by Heather Marie Stur
Earlier this fall, H-Diplo, a listserv for scholars of U.S. foreign relations, published a “state of the field” article entitled “What’s the Problem: A Research Agenda for Diplomatic History,” by UCLA political science professor Marc Trachtenberg. In it, Trachtenberg contends that the central issue to understanding diplomatic history is “the question of war and peace—that is, the issue of what makes for war or for a stable international system.” The links between diplomatic and military history may seem obvious, but the connection spelled out so clearly in Trachtenberg’s article is an example of a growing trend among historians of various subfields to not only embrace the study of military history and war but also to openly acknowledge that they are doing it. The Organization of American Historians is offering 25 percent off its annual membership fee for members of the Society for Military History in order to entice SMH members to join. The editors of the peer-reviewed journal Gender & History are planning a conference and special edition focusing on gender and war throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps because the United States has been at war for more than a decade now, or perhaps because scholars are recognizing that war has been a defining characteristic of the human experience since the dawn of time, historians in subfields that have resisted military history in the past are now looking to it as an important avenue of study.
It isn’t as though military topics are new to historians. In U.S. history, scholars have spilled some of the most ink on the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War, although often without identifying themselves as military historians or their work as military history. When I think back to my graduate training at the University of Wisconsin, I find it hard to believe that I wrote a dissertation about the Vietnam War without the benefit of a military historian on my committee. At the time, the Wisconsin history department did not have a military historian on its faculty, and none of my committee members suggested I seek a military historian to serve as an outside reader. That no one thought to involve a military historian in my project is revealing of how scholars have been studying war while marginalizing military history. Historians have figured out how to spin the Vietnam War as a U.S. social, cultural, and diplomatic history event, and scholars reading Vietnamese sources have situated the conflict in the context of Vietnamese history, but without military history as part of these approaches, what is lost is an understanding of how Vietnam-era military strategy and policy shaped and were influenced by the social experiences, cultural constructions, and diplomatic policymaking that together form the broad Vietnam War narrative. The outreach efforts of the OAH and the attention other scholarly groups are paying to war and military topics suggest that our profession is seeking a fuller understanding of conflict by integrating military historians into conversations about the causes and consequences of war.
By launching this blog, the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi will showcase the myriad ways in which military and war studies intersect with social, cultural, political, and diplomatic histories. Dale Center faculty fellows will let readers in on their innovative research projects and offer historical context for contemporary military and international relations issues. We also hope the blog will be a forum in which our colleagues from other universities and institutions will contribute guest posts about research, teaching, and current issues so that our readers will have access to the most important voices in military history and the study of conflict. As the U.S. extends its engagement in the Middle East and west Asia, contemplates its role in the Pacific World, and grapples with issues of gender and sexuality in its armed services, it is essential that historians provide background and guidance for current policy debates. This blog will be a venue for those crucial conversations.
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).