Why Study Military History At All?

Book being read; R. Waterfield, Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece Persia and the End of the Golden Age, (2006)

I was listening to a podcast recently over on Life of Caesar, where they were interviewing the editor of Ancient Warfare Magazine, Dr. Josho Brouwers. In an interesting discussion that covered a variety of topics, he made some points regarding ancient military history that were both provoking and enlightening. But the one area he really got me thinking was on the question of “why study military history at all?” It is evidently something he has been asked a lot and he gave an interesting reasoning behind his personal motivations.

Before I go into what he said you may be wondering why this question is even being asked? Well, the study of military history is often chastised, especially in more academic circles. It is considered vulgar by many, and quite often accusations of warmongering are in need of refutation within publications on the topic. Wait there, I’ll show you. Just a random pick of a book from my shelf will reveal what I’m talking about . . . that one will do. I am having a quick look through the Preface and Introduction, bear with me . . . here we go: “I can only say that I am not a bloodthirsty militarist, and that any admiration I may appear to show for the Spartan army should not be construed as admiration for war in general” (J. Lazenby, The Spartan Army, 2012, p.xxiii).

[*edit* It has been pointed out to me that this is, perhaps, a bit of an unfair example due to it being an unrevised work originally printed in the 1980’s, prior to the great work of Victor Hanson on ancient Greek warfare which has perhaps made it more of an acceptable topic of study. However, I feel that, if that were the case, then the stigma would no longer persist, which it does, so the example still stands but with a pinch of salt.]

It is odd that this even needed stating. I do not expect to read a history of Athenian law makers with a similar sentiment posited “Just because I am writing about Draco does not mean that I agree with Draconian methods”. You will not find in the works of scholars writing on ancient medical history “This does not mean that I admire puppy-based fumigation to solve problems of hysteria, or the abuse of puppies in any way”. But military historians seem to need to apologise before they have even begun – which is a bit odd, especially as outside of the scholarly world it is still the best selling genre of history book. Anyway I am slightly off topic, again.

For Josho it seems his interest comes from a pacifist position. He does not understand why disagreements cannot be talked out, why does violence even come into it? To try and understand it he chooses to look at a completely alien culture to his own, from a completely different time period to his own, with a completely different set of influences, standards of morality, and set of explanations, almost as a way of ridding himself of many of his own biases and personal opinions on the topic. He was then asked what he has learned, to explain the use of violence, and ultimately war, to which he responded in a suitably laconic retort that, basically, people are idiots.

Whilst Josho has his own reasons, they are not ones that I share, so I suppose the question still stands – why study military history at all? Is it not covered by political history, social history, gender history, religious history, and so forth? It is certainly discussed in each of those fields.

Much of ‘traditional’ military history was born out of military academies trying to teach tactics, strategy, and logistics, giving rise to a lot of square pegs being bashed into round holes: trying to make ancient battles, and tactics, fit into ‘modern’ terminology and tactical explanations.* Is this not a useless, and futile cycle of error where we are just indulging some childlike obsession with weapons and sand-box styled imagery of battle, but not actually producing any valuable history? Whilst socio-military history has been growing in fashion for the past 30 odd years, thanks to innovations like the study of the ‘Face of Battle’, it further highlights the question why do we need a separate field of study for this? Is this not just social history in a fancy set of clothes?

For me at least the answer is a mundane one. I am sure most, if not all, historians have their own reasons for why the do what they do, in whatever field they do it in (this is starting to sound like a monologue from Winnie the Pooh isn’t it?). For me the reason is that it is interesting. Nothing more. The stories are interesting, the narratives are interesting, and the individuals are interesting.

What war gives any given society, or social group, or economic structure, or religious base, or even an individual, is an unequivocal stress-test. There is a military maxim that is often cited, that best laid plans don’t survive first contact with the enemy; I would add in a similar vein that the true conviction behind the ideals and beliefs of a society is only revealed during and after the stress of something like war. That does not mean that war is a good or positive thing, just that it is a conduit for revealing elements of a society that are otherwise hidden to us.

Take as a for instance, warrior/military ideals. Most cultures have had them in one form or another, from the hoplite ideal of the classical Greek period to the supposed samurai codes of medieval Japan. Historians often get stuck reading these ideals and believe them to be accurate reflections of the period– this is what people thought, this is what they were like, this is how they acted. Whilst the first point may be true (although it is also highly debatable), the second and third points are a fallacy based on the limited evidence being used.

Rather than read these ideals as proof of action, we should instead look at the actions of the people who were alleged to have upheld them. It is all well and good historians of religion saying the Greeks thought ‘this and that’ about omens, divination and the gods: let’s see how these omens were actually used, abused and manipulated by military commanders when the practicalities of war were more important than the ideals of their civic identities. Always asking the question, when push came to shove, what did they actually think and do? Don’t forget, there are instances of commanders, usually Spartan ones, refusing to move until the omens said that they could, even in the face of almost certain victory, so it is not just about unraveling and exposing the ideals of a society, it can also reinforce their importance.

Ideals are all very good when they are not tested and challenged. What I love about military history is that this challenge is inherent in the history under review. The conflict and friction between military ideals and human action reveals more about a society, and the individual, than the singular study of religious buildings, or economic policy, or sexual practices, etc. That is not to say that military history supersedes these areas, to be honest it is probably the opposite which is true, but it does give some validity to the study of the topic – to me at least. But I would say that wouldn’t I!

*As a hot tip, I advise anyone interested in ancient Greek military historiography to keep an eye out for a new scholar-on-the-block, Roel Konijnendijk, who is doing some interesting work on this topic. Especially regarding the 19th century Prussian traditions that still influence modern scholarship today.

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One Response to Why Study Military History At All?

  1. Kathryn says:

    Your cautions about believing that what people said is actually what they did ring true. As part of a novel in progress, I have taken another look at The Iliad, and realized that – just one example – what the writer said about Achilles and what others said about him differ wildly from his actual behavior. Disregarding all the admiration and praise, you find an entirely different character.
    Great stuff!

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