Why don’t I care about strategy?

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

The new Military History Carnival has been posted at Wig-Wags. One of the featured posts, The state of strategy at Kings of War -- which looks at the great strategic thinkers of history and wonders why there seem to have been relatively few in recent times -- inspired the above title. It's posed as a question, not a statement ('Why I don't care about strategy') because I'm not sure that my not caring is a good thing for a military historian, especially since I do deal with strategic thought in my work on early twentieth-century airpower. But I find myself uninterested in the eternal principles of strategy, or how to win the war in Afghanistan, or whether China will replace the United States as the world's superpower, or whether Clausewitz was right or Douhet (or vice versa, or neither or both). Or at least, I find some of these things interesting sometimes, but as somebody who lives on this planet, not as an historian.

When I first started researching my area, two of the first books I read were George Quester's Deterrence Before Hiroshima and Robin Higham's The Military Intellectuals in Britain, and I still find the latter especially useful. As it happens, both books were published in 1966, and both reflect their Cold War context very deeply. Both Quester and Higham were concerned to use their studies of the interwar fear of the bomber to draw conclusions for military thinkers in their own day. To some extent this distorted their analysis: they were much more interested in those ideas and events which seemed to parallel the development of nuclear strategy, rejecting those which did not as wrong or just uninteresting. So I think I am wary of indulging in a similar presentism. (Not that I have a gift for it.)

But is this realistic, sensible, or even defensible? Isn't part of the point of history to learn from it? Conversely, isn't it possible that I could learn something about history by studying the present day? Professionally speaking, aren't there possible gains for a military historian in fostering closer contact with those creating the military history of the future (applied military history, perhaps)? Is this simply a distaste for the reality at the core of my study -- killing, dying, suffering? Do historians of crime similarly distance themselves from their closest present-day analogues (criminologists)? Labour historians? Gender historians? Or maybe it's just me?

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12 thoughts on “Why don’t I care about strategy?

  1. Erik Lund

    I’m all a-pout, here, Brett.
    It’s like you said my baby was ugly. If I had a baby. Or if I cared about strategy.

    (Really, I swear, an “industrial history of strategy” would be different.)

  2. Chris Williams

    Historians of crime do hang out with criminologists. Partly, though, this is to do with the fact that for about 15 years it’s been a lot easier to get a job in criminology department than a history one, so being able to imitate one is a decided career advantage for historians.

  3. I’m not all that interested in strategy either. Fortunately I’m off the hook because people who study strategy tend to agree that strategy in the modern sense didn’t exist in the 17th century and earlier. It seems to me that a lot of strategic thought is either stating the obvious or divorced from reality. I suspect that claims to know how to win wars are often false because wars are too unpredictable. That opens up the possibility of deconstructing strategists’ attempts to impose order on chaos to see what anxieties or cultural assumptions they might reveal. In a way that’s the kind of thing you’re doing: taking a strategic theory that turned out to be wrong and seeing how it relates to society, culture and politics.

  4. Brett I think Military Historians tend to associate themselves with our ‘contemporary’ counterparts more than other areas of history, though as Chris says ‘Historians of crime do hang out with Criminalogists’.

    Just look at the War Studies departments in the UK. They are a mix historians, policitical scientists, IR specialist and a host of other experts. I think the key reason for this is because of the didactic nature of military history. It ‘appears’ to have more relevance and is applied widely within the miitary shere where they feel they can learn lessons. Does this happen much in other areas of history? A bit but not as widely I fear.

    In actual fact the launch of the new Security and Conflict Hub at Birmingham has come about for the very reason that there was a need to bridge the gap between the two areas as the Birmingham War Studies course was, uniquely in the UK, all historically based. This will change with time.

    Based on my time as an undergrad my interaction with the ‘political’ side of the War Studies subject has made me a better historian and more aware of the debates around strategy and how states work and it left me with an abiding interest in IR.

  5. Post author

    Erik:

    Write it and we’ll see!

    Chris:

    So historians of crime are academic cuckoos, stealing the nests of criminologists? I like that.

