24 April 2008

A Professional Military Historian Speaks

Rob Citino, who has featured in this blog not so long ago, has had an address he gave to a meeting of the Society for Military History published on Mark Grimsley's blog. (It includes a link to an article he wrote about the current state of literature in military history.)

Both the blog entry and the article are of interest, in part because they tell us about Citino's world view. In the article, he trots out the traditional Aristotelian three-fold distribution of his subject (Aristotle - the first Western academic). The eternal problem with the Aristotelian three-fold distribution, especially in anglosphere thinking, is that it invariably is used to hide the actual condition of a Hegelian dialectical battle between two schools that is creating a new synthesis - as, indeed, it does in this case. Citino descries a "war and society" faction, an "operational history" faction and a "cultural" faction. I'm not clear how there is a division between the War-and-Societicians and the Culturalists. One seems to lead neatly on from the other.

The article itself drives neatly from one school to the next, almost seamlessly, as it ends its discussions of War-and-Societicians with a summary of the literature revolving around the Military Revolution of the Early Modern era, where technology, as opposed to race or institutionalized atrocity, takes centre stage. Yet I find it hard to distinguish between the way Citino describes the works of Operational Historian Dennis Showalter, and how one might expect a War-and-Societician to tackle the same material. Either Citino is emphasizing the new military history virtues of Showalter's work in order to sell it to sceptical colleagues or else there isn't the kind of difference between them that Citino proposes.

Citino's trip around his third school leaves me wondering why he felt it necessary to develop a taxonomy in the first place. He ends this section discussing a book about the Imperial German Army by Isabel Hull, which relates its experience of fighting in South West Africa with its invasion of France in 1914. We then wind up with an appeal for some military (and non-military) historians to recognize the works of others that may cross the traditional boundaries between say, the history of war and the history of law. Combining these two suggests that far from there being distinctive schools, we face a situation where works of military history have become increasingly difficult to pigeonhole, even into a discipline called "military history". Or, alternatively, that the same problem of the Academy embracing thematic history, while the public supposedly wants narrative history, affected military history as profoundly as national history.

Had I been a reader for the American Historical Review, I might have suggested that Citino abandon his Aristotelian trinity, and instead embrace the notion that the texture of literature in his field now reflects the same globalization as one sees in the media and the economy. Scholars tackle the history of countries different from their homes, and even cross significant cultural boundaries, such as that between "the West" and "the Orient". And that the victory of the new military history is both complete and has advanced our understanding of how wars are fought. And isn't that advance of understanding the job of academic history?

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