by Gregory J. W. Urwin: President, Society for Military History*
*The Dale Center for the Study of War & Society is honored to feature a guest blog post by Dr. Urwin, who will complete his two-year term as SMH President this month.
Throughout my career, I have usually resented academic service as an unwelcome intrusion on my research time. While I enjoy teaching, I loathe the interminable wrangling that characterizes committee meetings or attending faculty senate sessions to witness the antics of dissembling university administrators. Nevertheless, I believe that senior tenured professors are duty bound to endure such trials – if only to preserve some semblance of faculty governance in our institutions of higher learning and to run the learned societies that are so essential to the health of academic professionalism.
That sense of duty compelled me in 2011 to accept a two-year term as vice president of the Society for Military History, along with two more years as president. To be sure, I felt honored to be chosen by my peers for these positions of trust. At the same time, however, I knew that I had obligated myself to place the SMH’s interests above my own – which meant reducing the hours I set aside for research whenever the organization’s needs dictated. I could not shake the feeling that I had signed up for four years on the cross.
If I felt that way, one may well ask, why did I accept such a commitment? The answer is simple – love. For more than thirty years, the Society for Military History has been my intellectual home – the place where I can mingle with scholars who share my interests and possess the knowledge to help me polish my work with doses of constructive criticism. I also cherish the warm camaraderie that characterizes the SMH, and I want to see all the good it does perpetuated and shared with others.
For many years, I viewed the SMH as a refuge from an academic establishment that undervalued military history and those who practice it. By the time I became president, however, I noticed that my discipline was shedding its pariah status. Military history has undergone a remarkable maturation during the past four decades, winning increased respect from scholars who had once hardly given it a passing thought. The anti-militaristic passions churned up by the Vietnam War are losing their grip on America’s intelligentsia. The fact that the Cold War’s end did not usher in a Pax Americana has also underscored the need for this country’s future leaders to be educated in the uses and abuses of military force. I decided that the SMH could capitalize on these shifting attitudes by assuming a more assertive role in the American educational establishment.
The SMH’s induction into the American Council of Learned Societies signified a major step in military history’s return to the mainstream. With the humanities under assault from various quarters, our colleagues realize that they can no longer afford to shun a sub-field that commands so much popular interest. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) confirmed this changing attitude when it approached me last year to establish a closer relationship with the military history community. When the NEH announced its new initiative, “Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War” on April 2, 2014, it marked a felicitous turning point in American intellectual history.
Even before the NEH knocked on my door, I had decided that the SMH should issue a manifesto on the utility of military history – one that took a positive approach rather than the bitter rants published by conservative organs in recent years. That first SMH White Paper, The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy by Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino, presents much more than a defense of our sub-field. The authors ably argue that the inclusion of military history can add depth and insight to college curricula. Citizens of the world’s mightiest military power need to better understand the nature of war – its uses, its costs, and its long-lasting consequences. In addition, the popularity of military history offers a solution to college history departments seeking to raise class enrollment and the number of their majors and minors.
I hope that the Society for Military History will sustain the momentum it has gained these past two years, which will bolster its stature within American higher education and improve employment prospects for its younger members.
Gregory J. W. Urwin, Ph.D., is president of the Society for Military History and professor of history at Temple University. He is the author of nine books, including, most recently, Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945 (Naval Institute Press, 2010), Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), and Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), which won the General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., Award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Dr. Urwin is currently researching his tenth book, a social history of Cornwallis’ 1781 Virginia Campaign, for which he has received research fellowships from the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, the Society of the Cincinnati, and the Virginia Historical Society.