A Call to Action: Military History of the Global Jihad

I’m off to the Society for Military History’s annual conference in Lexington, Virginia today.  The SMH conference is always well worth attending and it never fails to demonstrate the remarkable breadth of “military history.”  If you want to know about ancient military history, naval operations during the Cold War, King Philip’s War, paramilitary operations, the religious lives of soldiers, or the role of sugar in World War I, it’s here.  There will  be 600+ historians from the US, Canada, Europe, and South Africa in attendance.

What disturbs me about this conference and has disturbed me about other SMH conferences that I’ve attended is that the military history of the Middle East, including of our jihadist friends, is largely neglected.  I think this is something that we should address at the next SMH conferences in 2011 (Lisle, IL) or 2012 (Arlington, VA).  I’ll get to my specific suggestion at the bottom of this post.

It is true that there several papers that appear to bear on the “war on terrorism” are to be presented.  I find the title of Michael Palmer’s paper particularly intriguing.

  • “A Strategy of Tactics: What Population-centric Counterinsurgency Has Done to the American Army”  Gian P. Gentile, U.S. Military Academy
  • “Whirlwind, Whiz Kids, Waziristan, and the Realization of the Airpower Cause”  John  G. Terino , U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College
  • “’No One Put a Gun to Their Head and Forced Them to Come Here’: Representing the All-Volunteer Army in Narratives on the ‘War on Terror’”  David Kieran, Washington University
  • “The Influence of History upon Modern Jihadists”  Michael A. Palmer, East Carolina University
  • “The War at Home: Responding to Terrorism and Racketeering in France during the Algerian Conflict”  Barnett Singer, Brock University

There is also one panel that promises to be extremely interesting in this regard:

“Counterinsurgency Across History” (A Roundtable Presentation)

Chair: H. R. McMaster, U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command


  • Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Center for Military History
  • Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Mark Moyar, U.S. Marine Corps University

Brigadier General McMaster is one of those guys in the military who is not only a great warrior but whose ideas have really mattered.  I briefed him once on the Salafi jihadists’ views on strategy and war and I was really, really impressed with his intellect.  It’s always a pleasure to brief someone like that.  I can’t wait to hear him.

All this said, however, with the possible exception of Palmer’s talk, all of these presentation are about the “war on terrorism” from our side.  However, scholars of modern jihadism have lots of material that is military history.  Most of us don’t think of it that way, however.  Think of it, we know quite a lot about the development of strategic thought in the movement.  Abu Musab al-Suri was, among other things, a military historian within the movement, we know a great deal about the operations of the Arab Afghans during the war with the Soviets.  Jessica Huckabey and I have written an article which is forthcoming in Intelligence and National Security, which discusses the defeats of al Qaida and its affiliates at the hands of Arab security services resulting in a repetitive loss of sanctuary.  A great deal of interesting work could be done about the military history of the GIA in Algeria and the effects of Algerian military intelligence service upon it.  Then, of course, there is the Conflict Records Research Center, which I’m told has been physically established and may be opening within days.  It will eventually hold thousands of previously unseen documents from the jihadists.  Who knows what will be found there?

I do not claim that the study of the Salafi jihadists is only a question of military history.  However, I do suggest that military history–its people, its methods and its ethos–can help us think about certain problems in the field.  And if they can help us, then they should.  They just need to be alerted to the issue.

So, a modest proposal.  I expect to attend the SMH conference next year.  When the call for papers comes out, I’m going to try to put together a panel on the Military History of the Global Jihad.  I’m hoping that some people reading this now will be prepared to help me take this topic to the military history community.  Let’s see what results.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for your post on this more modern military history that is going on. It really is interesting to see what things will be documented and how this will go down in the history books.

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