war – they don’t know anything about it themselves, and they have contempt for anyone who does. A colleague asked John Lynn if military historians wrote in crayon; one head of a history department called military history “of interest only to hormone-driven fraternity boys.”

Pride in ignorance: that’s hard for me to understand. There are subjects that don’t interest me, like baseball stats, where not knowing doesn’t much bother me – still, ignorance of sabermetrics is nothing to be proud of.  Putting war in that category strikes me as deeply crazy. Like the bad man says, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Unfortunately, some of the remaining military historians try to placate the history establishment by reframing the subject in ways that cater to establishment interests – you know, writing articles like “Dykes at Kursk”, or discussing the role of ‘people of color’ in the wars of the Diadochi.  Sucking up to pinheads.


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73 Responses to Ain’t gonna study war no more

  1. Gordo says:

    Had to google “Bellesiles”, interesting.

    On your previous post on treason, 126 comments and no-one mentioned the other country that your bombmakers handed over America’s secrets to, Teller included.

  2. magusjanus says:

    Any particular books you recommend on military history you’ve liked a lot? You recommended a large amount WW2 books a while back on the list you gave your daughter, just wondering if there were any other time periods you’d care to recommend a few on, maybe narrowing down your faves.

    To the extent you’re still interested in reading up more on WW2, Stahel has some pretty great stuff out recently on the Eastern Front:

    as well as the “sequels” Kiev 1941 and Typhoon, well worth the read.

  3. Patrick Boyle says:

    I just read an mainstream quasi-academic book on warfare by Ian Morris of Stanford. It’s called ‘War – What’s Is it Good For’. The title is a reference to an obscure pop song that was featured in a Jackie Chan movie.

    His thesis is that war is beneficial and civilizing. He thinks that civilizations arise by being good at warfare and that by crushing all opposition at least for a time they promote non-violence. (Huh?) He then surveys all human history to show how this has been true. The main problem is that relatively few of his examples fit his notion of peace through war. There are some civilizations like Rome that instituted a ‘Pax Romana’ but many that didn’t. For example he has to kind of skip past the Mongols and term what they did as ‘non-productive’ warfare. He argues by neologism.

    Morris is a professor of Classics. He seems to know a lot of history. His main problem seems to be that he was intent on writing a popular best seller with a lot of quirky pop-oriented terms that support a number of popular agendas.

    One of the funniest features is constant sniping at Victor Davis Hanson – another professor of classics at Stanford. (Podner, this campus ain’t big enough for the both of us). Hanson supports the idea of Western Civilization and this annoys Morris.

    Morris seems to be trying to emulate Jared Diamond through his crypto-Panglosian thesis.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      It’s called ‘War – What’s Is it Good For’. The title is a reference to an obscure pop song that was featured in a Jackie Chan movie.

      Obscure? You must be kidding.

      • Harold Lloyd says:

        that quote was one of the funniest things I read today, Ken M level I hope

      • William O. B'Livion says:

        There are several versions. The Frankie Goes to Hollywood version is probably the most well known to those of us of a certain vintage, but to even grayer hairs the Edwin Starr version might be what they think of, and today that’s obscure.

        • Patrick Boyle says:

          I take it that this song is not obscure after all? Sorry. I watch Jackie Chan movies but I don’t listen to pop music.

    • magusjanus says:

      “His main problem seems to be that he was intent on writing a popular best seller with a lot of quirky pop-oriented terms that support a number of popular agendas.”

      aka Malcolm Gladwell Syndrome

    • Legavaan says:

      I read that book – his thesis is that war creates and strengthens /states/, and states have a monopoly of violence, keeping internal peace.

  4. Jaim Jota says:

    Yes, it is time somebody wrote about Aleksandra Samusenko in the Tank Battle of Kursk.

  5. Justin says:

    Victor Davis Hanson, for all his neoconish flaws, writes about this. No one wants to hang out with military historians at parties. “If they study war, they must LOVE WAR AND WANT TO MARRY IT!!1” One wonders what the cool kids make of oncology.

    • William O. B'Livion says:



      • gcochran9 says:

        Of course he is.

      • Justin says:

        I mean he’ll take anything Bush did overseas and connect it to Xenophon. Though at least he is vaguely sensible on immigration.

        • gcochran9 says:

          I think he’s an utter loon, but as you may have begun to notice I think that of quite a few people.

