Yesterday (26/11/16), the keynote speaker at the BCMH New Research in Military History Conference, Professor Charles Esdaile, reflected upon the career of a military historian. 

Here is a sample of the conversation he provoked on Twitter:

This has got me thinking, and provoked the following:

First of all, I don’t dispute the main thrust of what was said, ie that there are not many military historians working in university history departments.  That said, I was, nonetheless, surprised to hear that there is a ‘paucity’ bearing in mind the courses available in War Studies, Strategic Studies, Conflict Resolution, as well as the individual units available within History and IR degrees.

Directly after the keynote presentation, it was my turn to deliver my paper.  Stuck in my mind were the words which went something like ‘so much of military history is written by those who don’t have ‘university of…’ after their name’.  I am, of course , one such, so I started my 25 minutes by saying “You’ll notice I don’t have ‘University of…’ after my name…”

This provoked a bit of a laugh as anticipated, but there is possibly a more serious point behind this.  For example, I remember sitting in the IHR in 2011 at a decolonisation conference and someone said how nobody teaches the British Empire in schools and colleges, and what a travesty that was.  I put my hand up to respond and said that this assertion was incorrect; British Empire units are, and continue to be, offered at A Level.  I have taught British Empire history for most of my career, and gave up other units that are more commonly taught to do so.

In the same way, it strikes me that there are a significant amount of military historians working within FE and schools.  If there is not the space for us in university departments, we have to reside somewhere!

So what of the military historians working without a university affiliation?  To write here with more authority would require some research, but there are a few observations I would like to make:

  1. There are many talented people in FE with a significant level of education and publishing experience.  I sit in an office of ten including me.  There are three doctorates, three masters and two more with impressive publishing records in their field.   I am the only military historian, but I think these statistics are significant, especially if replicated across the sector.
  2. Perhaps we in FE don’t have the access to all the resources that HE practitioners do, but as alumni, we all have access to digital resources such as Jstor, and as ‘ordinary’ people everyone has access to university libraries, and all our national archival repositories.
  3. What is fundamentally different is our working patterns and focus.  In the FE sector we teach anything from 23 to 28 hours per week.  The remainder of our time is spent trying to mark homework and assignments, and plan/update our lessons – when not tending to a host of other things.  The remaining 10-14 hours of the working week is easily swallowed up.  My point here is that we don’t have the same dedicated time for research, nor the concentrated time to work on our ‘extra-curricular’ publishing interests.   There is simply not that impetus behind us to publish other than our own motivation – no REF harassment in FE!

So is it ‘good or bad’ that military history is ‘increasingly written by people working outside the academy’?

  1. It has to be good that military histories are being written.  ‘Bad’ work prompts responses, while’good’ work better informs and also prompts dialogue.
  2. Everything has ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practitioners, whether in HE or FE or non-teaching/academic employment.
  3. There is quality from trained historians outside of HE, perhaps because there is not a huge availability of jobs in our universities for military historians.  Whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ remains subjective, of course.

Given that (at least) two people, including a retired Major-General, said that they felt war was closer now than at any other point in the last forty years, the ‘importance of military history in contemporary geopolitical context’ can’t be exaggerated (can it ever be?).  I look at Russia and Ukraine, NATO exercises in the Baltic, the Middle East, Chinese artificial island building and rising tension in the South China Sea, for example, and have to agree that we are living in precarious times.  Maybe there should be more positions in universities for military historians, so that the many interested parties from their various backgrounds can share more of the opportunities/access/working conditions?

In the meantime, conferences like this one have an important part to play, enabling those from armchairs to academics to meet and discuss the two single most important issues controlling human destiny; conflict and cooperation in global politics.

So how is any of the above relevant to the whole point of my website about ‘SOE in Burma’?  Burma’s military and colonial history, as seen through the lens of the Special Operations Executive, offers rich insights facilitating understanding of modern Myanmar.  One of the main arguments in the historiography centres around how far SOE is to blame for the civil war and internecine violence that has dominated the last 70 years of the country’s history.  I could not complete the story of SOE in Burma without dedicating space to the post-war period, and this question of an SOE ‘legacy’.  With so much military history to be written about, gaps in our knowledge such as SOE in Burma have to be filled by people working  outside of university departments.

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