Dead History

I have known Matthew Ford for many years. I have been listening to The Dead Prussian podcast (run by Mick Cook) on and off for a year. I don’t know Kim Wagner but I listened to the podcast episode On Debating The Role of Military Historians with interest. A lot of good points are made by the three of them. I want to draw out some things that are hinted at but strike me as important.

  1. For many years, military history WAS history. You wrote history about things that you thought were memorable and important and what could be more memorable and important than war. Thucydides is a case in point.
  2. The role of military in society. I think the first point to remember is that in Western world, fewer and fewer people have direct experience of war. The last “Total War” ended in 1945.  Conscription ended in 1963 for the UK, 1972 for Australia, and 1973 for the USA. The changing nature of conflict (localised wars fought far away) and the technology used to wage war changed its workforce demands. In a sense, these changes to the war machine were harbingers of the outsourcing/off-shoring and automation that began to ravage the industrial workforce at this time. Most people in these societies experience war vicariously. This changes the nature of military history that the general public wish to consume. “War” becomes another historical genre – like Jane Austin Regency England or Ancient Rome. Accuracy and insight matters less than entertainment.
  3. The role of historians in society. Academia has become its own world. As a set of institutions, modern academia has been shaped by war directly and indirectly. The GI Bill in the US, the Cold War drive for scientific research, the post-WW2 welfare states set up in the West, all these led to a massive expansion of the higher education sector. Academics in general now write mostly for each other. They use the jargon of their institutions and work for doggy treats publication in top flight academic journals. All three men allude to it in the podcast, most academic writing is not written for the general public, it is written for other academics. Matthew’s book is excellent but it contains a lot of detail about i. gun manufacture and ii. sociology of technology that appeals to two non-overlapping groups of nerds. Populist TV history is a thing but its appeal is centred around two forms. The form of places – the history of a specific (e.g. London) or a general (e.g. The Sea) locale. The second form is of people. Kings and queens are back in fashion but so is people’s history. Families play act being Victorian bakers or Civil War frontiersmen. TV privileges the visual and the personal. Analysis and systems make for less good TV – or rather it takes a truly great director to make them come alive. For books, biography and contained narratives dominate. Tell me a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.
  4. The relationship between the State and Military Historians. Again, our podtagonists* also mention the desire of politicians and military leaders to use history for their own ends and there is some disappointment at the willingness of politicians to do this. I would note that all social scientists seem to suffer from “influence envy”. Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry discusses the role of international relations specialists – and decries their relative unimportance compared to economists. Presumably different economists decry each others influence (“The Monetarists get more time with public servants than us Keynesians, it’s not fair, I’m taking my econometric model and going home”). Academics will never have the influence they think they deserve. And that’s both a good and a bad thing.

*Podcast Protagonist.

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