          • bob sykes says:

            VDH is an utter loon. He’s trying to operate a farm in a desert. He depends for irrigation water on a failing aquifer, one which has been failing for a long time, although the current drought has accelerated the process. He is surrounded by savages who have repeated vandalized his property and wells for scrap metal. The county he lives in lacks effective public services like police and road maintenance. He works in a university system that has essentially failed. He lives in a state that once was America’s Eden and now is literally another Mississippi, albeit brown instead of black. California’s inevitable future is to be another Latin American style feudal state. It might even cease to be part of the US, at least in a de facto sense.

            He claims to be aware of all of this, and yet he continues to squat down in that Hell-hole and do nothing. A sane man would move to Ohio.

          • Pincher Martin says:

            Bob Sykes,

            VDH lives in the San Joaquin Valley on a farm held by his family for several generations. Having a sentimental attachment to the patrimony developed by your family might not be the smartest way to live, but it’s not insane.

            And while parts of the San Joaquin valley might qualify as a desert because of their low annual rainfall, the valley still produces a huge variety of agricultural products by virtue of its proximity to the Sierra Nevada and the runoff that mountain range provides.

            Besides, farming is about diverting water. That region of California developed, not only because of its natural gifts, but because government enhanced those gifts by building world class infrastructure. Americans don’t seem to believe in that anymore.

          • magusjanus says:

            Pincher, the govt basically subsidizes water to farmers in that region to an egregious degree. A great deal of California’s water woes are public choice economics 101 at this point.

            There are plenty of great govt infrastructure projects to point to. California’s water management and pricing? not so much.

          • Pincher Martin says:


            Had the original ambitious plans for California’s waterworks gone forward, there would be plenty of water. But they were stopped – not because of economics, but because of the preferences of environmentalists.

            Victor Davis Hansen’s family didn’t move into California in the last decade. They’ve been farming in Fresno County for five generations.

          • Loon? I can’t speak for his military commentary but his analysis of California’s water hypocrisy is pretty much spot on. Met him once (grew up in the town nearest his farm). Seemed sane.

          • FredR says:

            I liked his book ‘The Other Greeks.’

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          “at least he is vaguely sensible on immigration”

          only after it was too late

      • magusjanus says:

        he just compared the Iran deal with Munich 1938. It doesn’t get much more cliche neocon than that.

    • dearieme says:

      I read one of his books, all about how The West (the what?) always beat The East (ditto) at war. Bonkers. Attila the Hun, I thought. Bloody bonkers.

      • Jim says:

        The army of Attila were mostly made up of Ostrogoths and assorted other East Germans. The “Roman” army at Chalons was mostly made up of Visigoths.

        • dearieme says:

          Was Attila a representative of “the East” or “The West”, then? And if the matter is ambiguous, how can anyone argue that “The West” always beats “The East”. Hell, Rome didn’t always beat Persia – far from it.

          • Jim says:

            Yeah, its not a good test of any assertion that about the outcome of “West” (whatever that is) fighting “East” (whatever that is). The “Roman” army won at Chalons but the barbarians making up the “Roman” army at Chalons weren’t any more representative of “Western civilization” than the barbarians fighting on the “Hunnish” side.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        I liked VDH’s first book called The Western Way of War, which I believe was based on his PhD thesis. I read it in the early nineties. The book is a detailed look at the life and battles of Greek hoplites. I thought it was very enjoyable and with the exception of the book’s title not at all like his later surveys, which I agree are tendentious and overgeneralized.

  6. austmann says:

    Nancy: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee,”
    Winston: ““If I were your husband I would drink it.”

  7. Toddy Cat says:

    Aleksandra Samusenko was pretty cute, and according to most sources, had a husband who was killed in the war, so she won’t get written up by American academics. But “Hot Chicks at Kursk” would make a great ’70’s style midnight movie. Mariya Oktyabrskaya wasn’t bad looking either…

    • Jaim Jota says:

      Leszek Kolakowski explains why academic historians, too, must serve the people. The people hires and pays historians to produce socially useful products, that is, research that promotes equality and tolerance. A research on racism in Alexander’s expeditionary force or of women in the Red Army may change somebody’s attitude toward those oppressed classes. What is more difficult to understand is why these ideas, after being tried out and rejected by the Russians and the Chinese, have been adopted by the American intelligentzia.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        “What is more difficult to understand is why these ideas, after being tried out and rejected by the Russians and the Chinese, have been adopted by the American intelligentzia.”

