Military history is a humanities discipline within the scope of general historical recording of armed conflict in the history of humanity, and its impact on the societies, their cultures, economies and changing local and international relationships.
Professional historians normally focus on military affairs that had a major impact on the societies involved as well as the aftermath of conflicts, while amateur historians and hobbyists often take a larger interest in the details of battles, equipment and uniforms in use.
The essential subjects of military history study are the causes of war, the social and cultural foundations, military doctrine on each side, the logistics, leadership, technology, strategy, and tactics used, and how these changed over time. On the other hand, Just War Theory explores the moral dimensions of warfare, and to better limit the destructive reality caused by war, seeks to establish a doctrine of military ethics.
As an applied field, military history has been studied at academies and service schools because the military command seeks to not repeat past mistakes, and improve upon its current performance by instilling an ability in commanders to perceive historical parallels during a battle, so as to capitalize on the lessons learned from the past. When certifying military history instructors the Combat Studies Institute deemphasizes rote detail memorization and focuses on themes and context in relation to current and future conflict, using the motto "Past is Prologue."
The discipline of military history is dynamic, changing with development as much of the subject area as the societies and organisations that make use of it. The dynamic nature of the discipline of military history is largely related to the rapidity of change the military forces, and the art and science of managing them, as well as the frenetic pace of technological development that had taken place during the period known as the Industrial Revolution, and more recently in the nuclear and information ages. An important recent concept is the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) which attempts to explain how warfare has been shaped by emerging technologies, such as gunpowder. It highlights the short outbursts of rapid change followed by periods of relative stability.
Popular versus academic military history
In terms of the history profession in major countries, military history is an orphan, despite its enormous popularity with the general public. William H. McNeill points out:
- This branch of our discipline flourishes in an intellectual ghetto. The 144 books in question [published in 1968-78] fall into two distinct classes: works aimed at a popular readership, written by journalists and men of letters outside academic circles, and professional work nearly always produced within the military establishment.... The study of military history in universities remains seriously underdeveloped. Indeed, lack of interest in and disdain for military history probably constitute one of the strangest prejudices of the profession.