It sounds like a joke, I know: a conference of history professors. Oh yeah…that’s a party. You better hunker down, locals. Lock your doors. Call the police!
But I just returned from a conference of history professors, the annual gathering of the Society for Military History (the SMH, as it’s called), and let me just say: what a feast. Imagine an entire hotel outside of Chicago filled with the authors whose books you’ve read in the past year. They turn out to be down to earth and approachable men and women who know their military history cold, who can throw down on the details of campaigns and battles like you wouldn’t believe, and who love nothing better than to thrash out the details of every conflict from ancient Macedon through World War II to the modern coalition struggles in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In the course of the weekend, you could see a lot of good stuff. For example, I was lucky to attend a debate between two U.S. Army colonels—Conrad Crane (ret.) and Gian Gentile—over our current counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in the Mideast. It was like watching a ping-pong match between two expert players, no surprise, since that’s exactly what they are. Crane is the author who penned the army’s current COIN doctrine (Field Manual 3-24). Gentile is an armor branch guy who commanded an armored cavalry squadron in West Baghdad in 2006 and currently teaches at West Point. Crane thinks we’re on the right track in these conflicts, more or less. Gentile thinks we’ve gone off the rails altogether. Neither one was shy about disagreeing with the other. Verdict: two good men; one great debate.
Another conference session discussed whether or not there is a distinctive “American way of war.” The panel consisted of Brian Linn, the ultra-sharp author of the recent book Echo of Battle; Tony Echevarria, a former lieutenant colonel now at the U.S. Army War College; Adrian Lewis, a former major and now a professor at the University of Kansas; Brian Holden Reid, a prolific British scholar from King’s College (London); and Thomas G. Mahnken from the U.S. Naval War College and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning. Suffice it to say that, although it was eight in the morning and many of us were not yet in full command of our faculties, the atmosphere was electric. Ideas were zinging around the room, some pretty smart people were disputing one another in the sharpest possible terms, and even the audience was feisty and combative. Lewis, in particular, was impressive—reminding everyone present that debates over U.S. military doctrine and policy aren’t just about words or rhetoric. They have real consequences, and the stakes are high. If we get this stuff wrong, we should remember, good soldiers (and our fellow citizens) pay the price.
Sometimes, being a military historian is a job just like any other. At other times, I’m proud to be one.
If you’re interested in joining the organization or attending next year’s meeting (it will be in Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.), click here to check out the website of the SMH. Membership is open to anyone interested in military history. Hope to see you there, and be sure to come up and say hello!