        My guess would be that American intellectuals have not yet been executed in large enough numbers, or had enough struggle sessions, or mined enough gold in subzero temperatures to really understand these ideas in their full richness. They may soon get the opportunity if they keep this up. Incidentally, a book about women in the Red Army might actually be interesting, but it will never be written, because most Red Army women were A) heterosexual, B) patriotic, and C happy to return home and to acquire a husband and children once the need for their service was over. Cis-gender bigots, obviously…

        • Jaim Jota says:

          Women in the Red Army are poor subject matter for today’s academia. Isaac Babel: “They gallop ahead with hitched-up skirts, dust-covered, fat-breasted, all of them whores, but comrades too, and whores because they are comrades, that’s the most important thing, they serve in every way they can, these heroines.”

        • setstamov says:

          You are right, US don’t have inteligenzia yet – only intellectuals. But I can see it coming. In great numbers.

  8. MawBTS says:

    You will meet people who don’t even believe there’s such a thing as history. Who insist that everything ever written is a “narrative” – propaganda for one side or another.

    It reminds of Hegelian/Marxist thought, with syntheses and anti-syntheses and so forth. God forbid things actually be true or false.

    • Justin says:

      They’re absurd aren’t they? Nebelwerfer is a social construct.

    • Tarl says:

      Apropos of which:

      At the time I took on my studies in 1960s, few people doubted that finding out the historical truth was an important objective in itself. Then, around 1970, things started changing. This time the herald of change was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926-84). The way Foucault saw it, post Hegelian historians—and, looming behind them, his own countryman Rene Descartes—were wrong. Contrary to their delusions, such thing as an objective fact, event, process or text did not exist. Rather, each person interpreted—“read” was the term Foucault’s followers invented for this—each text, process, event and fact in his or own way. Assuming, that is, that these things had any kind of objective existence at all and were not imposed on history ex post facto. The choice of interpretation was determined by each person’s experience and personality; in reality, therefore, the number of possible interpretations was infinite. If, as sometimes happened, this interpretation or that was widely accepted, then this fact only showed that it suited the psychological needs of many people, not that it was more “correct” than any others.

  9. pyrrhus says:

    Ignorance is in style, perhaps another indication of declining intelligence. A neighbor has advanced degrees in Biology, but when I pointed out the basic mathematical nature of natural selection, she reported that she went into biology because she was told that no math knowledge was necessary.

    • L says:

      Statistics were an important part of my biology degree. Everyone in biology had to at least taken biology statistics, though not purely a mathematics thing, did involve knowing how to manage large quantities of data, being able to design and understand what the data was telling you.

      Was she an older lady who didn’t have to take statistics in her biology days?

  10. In my high-school crowd, a disdain for studying anything military was similar to the disdain for the guys who worked on cars all the time and knew what a Chevy 4-barrel was. Just the wrong people. Not the ones who hung out at church-basement coffee houses, y’know?

    • Bruce says:

      ‘Military history has almost vanished from academia, especially at ‘elite’ instiutions.’

      General flight of the curials from being under a clumsy, dangerous government: a governing class that religiously shirks military service, white flight from cities (bourgeois flight really), no investment in industries requiring vulnerable physical capital.

    • Jacobite says:

      Chevy sourced most of the four barrel carburetors for their V-8s from either Rochester (a GM subsidiary at the time) or Holley. I believe they shipped some vehicles with Carter’s but these were a small minority.

  11. Unladen Swallow says:

    Greg, I wondered what you meant by the Bellesiles incident, I knew about that book by him and it relating to gun ownership in early America, what does that book have to do with the decline of military history in academia? Could you elaborate? As far as the pacifism of anthropology and archaeology departments, I read Keeley’s book, and it really opened my eyes, the funny thing about Keeley is that he doesn’t even invoke evolutionary biology to explain it, he just posits that this is an illustration of what Hobbes deduced centuries ago: A war of all against all.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The thesis of the book, that guns were rare in colonial America, is nonsense, obviously so. Yet he got the Bancroft prize in history: professional historians couldn’t tell it was nonsense, or didn’t care. I’m thinking that ignorance of war (and weapons) is related to this.

      • William Newman says:

        “The thesis of the book, that guns were rare in colonial America, is nonsense, obviously so. Yet he got the Bancroft prize in history: professional historians couldn’t tell it was nonsense, or didn’t care.”

