Saturday, 25 August 2018

What is Military History?

As I have mentioned before, one book tends to lead to another. After reading the account of the Nine Years War I mentioned a while ago, this book seemed to follow fairly naturally. The discussion of ‘Drums and Trumpets’ military history sparked me to find out what historians actually think military history is. I confess, having read some bits of military history for a while, the answers, at least for the influence of early modern military history, did not entirely surprise me.

Anyway, I obtained a copy of:

Morillo, S., Pavkovic, M. F., What Is Military History? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

This is the third edition of the text; I suspect the second author (credited with a ‘with’) did some of the updating, but nevertheless, there is a degree of confidence when a textbook runs to more than one edition. Not only that, it is a remarkably recently published book for something I have read.

The answer to the question is, mostly, ‘unpopular’. Academia does not particularly like talking, thinking, researching and investigating warfare. After something of a golden age – it is noted that Delbruck, Oman and even Creasey’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World are still in print, which is rather remarkable for works over 100 years old in all cases and 150 in the case of Creasey. The issue is rather in Creasey’s title, however: what does a decisive battle entail?

Now, the unpopularity of a subject, the ‘yuck’ factor if you like, should not stop us from working on it as historians. After all, the world needs historians of the Holocaust, for example, even though I doubt if any historian (or most other right-minded people) would consider the Holocaust to be a good or popular thing. War is, apparently for humans, inevitable, but a generation of historian grew up in the middle of the twentieth century who had political and ideological objections to studying war.

The study of warfare was therefore relegated to popular history (where it does sell) and professional academies. It has had to rather creep out of the margins to take academic history from, as it were, the flanks. Thus we have some interesting ideas floating around which might have their origin in considering warfare, but which reach much further than that, thus making them acceptable to mainstream history.

The ‘New’ military history started with ‘war and society’ studies. This is the idea that warfare, or specifically armies reflect, in their organisation, the societies from which they spring. As some of you might know from browsing such works, something that looks interesting from a wargaming point of view turns out to elide the very function of the army under study. ‘Armies were recruited, organised, fed, paid, and sent home; they sometimes marched, but they never fought.’ (p. 43). So new military history failed to actually examine how these organisations did the job for which they existed.

John Keegan’s Face of Battle also changed the game rather. This, as I’m sure you know, focussed on the experience of the common soldier. There are now plenty of studies of this sort of genre, even though, for many eras, actually figuring out what the experience of the common soldier was is a bit tricky. By the very fact that they were common, not a huge quantity of information about them is extant. Nevertheless, for a wargamer these studies are more useful. Goldsworthy’s The Roman Army at war 100 BC – 200 AD certainly helped me writing Polemos: SPQR.

Next up, the publication of Geoffrey Parker’s The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 had a huge impact. I am pleased to say that it sits on my bookcase, as I brought it when it came out. Parker is, of course, an eminent historian and he got attention. His thesis is twofold. Firstly, he argued that warfare was an important factor in creating the early modern state, and secondly that technology in the west, applied to warfare, enabled the start of expansion. This stimulated the ‘military revolution’ debate, of course, but non-military historians had to engage with Parker’s thesis. Military history had, sort of, gone mainstream.

The currents in military history are, therefore, broadly away from battles and campaigns and towards social, political and cultural history. Military history, by abandoning battles, has been brought much closer to mainstream historiography. Whether this is much use to us as wargamers is a bit of a moot point, of course.

The chapter ‘Current Controversies’ extends some of these comments. First up is the military revolution debate itself. I will not go into the detail but more or less every claim of Parker’s thesis has been questioned and contested. Not only that, but many more military revolutions have been identified both across time and across the world. So many revolutions have been found that it seems to me that the original idea has become rather lost rather than answered. Of course, most of the issue revolves around your precise definition of ‘revolution’.

The second controversy is around counter-insurgency. This shows the ties of military history to current events and the military in various countries. These studies might be of interest to the wargamer but mostly, of course, we prefer battles than skirmishes. So far as I can tell, counter-insurgency operations are more suited to role-playing games than wargames.

Third up is the question of ‘western exceptionalism’, which was pushed back to the Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. This was (and was developed into) a provocation. The argument is simple enough: the Greeks sought decisive battles characterised by face-to-face combat. This is a characteristic of western combat and led to the triumph of western civilisation (although, in my view, it is open to Gandhi's response, that the latter would be a good idea).

There are, of course, many other bits within the volume, most of which are interesting. For example, given my recent griping about naval wargaming, the question is posed as to whether naval history (as opposed to maritime history) is military history. Surprisingly, some people think the answer is ‘no’. That shows something, but I am not sure what.

Still, this is a good book, worth reading if you wonder why you cannot find the order of battle for Rocroi outside a tome about a hundred years old.


  1. Steady on old chap.
    Having just got a copy of O'Neill's 'Nine Years War' (it wasn't easy for some reason), you're now tempting me with more titles!
    Nice post. As a counterpoint, the scariest thing is 'social history' which seems to narrow its viewpoint so much, by having to ignore military aspects, that it becomes superfluous. I find this increasingly with C17th items, where the practice of war, and the movement of notables to 'war zones' in order to gain experience, is akin to the modern business world in terms of being the elephant in the room. It's a hard one to ignore in any historical context, yet still they try...

    1. Ah, sorry about that. As I say, one book leads to another... anyway, I have actually played some wargames, so the next post or two will be about them rather than things I've read. But I'm afraid that I have a stack of books waiting to be blogged about.

      Social history, so far as I've read it, does its best to ignore the fact that history is narrative. In fact, a lot of historians try to overlook the issue of particularity. At some level, I suppose, the idea is to draw out common themes and continuities. But it can really be overdone.

      Still, the good thing about the book blogged about here is that it is a lot cheaper than O'Neill's...

    2. *sigh* ...yes, the book is cheaper. Another one ordered.
      One book review per month is my recommendation sir (otherwise , I'm in trouble with the missus).