New Directions in Military History: A Roundtable Discussion on US Military Influence and Infrastructure at Home and Abroad

AHA Session 4
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Washington Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Aaron O'Connell, University of Texas at Austin
The Military and the Welfare State
Jennifer Mittelstadt, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Session Abstract

This is the second of two proposed roundtables on new directions in American military history. Its principal purpose is to highlight new work that falls outside the conventional conceptions of the field and to move military history well beyond the study of military organizations or conduct on the battlefield. It proceeds from the belief that while combat operations may be the most visible things militaries do, they are still just a small part of how military influence and infrastructure shape societies, ideas, and power relations both domestically and globally. We believe armies and navies do much more than fight battles and topple governments. They also wreck and rescue economies, spur scientific discoveries, and re-organize and dis-organize labor relations. They alter the built environment and natural landscapes; and intervene in – or are sometimes co-opted into – domestic politics. They change the narratives we use to understand ourselves and our countries’ roles in the world. And even in times of peace, the infrastructure of military power – fleets, standing armies, basing systems, surveillance networks, foreign military sales, and mutual defense treaties – are integral elements of how nations operate on the world stage.

Most of these broader effects of military affairs are still largely ignored by most of military history. There is still an Old Guard in the field – a group of scholars who (quite literally) stick to their guns by insisting that the field’s primary purpose is to narrate and explain combat operations, analyze weapons and technology, and evaluate battles according to ostensibly timeless doctrines of tactics, strategy, and the “military sciences.” To their supporters, these historians are riveting storytellers (and they certainly do sell a lot of books). To their critics, the Old Guard is filled with methodological isolationists and historical exceptionalists who perpetuate the unhelpful notion that military operations somehow exist in a separate sphere outside the other narratives, institutions, and ideological apparatuses of American national life.

Luckily, there is a Jeune Ecole in military history as well – a new school of scholars who are actively seeking to redefine the field and to integrate the study of military affairs into broader considerations of economic, political, and diplomatic history. The scholars on this roundtable are in the vanguard of that movement. Each one will devote ten minutes to summarizing recent research – in all cases, a recently-completed or in-progress book manuscript – which will leave 30-40 minutes for discussion on the potential boundaries and future landscapes of military history. Katherine C. Epstein will explore the extensive material and cultural infrastructure – credit, communications networks, a financial surplus, and a compliant population – that both Great Britain and the U.S. used to spread their nations’ military influence all over the world. Michel Paradis will explain how the legal infrastructure of the Geneva Conventions and related international norms concerning torture stemmed from the Doolittle Raider trials of World War II. Jennifer Mittlestadt will discuss the rise of the military welfare state and its extensive infrastructure in American society.

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