    Gavin:

    Yes, I think that’s a good way of looking at it, and I think you’ve put your finger on my interests and why they don’t correspond with what strategists would be interested in. As an aside, I’d say that predicting battles is probably easier than wars — at least there are many more examples and in principle you have a better chance of controlling for variables. Stephen Biddle’s Military Power was interesting in this regard.

    Ross:

    It’s good that you’ve found such interactions useful! My understanding, though, is that the ‘war studies’ approach is peculiarly British. There’s certainly nothing like it here, not even at ADFA. I wonder why. And following on from Gavin’s comment, your historical interests are more operational/tactical/doctrinal than mine, and so I can see you’d have more in common with strategists/IR people than me. I’d probably get more out of being in a department with sociologists or even cultural studies types.

  6. In studying the Vietnam War I, too, have to deal with strategy all the time. The problem with focusing purely on strategy is that it fails to properly address the social aspects of war. Coming from a War and Society background, I’m interested in how modern warfare affects people and nations. So for me, a study of strategy cannot simple be a study of a single event or individual.

    I hope that made some sense.

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  8. Neil Datson

    Following on from Robert’s comment above.

    I notice (on good old Wikipedia) that the Nazis were taken with Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. It didn’t do them much good, did it? (ie they lost)

    Against that, Bismarck famously made a comment along the lines that the Balkans were not worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian grenadier. For that sort of insight Bismarck has long struck me as the wisest (not to mention most successful) of German nationalists. He knew that in long run there is no point in seeking to rule people who are unwilling to be ruled by you.

    Similarly, consider the elder Pitt’s attitude to the War of Independence.

    Conclusion. Strategy may be an interesting study. But applying strategic theory, however well thought through and however strong, is not enough of itself. Politics (in the sense of political identification) always wins in the end.

  9. Yes War Studies is peculiarly British, which is a shame as I think there is a great oppurtunuity for academics of different areas to interact. If you take our department at Birmingham, which at the moment is purely historical, then there is a good range of expertise, just to illustrate here is their specialities:

    Gary Sheffield – British, Commonwealth, and US military history of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries

    Michael Snape – Religion and War c. 1700-Present

    Pierre Pursiegle – comparative history of the First World War and especially on the experience of the French, British, and Belgian populations

    Steffan Prauser – France and Italy in the Second World War, German occupation policy and war crimes

    Peter Gray – Air Power, Intelligence, Strategic Decision Making, International Law and the Ethical Use of Armed Forces.

    This has created aa vibrant atmosphere. A the weekly public seminars we have a variety topics that cover a whole range of topics.

    The problem is that too many department/historians like to compartmentalise themselves. I am a historian of war, yes my focus is on the operational stuff but that does not mean I can not learn from other area. The rise of ‘New Military History’ and the Cultural History of War has really opened up the subject to new investigation. We are but two sides to the same coin. As a cultural historian of air power I think you would be welcomed in a War Studies department here in the UK!

  10. Post author

    Robert and Neil:

    Yes, that’s all true, and partly why it doesn’t appeal to me in and of itself. But that’s also an argument for strategic types to pay close attention to history, which I think many try to. Which ought to make it more appealing but doesn’t somehow.

    Ross:

    I’m certainly not denigrating operational military history, as you say it’s the other side of the coin for me. It’s more the pure IR/strategic studies stuff I find it hard to appreciate.

    It sounds like a great department (it’s hard enough to find two military historians in the same place over here, let alone five!) but from what I hear, higher education in the UK is not hiring at the moment …

  11. I should hope not Brett;) Seriously though I agree the job market is not good at the moment. Hopefully it should pick up in the next 2-3 years. Oh yes that is about the time I should be finished my PhD!

    I wouldn’t worry too much about it interesting you as long as you are aware of its implications. It is when people write in a vacuum that things become difficult.

  12. A few history departments over here in the US have more than one military historian. In fact, USM has at least five war and society professors.

    The job market for historians seems to be pretty bad across the globe. Ross, I sure hope you are right, I’ll be looking of for a job in 3-4 years.

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