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  • The State of Naval History
  • John Beeler (bio)

Andrew Lambert's piece speaks eloquently to the tension that has characterized naval (and military) history's relationship with the broader historical profession since the latter's coalescence as an academic discipline in the second half of the 19th century. Naval history was (and sometimes still is) written for didactic purposes—for professional education—and while I don't fully share Lambert's perception that the historical discipline has frequently resisted embracing the concept of relevance, certainly the professional historian's training inculcates a healthy aversion to drawing "lessons" from the past, much less "approved solutions" such as are sought for (and found) in many elements of professional military and naval education.1

And yet the best naval and military historians, as Lambert's apposite citation of Clausewitz ("history teaches us nothing, but it makes us wise forever") suggests, were and are equally wary of making facile comparisons between past and current events. In that regard, there is no fundamental scholarly or pedagogical divide between serious naval history practitioners and academic historians generally. Likewise, much—probably most—scholarly naval history published since 1970 has not only met or surpassed the methodological standards of the discipline: it has also been written principally for academic—and to a lesser extent general—audiences, rather than for professional naval education.

Furthermore, naval history has in striking fashion transcended its original narrow operational focus with its emphasis on battles, campaigns, and leaders, ranging both "upward" to the level of grand strategy and "downward" to the social history of navies. Thanks to this broadening trend, we now have path-breaking work on, among many other subjects: the relationship of navies to state formation in early modern Europe (Jan Glete); enlisted men's lives (Michael J. Bennett, Christopher McKee, Dennis Ringle, N.A.M. Rodger, and others); African-American personnel in the Civil War U.S. Navy (Stephen Ramold and Barbara Brooks Tomblin); the cultural dimension of the Anglo-German naval arms race prior to World War I (Jan Rüger); even on sailors as symbols of masculinity in Victorian Britain (Mary Conley).

The field has become a curious amalgam. It does not have a specific methodology, as do many varieties of social or labor history; it cannot be neatly compartmentalized, as can diplomatic history. Rather, it contains strands of virtually every other variety of history; naval history, broadly speaking, now embraces political history, administrative history, institutional history, economic history, social history, cultural history, gender history, and the history of science and technology, as well as the battle pieces most general readers associate with it.

Most importantly in this context, the flowering of naval historical scholarship over the past quarter-century is impossible to reconcile with the doom-and-gloom pronouncements periodically trotted out—to the accompaniment of much wailing, hand-wringing, and gnashing of teeth—that lament the impending demise of martial history higher education outside of the service academies, the victim of a left-wing witch hunt.2 Although I lack comprehensive quantitative data to underpin the assertion, I am confident that more professional historians are currently publishing on specifically naval and maritime topics, and that more good work on those subjects is now appearing than at any time since the academic genesis of the profession. To focus solely on the period that I study (1850-1918), the past two decades have seen the publication of important scholarly works by George Baer, James Bradford, John Brooks, David K. Brown, Robert Browning, George Buker, Donald Canney, Donald Chisholm, Mary A. Conley, Blake Dunnavent, David Evans, David Evans and Mark Peattie, Howard Fuller, Robert Gardiner, Andrew Gordon, Terrell Gottschall, Edwyn Gray, Eric Grove, Kurt Hackemer, Michael L. Hadley and Roger Sarty, Paul Halpern, C. I. Hamilton, Rolf Hobson, Mark C. Hunter, Ludwell Johnson, Greg Kennedy, Andrew Lambert, Nicholas Lambert, Bernd Langensiepen and Ahmet Guleryuz, Christopher McKee, David McLean, Edward J. Marolda, Frank Merli, Robert O'Connell, David H. Olivier, Roger Parkinson, Dennis Ringle, William Roberts, Jan Rüger, Charles Schencking, Robert Schneller, Donald Schurman, Mark Shulman, Lawrence Sondhaus, William Still, Jr., Jon Sumida, David G. Surdam, Craig L. Symonds, Stephen R. Taaffe, William H. Thiesen, Geoffrey Till, Barbara Brooks...


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