Sunday, September 28, 2008

On social and military history

This post is in response to a review of a book on Spartan history. I commented that it was surprising that it appeared that Spartan war fighting capability would not be a major portion of the contents. Instead being contained in the single chapter on foreign policy. I do admit that it could be argued that any sort of discussion of Sparta could relate back to the military but even so it seems like a strange and sadly frequent omission. I also haven't done a post laying out my own views on history.

First a little background traditional academic history tended to be political/military with emphasis on the" big men"[Hitler, Caesar, Napoleon etc.] of history. This history fell out of favor starting in the 1960s with the rise of Marxist economic historians. The major transition took place in the 1970s and 80s when the generation that could have served in the second world war retired. The Marxists weren't the only ones the major social movements also wanted to grab their own piece of the academic history pie [those interested in multiculturalism, feminism etc.].

This movement is usually referred to as social history. It attempts to highlight the lives of "average" people and considers historical events and movements to be resulting from the bottom up.

Military history tried to remake itself as either "new military history" or "war and society". These fields of study have little or nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of traditional military history. I can remember one particular professor in the history department where I took my undergrad who was quite excited by the economic aspects of camp followers. Some political and military historians managed to sneak into political science departments. Strategic studies and military science tend to be what they're labeled as these days.

Now to hopefully stop any angry commentsI don't believe that we should go back to the old style of history. I do think that the pendulum has swung too far and needs to be readjusted. To use my undergrad as an example I took 20 courses in history the maximum allowable. Three of these courses could debatably be called military history or have a large component. They were a fourth-year course on ancient warfare that was essentially traditional military history. The second was an independent study I set up with the same professor as the ancient history course. The last was called the world at war. It attempted in 13 weeks to describe both world wars. Suffice it to say it was compressed....

For a vehement defense of military and political history see Who Killed Canadian History? by J. L. Granatstein.


Pam T said...

Ahhh, where's me post?!

I offered up the wisdom and insight of my many years and apparently the internet gods fumbled the pass.

I'll get back to you. Must reconstruct what the heck it was I said.

jmnlman said...

That's ok.:)