Scholarly military history introduction/books/journals
January 31, 2010 11:02 PM   Subscribe

Military history looks like a field where jokers abound. All sorts of people make various claims, and it seems that many of them don't know what they're talking about. How do I, a layperson, get the tools to evaluate claims about military history?

I would like to learn more about military history, but there seems to be a lot of chaff out there. I don't really have the time to go out and get a formal education in the subject. How could I go about approching the subject from a serious/scholarly perspective? I'm mostly interested in pre-WWI history, especially naval history. I studied engineering, so a technical focus would be nice.
posted by Monday, stony Monday to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want to learn about history or historiography? History is all about different interpretations, and understanding the historical or cultural conditions that affected those interpretations can be interesting.

Anyway, John Keegan is considered to be pretty much the finest post-war historian, and his book "The Face of Battle" might interest you, as it convers Agincourt, Waterloo and the Battle of the Somme. Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell, while not historians, also write books that I wish I had read while I was studying history at school.

You could check out online the course reading lists for military history courses at any university you like - that would give you a selection of more serious, quality sources.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:23 PM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can improve your question by including one of these bits of info:

1. What specific point of history are you looking for...pre-WWI pretty much means everything over 100 years old.

2. Any specific team you're wanting to explore...

3. Technical focus on what? Weaponry, tactics, architecture, etc?

There are a few authors I would recommend for WWII because they are generally accepted and rather credible, then a different set for the Civil War. So I'm guessing that you need to specify what exactly you want to know more about to get the specific authors who aren't "jokers".
posted by hal_c_on at 11:27 PM on January 31, 2010

I have really enjoyed the books by Jim Dunnigan, including the ones he co-authored with Al Nofi and the ones he co-authored with Austin Bay. Some really savvy guys there, and with a refreshing writing style.

But they write almost exclusively about the 20th Century (and the current situation). Even so, if you want to come up to speed on what war is really about, the book "How to make war" is the place you should start.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:32 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to add that "Sharpe's Waterloo" does a really great job describing the actual battle, and what led to the French defeat. Bernard Cornwell is pretty much a hack when it comes to character development (there is none), but man can he describe a battlefield.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:42 PM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: I guess I could be more specific: what are some departments/historians who study:

a) the transition from sail ships to ironclads to battleships in the 19th and early 20th century.
b) the Venitian navy at the height of its power.
c) late medieval fortifications.

And how I would go about finding credible sources on these subjects and other subjects. I don't really care about writing style, as long as we don't get into Bourdieu-like obfuscation.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:44 PM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and fiction is very much not what I want.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:29 AM on February 1, 2010

"How do I, a layperson, get the tools to evaluate claims about military history?"

A good tool in general for historical critical thinking is Fischer's Historians' Fallacies (amazon, google books). That would increase your bullshit detector when authors make certain claims.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 1:26 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Fleet Tactics is a book actual naval officers read, and I think you will find the first 100 pages or so very interesting.

There are lots of interesting historical articles and book reviews in the US Navel War College Review.
posted by shothotbot at 5:20 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist. He had a very, very difficult to read writing style.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:52 AM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: It's true that there are more amateur historians doing military history than there are in other subfields. Doesn't mean bad, but you see a fascination with chronological narrative rather than analysis. I don't know the literature of naval history very well, but a few major military historians of pre-WWI Europe include: Jeremy Black, Geoffrey Parker, Martin Van Creveld, John Lynn. I assign The Dynamics of Military Revolution (Knox, Murray) in my mil. hist. course; it's a good intro to the topic of change in military affairs. Black and Parker have an ongoing debate about the concept of Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMA) which shows up in their work. If you have access to an academic library you might search JSTOR for articles and especially book reviews in the Journal of Military History. Naval War College Review is also excellent, as noted by shothotbot.
posted by annabkr at 5:52 AM on February 1, 2010

Annabkr is right. You'll want to look for journals of history concerning the time period you're interested in. Not only will you have articles by academics in the field, but there also should be reviews of books which will also help you decide what's worth reading or not. You can also examine the publishers of the books you may look into reading. Certain publishers and university presses have higher standards than others. So for example, Harvard Press will probably have more leading names in the field than the press of a school you've never heard of.
posted by Atreides at 6:54 AM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: My husband wrote a thesis on pre-WWI naval history, with a focus on technology.

He recommends John Tetsuro Sumida as the most awesomest naval historian of the transistion of iron-clads to battleships. He is truely the world expert, though he's not famous outside of naval history. Specific books to check out: John Fisher and the Dreadnought and In Defense of Naval Supremacy.

