The trouble with military history

David Woodbury has been running an interesting series of posts around the centrality of military history in accounts of the Civil War (see here and here).

As a reader, I abandoned military history about 27 years ago. Could not hack it anymore.

I'll give you two points now, maybe more later.

(1) The military historian all too often follows (relies upon) a few underlying sources. Example: I recently - accidentally - picked up a volume called The Teutonic Knights thinking it was a history of the religious order. It was a military history and typical of the failure and incompetence of military historians. It simply mined a handful of sources for military anecdotes and allowed itself immense gaps (with laughable discontinuity) where the sources stopped. Warning label needed for readers: You are not losing your mind - you are reading military history.

This is relevant to ACW history. Rich in sources, the ACW military historian automatically acquires a patina of rationality through the grace of having enough stuff available to bridge gaps in any chronological narrative. Underneath it all, however, the ACW military writer may be as crazy as the author of The Teutonic Knights, because even in resource-rich ACW history there are too few sources to refine and purify the account of a single event or action in more than a few cases. The apparent continuity in ACW military narrative often rests - here and there - on a single pylon of data.

This would not matter much were the military historian not rendering judgements of competence and art and science on real people - people more knowledgeable of the underlying events and circumstances than said miliary historian.

My (perhaps tedious) argument with the Civil War history, as handed down since 1950, has been about the management of sources: suppression, redaction, amendment, interpretation, selectivity. We all wish, divinely as history readers, that every contemporary account be accounted for. But we side with the devil when we all wish, as literature readers, that all loose ends be tied up regardless.

The corruption in Civil War history, military or political, has been to tie up loose ends regardless. Teutonic Knights lacks the sources to do that, freeing us to laugh at lacunae. Any given Civil War history conveys the illusion of completeness.

One example that comes to mind first is the account of any battle where Rosecrans executed but Grant commanded. The modern Civil War reader has no idea that there is a Rosecrans version of events and that Rosecrans is 180 degrees out of phase with Grant's account of these same battles.

Hey, so what, how many accounts of events do you need?

Nor is there the least need to account for any such difference, thanks to the standards of military history.

Where an absolute judgement is rendered about a military figure based on an incomplete or suppressed set of records, military history breaks down and reduces itself from history to mere military writing ... exposition on a military topic.

(2) The military historian is supremely careless about the origins of an idea or decision. In the infantry, we had a saying: the commander is responsible for everything that is done or that fails to get done. This saying separated the issue of legal and professional culpability from the mass of collaborative activity. It represented a sort of philosophy of liability. How and when military historians adopted it as a principle of historical method, I wish to know. Tell me.

Say, fellows! Stop researching! The commander is responsible for this idea, that movement, and that plan! Done and done!

Again, the ACW military historian enjoys an edge in the primitivism of American staffwork 1861-1865. The ACW commander was in the retarded state of Frederick the Great, a general with two aides. With the emergence of modern staff in WWI, military history becomes completely unreadable given the sloth of authors and the obscurity of records.

All this is not to let ACW military historians off the hook here; the origin of - for example - the idea of the water approach to Richmond is immensely complex and far transcends "McClellan commanded, McClellan is responsible." Got forbid we should untie ends and make loose what was once bound.

I don't wish here to offend friends who are military historians. I recognize efforts at reform, striving for completeness, and efforts at fairness. I salute the works of Grimsley and Wittenberg. But I want to explain my own aversion to military history as a discipline as it stands.

p.s. David Woodbury is responsible for everything I said or failed to say.