I just returned from the national conference of the Society for Military History (SMH), held at Kansas State University. I presented a paper on the military campaigns of the Roman Emperor Aurelian, arguing that his use of overwhelming force had resulted in a bloodless collapse of two major threats to Rome. At the conference I also had a chance to tour the combat simulation exercises at Fort Riley, to visit the National Cavalry Museum and the Eisenhower Center, and to hear a speech by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.
From the outset the conference set an utterly different tone than one hears at America's largest historical enclave, the American Historical Association. The difference starts with the membership: the AHA is almost totally academic, while the SMH has a large number of historians working directly with military units, either in uniform or as civilians. The opening speaker at the SMH said two things that I have never heard at the AHA: he praised our "passion for facts," and he urged us to write history always "with practical value for today." The purpose of history, I heard repeatedly at the conference, was to place modern events into an historical context, and to offer people—civilians, officers and soldiers—a means to better understand the present, and to plan for the future.
People not involved in academia may not understand how refreshing this was to me. At the AHA, outright hostility will usually greet such claims. I have sat on history panels where the first thing said is "there are no facts—only interpretations; and there are no lessons—only the contemplation of complexity." I have been in job interviews where the committee members' eyes glaze over when you even mention political, intellectual or military history. To them, everything is the subjective creation of gender history, "queer" studies, how the average man lived, or the "history" of oppressed peoples. It's all generally disgusting, irrelevant to understanding human events, and downright boring. . . .