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Military History So Far

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

We spent the first week of HTY 279, European Military History, defining our terms.  We had to start with what military history is, then what “modern” is, we even spent a little while on what “European” means.  In the second week we started with some battles and personages who constitute the sort of cusp of what Prof. Miller, at least, holds to constitute modern European military history – figures like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594-1632) and the Battle of Lützen, in which he was killed.  None of that is likely to be all that interesting to readers who are not themselves studying military history, though, so we’ll skip over that.

Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about the reading for this course.  The reading list for HTY 279 is pretty extensive; the class doesn’t have a textbook, as such, but there are a number of things we’re responsible for getting through in the course of the semester.  Some of them, like Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, are war memoirs I’ve already read (though I think I’ve read the wrong translation of Jünger for this course).  Others, like Clausewitz’s On War, are standards works in the field that I haven’t actually read, but have seen mentioned often in things I have read.


And then there’s What Is Military History?, the cover designers of which I don’t think were taking the task entirely seriously.

This is a slim volume that attempts to answer the question posed in its title, but does so in such a detached and scholarly manner that it’s almost impossible to engage with in any meaningful way.  It reminds me a little of John Clute’s introduction to the Old Earth Books reprints of E.E. Smith’s Lensman books, back in the late ‘90s.  Clute is a professional literary critic whose area of specialty is science fiction, and his introductions to the Lensman novels are essentially Learned Critiques of same, as if they’ve just been published and Clute is assessing their literary merit for the edification of other scholars, which means that what isn’t pretension is impenetrable jargon.  I distinctly remember the phrase “penis swamp” appearing at one point in his introduction to Galactic Patrol.

What Is Military History? isn’t quite that weird, because its subject matter isn’t quite so esoteric in its own right, but it does constitute a pretty dry bowl of kibble as intellectual sustenance goes.  Here’s an example:

In military history, many different crops are still springing from the soil of historical evidence fertilized by new theoretical and methodological approaches, and this rough guide to current controveries can be neither complete nor remain current.  Students exploring new work in these fields or work in other areas of military history can usually figure out where a book they are reading falls with respect to previous work by paying attention to the book’s preface or introduction.  Historians usually provide their own historiographical context in one of these places in order to point out how what they are doing is new, innovative, or otherwise noteworthy.  Careful reading of these historiographical introductions, informed by knowledge of the basic philosophical, methodological, and historiographical contours of military history that this book tries to provide, should allow students to explore new fields of military history more effectively.

All of that to say, “If you want to know what new angle the author of a book you’re reading thinks he’s coming from, read the introduction.”  It’s like this for 116 pages.  A long day at the office.

But I don’t mind.  The thing that bothers me is: Someone keeps moving my chair.

No, seriously.  This class is held in one of the big lecture halls in Little Hall, a building which was designed, as Pratchett and Gaiman speculated of Milton Keynes, to foster unconscious dread and hopelessness in the human mind.  Little is blessed with the most bizarre floorplan I’ve had the privilege of encountering, far outstripping the previous holder of this personal record (Fuller Labs at WPI).  It has half-floors.  Instructors have to provide directions to their offices on the syllabus, because if you just had the room number you would never find them.  The giant lecture halls have entrances at the back, on the ground floor, but the front of the room is in the basement.  Aha, you think, if you’re a student who’s just hurt his ankle, that must be where you enter the room if you need to use the elevator, but in the case of Little 140 you’d be wrong!  Those doors exit into a dark and gloomy hallway (turn off lights to save electricity!) which leads ultimately to… a stairwell.  There is a very similar gloomy hallway on the other end of the building that does involve the elevator, but if the two are connected in any way, I have yet to find it.  I suspect a student requiring level floor access would have to take the elevator to that other hallway, then cross through the back of the room in lecture halls 110, 120, and 130, before arriving at the first hallway and into 140.

And every time I arrive at 140 for class, my chair is out in that hallway.  This is annoying to me; on days when I’m running a tad bit late it’s also annoying to Prof. Miller, to the point where yesterday, when for various reasons I realized that I’d be arriving at 11:05, I decided to just punt rather than disrupt the class moving furniture around.  Fortunately, the big in-class discussion of What Is Military History? is tomorrow.

I wouldn’t want to miss that.

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