How to Teach War History in the Classroom

When I was a student in history, it seemed like everything we studied was war.

Dates were “important” because they related to some military event. Technology was “interesting” because it killed people.

I even spoke about this issue a bit in the origin story for this blog.

Poems always fascinated him because they present a unique window into the thoughts and feelings of our predecessors who faced important social challenges. Much of history is taught with an emphasis solely on military events — who fought, who won and why — which Davi found to obscure much of the more fundamental day-by-day decisions and lessons distilled into poetry by people of that period.

Indeed, poetry can be essential to understanding human conflict, especially influence campaigns, as I recently wrote about Afghanistan.

Oops, see what I mean? Even poetry is about war.

Fast forward to today and a new article in War on the Rocks suggests a shift towards more systemic thinking — more cognition for placing war in context of society — is being put on the table by military historians.

This integration of battlefield events with the social, cultural, ideological, and technological forces that often trigger and perpetuate war is just what the Society for Military History has called for. In November 2014, two of the best scholars in the business, Robert Citino and Tami Davis Biddle, authored a lucid and compelling statement about the importance of teaching the history of war — in all its various dimensions. “Perhaps the best way for military historians to make their case to the broader profession,” they wrote, “is to highlight the range, diversity, and breadth of the recent scholarship in military history, as well as the dramatic evolution of the field in recent decades.” A broadly based and scholarly approach to the teaching of war, they added, “puts big strategic decisions about war and peace into context; it draws linkages and contrasts between a nation’s socio-political culture and its military culture; it helps illuminate ways in which a polity’s public and national narrative is shaped over time. All this gives the field relevance, and, indeed, urgency, inside the classroom.”

The article is great in its entirety, not least of all because it also smacks down some nonsense claims about a decline in teaching about war.

Basic analysis proves such claims wrong.

And let’s be honest, if more people realized learning history gives you an excellent grasp of analysis they probably wouldn’t have to be sold on the benefits of learning about war.

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