No, this is not April's fools.
Popular Military History: A Need for Outreach?
John T. Kuehn
I am currently reviewing a popular history of the so-called Battle of the Atlantic. It is well written, engaging, and full of errors, mostly minor, but some major. If there had not been a well-written account of warfare in the North Atlantic during World War II for more than 20 years, then my complaint would be minimal, and I would steer first-timers to this book as a first step toward understanding the basic story as well as for its entertainment value.
But I won’t.
There is another popular history out there by a bona fide naval historian on the same topic (less than 10 years old), to say nothing of the older scholarly works that I would vector serious students toward (e.g. the work of John Terraine). The newer work has far fewer errors and is up to speed on the most recent scholarship.
This got me to thinking. Go to any bookstore, or online, and you will find the market is littered with popular histories of things, both new and old. My concern is the new stuff, or rather the folks writing the new stuff. I realize we will never get away from the business models that push “bad” popular history on the masses (i.e. go to the Costco books section, although not all the stuff is “bad,” but much of it is). However, might we not make more active attempts to bring popular military historians, especially those who write well, “inside the tent?” I know, there are some already, but for every Rick Atkinson or Tom Ricks out there, there is also a William Manchester—more like three William Manchesters.
So I think we military historians who are on the professional side, and reviewing these books, can try to reach out to them—especially before they publish. Perhaps the Society of Military History could make it an agenda item to have more popular historian panels at its annual meeting, so the two sides could interact.
That said, the book in question actually acknowledges that three reputable “naval historians” read the manuscript, which may point to an even bigger problem: that the readers either didn’t read the manuscript closely, or that they agreed with some of the major interpretive errors, or that their criticisms were ignored, or components of all three.
At any rate, I will continue to read ‘em and review ‘em like I see ‘em. In the case of this current book, I will direct the students toward a recent, less problematic popular history as well as sending students to the serious, recent, scholarship. But the propagation of myths is something we might fight (an endless campaign, I know), with sugar as well as with the stick.
Looking for more ways we might do that…
John T. Kuehn