01 Sep 2009

The Scourge of Contemporary Historiography

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Eugéne Delacroix (1798-1863), Atilla suivi de ses hordes, foule aux pieds libéralisme, Marxisme, et pacifisme, Bibliothèque, Palais Bourbon, Paris, 1843-47

Edward Luttwak, reviewing in the New Republic Christopher Kelly’s The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome, pauses to remark on the problems inherent in the myopic historical perspective regnant in contemporary Academia.

In our day, many historians do not have a problem with Attila or any other “Great Man of History.” They accept the very personal role of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the rest in shaping history, “bottom-up” history notwithstanding; and so they can accept Attila’s importance as a historical factor as their Marxist predecessors could not. But they have a terrific problem with the Huns, and the reason for this is simple. It is the nullification of military historiography in contemporary academia. “Strategy” exists in a few government or political science departments, but such “strategists” steer clear of military history. The academic consensus that all wars are pointless apparently extends also to the study of their history.

There is almost no place, and almost no prestige, for anyone who wants to research and teach how and why battles and wars were won or lost–that is, military history strictly defined–as opposed to social history, economic history, and some forms of political history, including newly rehabilitated biographical approaches but excluding “kings and battles.” Even research on “presidents and wars” is unwelcome unless there are cognitive or psychological pathologies to be studied. And there is the added impediment that military historiography is an arcane field, requiring serious archival research, often in languages other than English.

While scholarly readers have an insatiable demand for military historiography, and students are very keenly interested in battles and wars, the faculties at our universities prefer to scant both. Appoint a military historian? The eminent Chicago Byzantinist Walter Emil Kaegi has explained why it almost never happens: tactics cannot matter, weapon techniques cannot matter, operational methods cannot matter, theater strategies cannot matter, because wars do not matter–as a subject of their own, rather than as epiphenomenal expressions of other causes and realities. Given the academic consensus that wars are almost entirely decided by social, economic, and political factors, there is simply no room for military history as such.

That makes it impossible to explain why anyone would have been bothered by the arrival of the Huns. …

The days are past when Christianity, poisoning by lead pipes, or any other cause could be invoked to explain the fall of one-half of the Roman Empire while disregarding the survival of the other half, though it was just as Christian or just as poisoned. Only the possibility that a military difference, a difference in strategy between east and west, might have determined the outcome has remained unexplored–until now

4 Feedbacks on "The Scourge of Contemporary Historiography"


Attila (or for that matter the even more amazing conquest of the Ummeyyads and Ghengis Khan) are no problem for the non-military history. They are what has famously been called “black swan”, the highly-unlikely-yet-possible event.

Empires seldom crumble in one day. When they do it is for a reason. Military strategy is part of it, but is not sufficient. Some countries have pretty much won all the battles and lost the war (take Spain during the 30 years War). Why?

Because strategy only matters in as much as it takes place in a wider context. If you don’t understand the economic woes of the Roman, Byzantine or Sassanide Empires, you won’t understand why a single general managed to take them to the ground instead of being crushed at the next battle.

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