        I haven’t read the book, but unless the Lindgren Yale Law Journal article (“Fall from Grace” is being incredibly misleading about the specifically footnoted passages it refers to, Bellesiles wasn’t just presenting nonsense in an evasive doubletalk way, but making specific claims that should’ve been incredible to people with even an amateur knowledge of history.

        “He even claims that men generally were unfamiliar with guns and that they did not want guns[8] –— preferring axes and knives instead, in part because guns were so inaccurate that they were of little use. He argues that few settlers hunted,[9] and implies that axes made very good weapons in hunting.[10] According to Arming America, in battle ‘the ax [was often considered] the equal of a gun.’ [11]”

        It’s hard to reconcile that kind of thing with any knowledge of military history. That said, the problem may have more to do with general ignorance, stupidity, and will to deceive in modern humanities and social sciences than with a specific deficit in military history. Consider: it also seems to be hard to reconcile the Bellesiles claims with even an ordinary amateur knowledge of non-military-history stuff, like anecdotal knowledge of trade items, and high-profile primary sources. I’m a computer programmer with degrees in biology and chemistry, and even I remember a contemporary atrocity story with the Indians heating up firearm barrels to burn their captives, and remember Franklin’s autobiography telling a story about Quakers and “other grain”. Neither of those stories would make much sense in a dreamworld in which guns were generally understood to be marginal.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Well, lots of prominent historians liked the book, at least before it was shown that Bellesiles made up everything in it. You have to think that they’re either happy with lying for a cause they favor or pig-ignorant: possibly both. So what should we do with them?

          • magusjanus says:

            I say face the wheel.

          • josh says:

            I’d never heard of Bellesiles and find this astonishing. What does he argue happened to General Burgoyne?

          • JJackson says:

            Pig-ignorant would clearly apply to any historian to whom “Long Hunters” and their skill with the rifle were unknown. A classic example was the chase of one of Long Hunter by a dozen Cherokee across several miles. The frontiersman reloaded as he ran and periodically stopped for a shot. The Cherokee desisted when they had lost several of their group. Yes, pig-ignorant for a historian who did not know that mounted frontier militia riflemen drove Cornwallis out of the Carolinas in 1780-1781.

        • Jim says:

          As for Burgoyne’s defeat, chalk one up for axes.

    • magusjanus says:

      Here’s Cramer on it:

      he’s the main guy behind unmasking the blatant fraud that all the historians not only didn’t spot but fawned over (and some defended vociferously after the accusations). Cramer was initially dismissed by the “elite” historians as some blogger hoi polloi whom they needn’t pay attention to.


  12. L says:

    May I suggest a new course of study Professor. Cultural Anthropology of the liberal upper class, their habits, thoughts and attitudes. Long term implications for how this elite, their biases and outlooks will shape the destiny of our countrymen and those abroad.

  13. Bruce says:

    Well the military historians could probably beat up the other historians.

    Sailer has written about how boys don’t pay attention in middle/high school history class anymore because the emphasis is on faggoty things (my word not his) rather than what boys are interested in.

    The Brits seem to have a lot more historians interested in war than we do. Let me take this opportunity (again) to plug Osprey Publishing. Great for attention-deficit-disorder guys like me who are interested in military history.

  14. Why is military history still important? We haven’t had a war between true super powers for 60 plus years and there is almost no probability of one in the foreseeable future.

    First of all well written history is a treat. Secondly the history of modern warfare keeps telling us the same thing over and over. With rapid technology advances the losing side is typically the worst blunderer in understanding how war has changed. The cliche that the losing side is fighting the last war with outdated strategies and weapons is true. The past stupidity of man is by no means past. Violence rates have plunged and hopefully they will continue to but I am very tired of wishful thinking painting rosy pictures that ignore our very long history of senseless war. By reading a lot of history you start to gain a complex picture of humanity and there is no replacement. Most folks wander around in a delusional fog spinning out simple answers to complex questions and they don’t even know they are doing this.

    • dearieme says:

      “Why is military history still important? We haven’t had a war between true super powers for 60 plus years and there is almost no probability of one in the foreseeable future.” That’s roughly what many said in 1913.

    • Tarl says:

      You might note that we (the USA) haven’t done so well at war in the past 60 years — and ignorance of military history has something to do with that.

  15. Petr Akuleyev says:

    Geoffrey Wawro’s recent “A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire” should be must reading for anyone interested in that period of history.

