America as we know it might not exist without the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown, without Gettysburg and Antietam. The world the United States shaped so decisively in the 20th century might have looked different if it weren't for Normandy and Midway.
Battles are so important to history that their names alone -- Vienna, Waterloo, Stalingrad -- can evoke the beginning or end of epochs and empires. Violent conflict is one of the most persistent characteristics of human history, and warfare features the interplay of strategy, weaponry, chance, logistics, emotion and leadership. It is the occasion for folly and brutality, and -- as we remember on Memorial Day -- heroism and sacrifice.
It is for all these reasons that books and TV programming on warfare are so popular; their subject is both fascinating and important, history at its most consequential and dramatic. Nonetheless, military history has been all but banished from college campuses. In an article on this strange deficit in National Review, John J. Miller chalks it up to "an ossified tenure system, scholarly navel-gazing and ideological hostility to all things military."
History departments are dominated by a post-Vietnam generation of professors for whom bottom-up "social history" is paramount, and the only areas of interest are race, sex and class. History focusing on great events and the "great men" central to them is retrograde -- let alone military history that ipso facto smacks of militarism. Hence, the rout of military history from the academy that Miller catalogs.
Edward Coffman, a former military historian at the University of Wisconsin, studied the 25 best history departments according to U.S. News & World Report rankings and found that a mere 21 professors out of more than 1,000 listed war as their specialty. A Notre Dame student complained recently: "We have more than 30 full-time history faculty members, but not one is a military historian. Even in their self-described interests, not a single professor lists 'war' of any era, although half list religious, gender and race relations."
Even professors who supposedly specialize in military history do it through the prism of trendy academic obsessions. Miller notes a professor at West Virginia University who lists World War I as one of his "teaching fields," but his latest work is on "the French hairdressing professions" and the "evolving practices and sensibilities of cleanliness in 20th century France."