A reader writes:
"One thing many conservative websites discuss is the lack of military history taught to young people nowadays, and I agree. What's a good place to start for those of us who are victims of the modern educational system? Can you or one of your many readers recommend a good introductory text?"
A reader responds:
I currently teach AP European history, and have taught AP US in the past. The military-free content described is pretty accurate, although battles are fair game so long as they have a significant political or diplomatic impact, or if they served as the turning point (Waterloo, Stalingrad, Midway, etc.) of a particular war. However, you will never find questions on the exam about a particular general's tactics or the fine details of a noteworthy battle. Consequently, textbooks which are popular for use with AP courses (although all are "college-level", some seem to be more used at the high school AP level than in college survey courses.) often reflect that tendency. John Merriman's History of Modern Europe is one exception; its excellent WWI and WWII chapters are amongst the lengthiest in the entire (1,400+ page) book, and the book is replete with interesting military anecdotes. I don't necessarily think the lack of military history is a conscious decision on the part of the College Board, as they develop the course to reflect the predilections and attitudes of the equivalent courses taught in colleges, which are themselves the ones that are often consciously anti-military. I would also hasten to add that state standards on the teaching of history reflect the same tendencies.
As for your reader's question as to book suggestions: I would recommend Archer Jones' The Art of War in the Western World, Millet and Maslowski's For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, and essentially any book John Keegan has ever written.
AP teachers are judged more rigorously than most teachers because the percentage of their students who pass the AP test is fairly public knowledge, and the parents of their students tend to be the wealthiest, smartest, and most demanding parents at the school. So, they teach to the test. AP classes can be rather joyless experiences since teachers often worry they don't have time for classroom discussions. AP teachers would prefer not to go into detail about any one battle because if they choose the wrong battle and it never shows up on the test? Yet, battles are the hinges of history and nobody should be able to claim to be educated in history without having studied at least one battle in detail.
So, it's really up to the College Board to pick a single battle and make that The Battle for the purposes of the AP test and thus of AP classes. Fortunately, for the study of U.S. History, there's really only one reasonable contender for the role: Gettysburg.
For European History, there are several possibilities, but Waterloo would seem like the best choice. The main worry I have about studying Waterloo is that it's too benign, too much like an Ali-Frazier heavyweight championship bout rather than part of a war: Europe's two greatest generals finally meet, for one day on one square mile of battlefield, commanding armies armed with exactly the same technology, with virtually no civilian casualties, and then everybody goes home for 99 years of peace.
- I'd suggest The Reader's Companion to Military History. It's a reference work, but it's very readable, has top-notch contributors, and you can learn quite a lot just by randomly opening it and reading entries.
- Good beginner text: The Wars of America by Robert Leckie.
When I say beginner, I mean beginner. The text is directed toward the "young adult" market--my uncle gave it to me as a Christmas present when I was in 9th grade. Written from a traditional and patriotic perspective (i.e. the central hero of the Revolutionary War is George Washington---not some unknown black man or harpy).
Just about anything by John Keegan, though my favorite is The Face of Battle.
Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture is very, very, good.
- It's odd that the two best contemporary military writers (for newcomers at least) are each others archnemesis-- Victor Davis Hanson and your old friend The War Nerd.
Vic Hanson is sort of like a nonfiction version of Mark Helprin--- writes wonderful books and idiotic columns. He has a couple of books that in several chapters per campaign, break down famous battles. Good stuff.
- Your reader might try Churchill's best book, his biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, which is terrific military and political history. I'm not a military man, but for me this book crystallized a far-reaching point: In whatever arena, intelligence consists of seeing clearly what confronts one, rather than being guided by common opinion, prejudice, mere caution, etc. (But beware that the book starts slowly. I suggest skipping the first volume if one grows impatient.)
- For a good introduction to military history go to Osprey Publishing website. Choose a book that interests you and start reading. I have a bias for British Military History but Osprey Publishing has books on every country and era of military history.
- The movie Zulu is a good introductory "text".
-The US Marine Corps has long had an official reading list and requires all members to read a set of books at their "intellectual" (rank) level. Kind of a great books program for the military. It's considered the core cannon. Google for "Commandant USMC reading list":
Official USMC list
Heinlein's Starship Troopers used to be the first book for privates but not anymore.
- By J.F.C. Fuller is one of the best general histories of warfare. He always includes the political, social, and economic reasons behind the wars. Sophisticated but highly readable. His highly un-PC political views may be the reason this three-volume series doesn't get more mention. But it's still in print.
Jerry Pournelle highly recommends Edward S. Creasy's Victorian classic Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World.