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Robert Neer: U.S. Military History

by Robert Neer
April 24, 2018

This interview with Robert Neer, a professor and scholar of U.S. Military History, was conducted and condensed by Tatti Ribeiro for frank news. This is part 1 of an ongoing conversation. 


My name's Bob Neer. I'm a lecturer at Columbia University and teach a class there called Empire of Liberty: A Global History of The U.S. Military, which I've been teaching for the last several years. So I have a little bit of a perspective on how history of the U.S. military has been taught. Naturally when I first started teaching my course I started looking around at other universities to find a syllabus that I could copy, because that's the easiest way to get started teaching a course. And I was absolutely stunned to discover that at the top American universities, the most selective ones, had almost no courses focused on the U.S. military. There were military history courses about, for example, the campaigns of Alexander, or the way that the German army was successful at the beginning of World War II. Things like that. But if you wanted to understand the U.S. Army as an institution in the context of the history of the United States, at those schools, it was very, very difficult to find out much about that part of our past. There are places where one can learn that history, West Point for example, the service academies, and some state institutions that are centers of excellence for the Study of Military History. Ohio State University for example. But at the institution I was teaching at, Columbia, and other similar elite universities there was very little. Which I found really quite striking because historically American universities have taught a lot of military history, and it's been a very popular subject for people to learn about. So I've talked to people and tried to understand why that might be.

It would seem that one aspect of that change is that there's been a broad shift in the role that universities play. In the past in this country, they would educate a kind of social elite in many respects, and that was often very closely related to the officer corps.

I'm talking about 200 years ago, or 150 years ago, a considerable period of time ago. So a smaller fraction of the overall population went to college and the officer corps, as in Europe, was a place where people from socially elite families could often find a socially elite position.

Those classes were very focused on the actual practicalities of military history. Why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, or how it could be that Britain ruled the seas. Not so much the way that history is taught today as a broad inquiry into the past, and the forces that shaped the present. So one thesis was that the role of American universities has changed ,and therefore the subjects that they teach have changed, and therefore, especially at these elite schools, there wasn't such a demand for that kind of practical military history.

Another thesis was that in the wake of the Vietnam War, American academia in general had turned away from the military. So historically, in this country, there's been quite close connections between institutions of higher education in the military, and certainly that continues today.  The tremendous protests that convulsed these institutions of higher education, especially the most elite institutions, were dramatically affected by these protests. The reaction has been in many cases to turn away from the military.

“I ain’t gonna study war no more”. The thesis is that somehow by studying this subject you empower it, or encourage it in some way, which many people haven’t wanted to do.

And finally I guess you could say that although in many respects American universities are meritocratic and have generous financial aid policies often in practice, they generally serve the people who already have money and resources.

And the professional military, as it's developed in the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War and the ending of the draft, is in general an institution that doesn't draw its base from economically advantaged sections of the country.

Most people who have to have a job, and find that to be a job that is relatively remunerative and attractive financially, end up joining the armed services. 

I think it's a very important aspect of our past because studying the past is really kind of a way of studying the present. For example, the United States each year spends more money on its military than of all of its institutions of postsecondary education. So all the colleges, all the business schools, all law schools, all the Ph.D. programs, all the community colleges, everything after high school combined — is less than the spending on the military. So that's kind of a lot of money, and an important sort of statement of the country's social priorities. And it's beneficial to learn where it came from as a way of understanding the present.


Let's talk a little bit about how it might be useful or valuable to study the history of the U.S. military. As I mentioned before, history is really just a way of talking about the present.

If it wasn't, then presumably somebody could just write the history of World War II and be done with it. But since the importance of World War II keeps changing, and what was significant keeps changing, people's minds and the issues that they're concerned about today keep changing. People keep writing new histories of World War II.

And if you go and look at the history shelves in a bookstore or on Amazon, I think you'll see that the vast majority of history books that are sold have been written in the last 10 to 20, years as opposed to 100 years ago. Even though the past hasn't changed. So in that sense, it can really illuminate the present.

We're right now in these very long conflicts in Afghanistan and greater Iraq, let's call it against Daesh. It's useful to consider whether that's unusual in our past, or consistent with earlier precedents in the United States. It's popular in many respects to call this current conflict a new type of war, or a forever war, or a conflict which is unprecedented. And it is unprecedented in certain respects. I would say for example, in its global reach, in the thesis that we can use military force almost anywhere in the world without having a specific declaration of war against that particular country, which was characteristic of U.S. military engagements earlier in our past in many respects. 

But in fact, the history of the United States, and part of the United States is success I would say, is because of its exceptional ability in warfare, and in the exceptional achievements of its armed forces - dating back to the inception of the country. So if one considers the conflicts with the Native Americans to be a kind of generalized Indian war, as it's sometimes described, then that might really seem to be like a much longer conflict than even the current war in Afghanistan.

And if you look at American history, one characteristic presentation of it, the one that I was taught in high school, was that the United States was essentially a peaceful country that was forced into certain wars at limited times in its past because of perhaps misunderstandings, or the bad behavior of others.

But I think if you examine the past objectively it seems that in fact, the United States has been engaged in wars for most of its history, and that the standard type of existence for this country has been one of fighting various enemies in various places

For the early part of the country's history, as I mentioned, there were constant conflicts with Native Americans in different locations, as well as more precisely defined wars with European powers, for example the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War. So in that sense it helps to appreciate the current conflict, perhaps not so unusual, and that in turn for people who want to modify it in various ways, arms them you might say. If you think that this pattern is objectionable, you need to be aware that it is perhaps characteristic of the country and people will react accordingly if you try to modify it. If you think that it should be encouraged, you have great resources to draw on ,where you say that one reason the country is the way it is now is because of this past practice. 

That's just one example of how studying the broad scope of the history of the military in the United States helps to understand contemporary events at a level of detail and context which is extremely empowering, but which you really can't get if you're not familiar with the fact that there were dozens of wars against Native Americans, that the first time that U.S. troops were ordered abroad was by Thomas Jefferson against the Barbary pirates, that was a war fought in North Africa. I mean maybe many Marines know that because of the song, but most people who live in this society don't know that.

To open them up to that kind of knowledge is, I think, both valuable and important.

It's also worth considering the extraordinary power of the military in this society right now. If you look at how we spend our money, which in any family, or for any individual, is is a strong statement of what's important to them. We spend more money each year on our military than on all postsecondary education combined. Maybe by necessity, maybe because it leads to our success. Maybe it's a good thing or a bad thing, but to put it in the context of the relative importance of these different fields, suggest to me that everybody in the United States should be familiar with this history, as much as they're familiar with works of literature, or the basic principles of physics, and mathematics, or all the other things our students are taught, because it's such a critical part of our contemporary existence. To shut yourself off from that leaves you almost blind to that important area.

And when you're blind, intellectually blind, other people make the decisions for you because they are informed and they know.