Traditional or New Military History: A False Dichotomy
Continuing the themes expounded on in yesterday’s posts I wanted to take just a minute to make a few observations. First, I think it is safe to say that the choice between traditional or the New Military History is a false dichotomy. We can and do have first-rate studies that utilize both approaches. There is no reason to think that the questions that tend to dominate recent social and cultural histories will drown out the traditional tactical battle study. In fact, as I see it, they can only enhance this approach. Historians ask questions about the past and the range of questions asked can show us much that we did not already know and that is relevant for understanding the battlefield. In making this point, let me quote at length from Ken Noe’s excellent battle study, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. In his post from the other day Eric cited this book as an example of a traditional battle study published by an academic press. I disagree with his assessment; the book utilizes a great deal of these more recent trends in the field and is much better for doing so:
In the 1980’s, a new generation of historians attempted to bridge the two historiographical paths, creating something called the "new Civil War History." One obvious result has been an explosion of home front and community studies, the most obvious intersection of the war and American society. Women and African Americans are gaining their rightful places in the story of the war. In regard to the soldiers, historians have borrowed the techniques of social history to examine their motivations and activities in innovative ways. Regiments or armies, in the end, were societies with their own set of rules and expectations, as well as extensions of larger communities back home. Social historians and military historians finally realized that they each had something to offer, and both have been enriched.
Battle history has proven the genre most resistant to new trends, but now even it begins to bear the marks of the new Civil War history, as a fine recent study of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek attests [Wilson’s Creek by Piston and Hatcher]. What follows here is, in most cases, a rather traditional and, I hope, accessible battle narrative. However, it also exhibits my interest in the new Civil War history. Readers of this book, for example, will note my concern for those civilians caught in the wake of the armies, and not only those who stood in harm’s way, but also friends and relatives back home whose lives also changed course that October day. Toward the end, the last chapter carries the narrative far beyond 1862, and back to the soldiers’ hometowns and families. I place the battle within the wider political and social context of Civil War Kentucky, and I consider the way Americans, especially Kentuckians, remembered and commemorated Perryville in the years following the battle.
Noe’s book is clearly one of the best examples of this new approach and shows that the two approaches are not necessarily in conflict. Anyone who has paid a minimal amount of attention to the evolution of the war in Iraq can see the problems with the narrow approach of the traditional battle narrative. You can’t even begin to understand the nature of the resistance or the choices of strategy and tactics on the part of the U.S. Army without examining in great deal events off the battlefield. There are the heated debates going on here in the United States and among the people of Iraq, not to mention the timing of elections and various polls. Understanding the history of the region and in specific localities is crucial to the decisions as to how to interact with civilians and distinguish between friend and foe.
As I stated above, the answers that historians provide are only as good as the questions asked. In this respect the study of history has something in common with science. Yes, the methodologies diverge, but the role of the imagination and the willingness to take chances are crucial to our ongoing quest to better understand our world.