Living, Teaching, and Writing the American Military History of the 21st Century

AHA Session 34
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbus Circle (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Beth Bailey, University of Kansas
John Hall, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Ricardo A. Herrera, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College
Jacqueline Whitt, US Army War College

Session Abstract

What happens when the history you’re writing and teaching is also the history you’re living? How should historians approach their craft when the story is far from being over, the long-term legacies unknown, and the sources are at once overwhelming and fragmented? The problem of writing and teaching about the recent past (what we might call contemporary history) is not a new one, but the twenty-first century may offer some unique challenges. For military historians, especially, the challenges are compounded by the role of the state in creating, preserving, and publishing historical documents and historical analysis through its official history programs. The state (and especially its military arm) simultaneously demands contemporary analysis and also seeks to protect materials it deems critical to national security. In practice, this means the historical record is bifurcated between classified and official histories and unofficial, academic histories. The addition of journalists, political scientists, and policy analysts to the mix further complicates the field, but these additional voices also contribute to the vibrant interdisciplinary nature of this work.

Roundtable participants will consider the historians’ challenge when writing contemporary history, including especially, an examination of sources (official/unofficial, classified/open-source, first-person accounts, audio and video sources, international sources, accessing and preserving digital sources, capturing and analyzing social media and big data, etc.). They will also discuss some of the ways in which contemporary military history is being taught, both in civilian universities and within official settings. Finally, the roundtable participants will discuss the implications of writing and teaching contemporary history when that history is still being lived by the subjects of the writing or by students in a classroom. What does it mean for a historian to teach the history of the American war in Iraq to veterans of that war or to currently-serving American military servicemembers? What does it mean to write historical accounts of people who are still living, and who may still be influencing policy?

The military history of the twenty-first century is already being lived, taught, and written. This roundtable explores the complexities of these tasks for historians. The roundtable includes perspectives from historians who work in both official and unofficial capacities with the US military, who teach and write about contemporary military history, and who are actively thinking about how current choices about preservation of sources, classification, and the historical record will affect how the history of the American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan will be written and remembered in the future. While the panel focuses specifically on contemporary American military history, the panel may also provide fruitful avenues of discussion about how historians approach the study of the recent past.

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