Military History and Theory

As one of my new grad students put it: ‘Why are military historians so scared of theory anyway?’ My answer – historically, it was a military historian who best defined theory’s utility and place:

‘Theory cannot equip the mind with formulae for solving problems, nor can it mark the narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side. But it can give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action. There the mind can use its innate talents to capacity, combining them all so as to seize on what is right and true.’ (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Howard and Paret trans, Princeton UP, 1989), 578.

Clausewitz scholars will, of course, point out that he was talking about a particularly 19th century German definition of theory here (in translation, in any case). But he did have to explain, to a difficult audience, why theory was useful but not all encompassing. And what a great job he made of it.


6 Responses to Military History and Theory

  1. Mark G. says:

    It’s fair to say that military historians are disportionately empiricist, and some indeed are averse to theory. But the student’s question implies a pretty sweeping generalization. What, specifically, prompted her or him to make it?

  2. Steve says:

    There’s a comment attributed to at least six famous Hollywood directors – ‘Film needs theory like it needs a scratch on the negative’. Military history is much the same; in many ways it is the ultimate pragmatist’s subject. Perhaps this is because it spends so much time dealing with military practice, which has been dominated by theories and doctrines (including that of Dead Carl) since the mid-18th Century, and pulling apart the rerlationship between those doctrines and the actual conduct of war.

  3. D.F.F. says:

    It’s remarkable how apt that quotation is, given that Clausewitz was writing in a very different context (a guess–he is arguing against prescriptive theories of war like Jomini’s and thinking about soldiers, not scholars studying war).

  4. Dan says:

    The context in which the original question was posed: as part of our MA core course, students are introduced to a number of ‘themes in contemporary British history’. One is the abiding influence of the two world wars. For this seminar, they’re required to read Brian Bond’s short book about the mythology of the First World War, The Unquiet Western Front, and Angus Calder’s book on the mythology of the Second World War, The Myth of the Blitz. It’s a very interesting session, because it brings students from a wide range of backgrounds up against their assumptions about the two wars. It would be fair to say that most of them hate Bond’s book. For some this is because of his rather simplistic approach to subjects like Edwardian sexuality. But for others it’s because they have a set of preconceptions about military historians and empiricism which the book absolutely fulfils.
    I do my best to destroy these preconceptions (not least by agreeing with them about Bond). This particular student is about to start his PhD with me – in my amazing double life as a cultural historian – looking at the representation of the 1960s in contemporary media. He’s a seriously bright guy, and he was perhaps winding me up. But it’s worthy of note (indeed, Mark, you’ve noted it) that lay people have a very clear idea of what a military historian is, does and believes in a way they wouldn’t for, say, a social historian.

  5. Dan says:

    Interesting other point to note: theory’s what you call it. In a recent PhD exam, I made criticisms on the basis of ‘methodology’. My fellow examiner, a much more senior and eminent Professor, commented that he was from an older generation, a Cambridge empiricist, who felt uncomfortable about such words. He had, however, independently made exactly the same criticism, just in different words. Intellectual rigour is intellectual rigour.

  6. Dan says:

    More responses now I’ve had time to think about them. Given the fuzzy edges/lack of academic rigour of ‘military history’, I think one problem is that the empiricism has become a sort of defining feature (albeit unarticulated) within the academy. So people doing excellent work which I would count as military history, but with a strong theoretical base, such as Tarak Bakawi’s IR initiated work on motivation in 14th Army in WW2, get defined out.
    D.f.f.: from memory, Clausewitz is talking about his own method here (so ‘theory’ stands for his process of critical analysis). I think that it’s more a defence to an anticipated criticism from army officers about theory’s lack of relevance. What I like about the quote is that it speaks to both sides. But then I’ve often thought that quoting Clausewitz is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

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