My husband also recommends Nicholas Lambert and Arthur C. Marder (he's the most famous pre-WWI naval historian). For artillery, Peter Padfield is the leading expert.

Almost no naval historians write like French sociologists, but they will write in naval jargon -- if you are having trouble, get a good dictionary of naval terms.
posted by jb at 7:00 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Its a tough field, you have academics, political leaders (Churchill wrote extensively about his experiences as wartime leader), military leaders, journalists, popularizers and amateurs all crowding the field.

Having said that, I suggest sticking with the academics. They have it right and have peers looking over their shoulders.

For me, Michael Howard is the man. His Franco-Prussian War is tremendous. I suggest Makers of Modern Strategy as a start.

Avoid journalistic accounts at all costs. The worst is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Terrible on so many levels.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:15 AM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: About trying to figure out what is well-researched reliable history: It's a problem in all fields. After all, how many people now rely on the tv series The Tudors for their understanding of early 16th century English politics? I don't know if it is even a reliable series for early 16th century bedrooms.

But you are right to think about going to the scholarly history -- that is, history published by historians with graduate level training in history and (usually) working in universities. It's not that all popular history is unreliable -- there is a great deal of very well-done popular history. But popular historians tend to work from published academic history, and thus are somewhat behind the developments in the research. Moreover, all academic historians have at one point worked from the original sources, which gives them an understanding of how we know what we know (or don't know) about the past. Again, some popular historians might also work from the primary sources -- which means they are essentially doing academic history -- but many do not.

The other thing that can distinguish scholarly history from popular is that it is not sufficient in scholarly history to simply know what happened in the past -- you need to provide analysis. People like Sumida or Lambert will write about HOW the design of ships changed, but also go beyond that to think about WHY -- in their case, by thinking about how the naval architects thought about naval warfare. For that purpose, reading something like the Fleet Tactics book cited above would be a good idea, or even reading the naval theorist Mahan if you haven't -- not because he was right (or wrong), but because he was so influential on naval thinking at the time (including both British and American). Or just the introduction to The Influence of Sea Power upon History, because he "gets heavy" after that. (Diirect quote from husband, who is annoyed that he has to read about peasants and insurrections for his lecture when he could be posting about naval history).

So when looking for good naval history books, you can find them the same way that historians do: academic libraries, bibliographic databases and reviews in academic journals. The latter are good because you can read a one-page review where another professional historian rates how well-researched and thought out the book is. Obviously, journals are hard to get a hold of if you don't live near a university with a good library, and if you don't have access to reading the books. That said, if you are near a university library, journals tend to be one of those things available to the public for consultation within the library; if they are in closed stacks, you still may be able to request that they be brought out for you. You'll have to find out what the policies are at the nearest university. Sometimes you need readers' access to even get in the front door -- there may be a fee. But you also have the power of metafilter and the many members who have access to electronic journals who might be able to slip you some reviews if you mefi-mail them.
posted by jb at 7:28 AM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and as an early modernist, I'll second the recommendations for Geoffrey Parker and Jeremy Black for the 16th-18th centuries. I don't know the medieval period so well, but they might have references for the earlier period. I also remember reading William McNeill's The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, and it had a fascinating chapter on the cross-bow and how he thinks it affected relations between German knights and Italian cities in the late-medieval/Rennaissance period. McNeill is not a military historian per se but one of those wide-ranging historians of a kind which we probably not see again in this age of specialization in history. (Also, no one can master the historiography for that many times and places any more -- there is just too much published and in too many languages).
posted by jb at 7:37 AM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: Among other things, I read the Naval War College Review. It covers all eras, but they try to be pretty balanced within each issue. It's free.

Have you also tried these publications [asking for the sake of turning over all stones]?

The H-WAR list is pretty good, though sometimes they get bogged down in academic haggling: And I think there are other lists you might find interesting at the parent site, H-NET.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:17 AM on February 1, 2010

Sorry, a correction: it is Jon Sumida (not John) who you want to read for late 19th/early 20th naval history. Also, my husband seems to have misremembered one of the titles of his books, the Fisher one. I'll make fun of him for it later.
posted by jb at 12:43 PM on February 1, 2010

This has gotten pretty high brow, but I should also mention Six Frigates, on the founding of the US Navy.

I got a used copy of Bjorn Landstrom's The Ship: An Illustrated History off amazon and it is really quite good - great drawings and a good amount of history.
posted by shothotbot at 1:35 PM on February 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone. I have three universities in my, er, region, so I'll check them out for the book recommendations. Speaking of languages, I also read French and a bit of Spanish, so if you know of something available in those languages, do tell.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:59 PM on February 1, 2010

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