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September 20, 2006

What is Military History? - Stephen Morillo with Michael F. Pavkovic

Posted by Jeremy Black

What is Military History?
by Stephen Morillo with Michael F. Pavkovic
Pp. vi+150. Polity, 2006
Paperback, 12.99

This is a worthwhile introduction to the subject that reflects its American origins but that is far more wide-ranging than most work of this type by American scholars. There is too little non-Western coverage in the book, for example of work by Indian and Japanese scholars, but there is a welcome engagement with pre-modern periods.

This reflects Morillo's background as a medievalist, and that of Pavkovic in Roman military history. The authors chart the development of the subject, consider conceptual frameworks, assess current controversies, discuss the "doing" of the subject, and include the future of military history.

They argue that it is philosophically diverse and methodologically rich, and that it is mistaken to see it as resistant to new conceptual perspectives. At the same time, they accept that the question of causation in military history has long been influenced by a particular view of structural constraints that stresses the role of technology in shaping patterns of warfare. However, too often the very visibility of weaponry has led military historians to over-emphasize technology. This has been accentuated by the focus on the subject of Western scholarship.

The controversies discussed are military revolutions, the position of the West, Roman continuity into the Middle Ages, giving up the gun in Japan, and the origins of blitzkrieg. "Doing" looks at forms, sources, programs and journals, presses and associations.

The book ends with an all-too-short section on the politics of military history, which argues that the subject cannot afford to accept the perception that it is part of the establishment, while liberal academics should not dismiss it, for then they abandon a politically relevant field to their ideological opponents.

The pages are small and generously printed which makes this a short book. That is a pity as the authors have much of interest to say. Their work is of particular value for students, for whom it offers a clear introduction. The book also invites the reflection that the relevant controversies might look very different in the future. For example, it would be fascinating to consider how the putative RMA and the "War on Terror" will be viewed by future historians.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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