    His earlier examination of the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866, a major turning point in history and a war that involved over 1 million troops in the field, but is typically glossed over even by European historians, is also very good, and probably one of the few books in English to cover that particular fight in detail. Very interesting to Civil War buffs if you want to see how the Europeans were fighting in basically the same period with similar technology.

    • dearieme says:

      ” the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866 … typically glossed over even by European historians”. How times have changed: we studied it in our second year at Secondary school. First the Danes, then the Austrians, and then provoke the French. Clever old Otto von B.

  16. IC says:

    History is fascinating to me. Military history is even more so. However, reading history is more like solving puzzles for me, and is fun.
    Example of Chinese history is used here.
    1. Folklore version: Our people never lose. Win, win, win. Even lost battle with higher number of enemy body count. This folktale version applied to all wars in Chinese history: from mongol war to korean wars. We are undefeatable. The folklore is very similar to Greek legends or bible stories. This version is very popular among average Joes. In fact, underclass or unsophisticated people only believe this version of history. You will never run out of cannon folders due to this reason.
    2. Scholar version: More balanced win and loss in military history. This might be closer to truth. However, like scientific paper, this tends to dry and boring to read for common people. Only truth seekers or similar scholars are interested in this version of history. Some scholars like Sima Qian even got punishment for speaking `truth’. At end, even this version can have all kinds of bias.
    3. Goverment version: Closer to propoganda with altered history in order to justify its action, appeal, control. Hiding the fact of Japanese soldiers serving in Communist force is for political reason. Exaggeration of loss in order to get more credit or financial support. Fabricated story or events are for many different reasons.
    4. Secret documents or classified information: most likely facts. But these facts only are part of whole picture.

    At end, people without independent ability of differentiation and analysis of historical information are very much like those controlled by religion/ideology.

    Only the history experienced by yourself personally might be true. But even that can be confused by fog of war. The historical truth is out there. But like speed of light, you only can get closer to it, never at it.

    • IC says:

      In China, folklore version history were often originated from survived foot-soldiers who certainly had winner bias. They only vitnessed their own survival and killing enemy. Sure if they were dead, who gonna tell the stories? As survivors, they might even kill more than one enemies and lucky in the battle they won. I have some distant grand-uncles who participated in ww2. They only had winning battles to tell. What do you expect from them? If they lost, they would not be able to tell stories from graves.

      They often narrated war stories for school kids at official invitation. I suspected they even spiced up their own experience to impress school kids. So their war experience might be closer to fiction than reality. These low level of foot-soldiers knew nothing about grand military strategy and plans. All their conclusion about war victory is “we are brave and smart”. “Enemy is coward and stupid” ect. They reduced war result to simple personal characters. But this version is most believed and popular among average people.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Yes, my Dad served in WWII, he used to make fun of war movies that emphasized the stupidity of our German or Japanese enemies. Interestingly enough, there weren’t many of these, especially in the fifteen or so years after the war. Rather, most tended to emphasize how tough and formidable the enemy was. Of course our guys were portrayed as being better, but I don’t think that you could have gotten away with portraying the Germans or Japs as incompetent – to many guys had fought them, and knew the truth. Of course, I’m talking about serious movies here, not comedies like “Hogan’s Hero’s”.

        Are there any good (truthful) Chinese war movies concerning WWII? I’m sure that there are, but I’m not very familiar with Chinese cinema…

    • Sima Qian wasn’t punished for telling the truth; he was punished for defending a friend who’d defected to the Huns.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        And, I am pretty sure that ‘castration’ in Chinese terms is not what we in the West think of as ‘castration.’ It is more savage …

    • Thiago Ribeiro says:

      “Our people never lose. Win, win, win. Even lost battle with higher number of enemy body count. This folktale version applied to all wars in Chinese history: from mongol war to korean wars. We are undefeatable.”
      Actually, Brazil has never been defeat at war.

  17. gothamette says:

    The chairman of the History department of Cornell is a military historian. Big shot. Just came out with a book about the assassination of Caesar.

  18. Tarl says:

    Bellesiles had nothing to do with it. Academia has despised military history since 1945. The flagship publication of the historical profession, The American Historical Review, published exactly one research article on World War II between 1945 and 1990 – which was diplomatic not military history – and one additional article between 1991 and 2013. No articles on Korea or Vietnam. As John Lynn says, academia regards military history as the province of the “politically right-wing, morally corrupt, or just plain dumb.”

    The only thing you’re “allowed” to study in academia is either the Holocaust or some variation of the race/class/gender/labor struggle during the war of your choice.

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