This month I had an email exchange with several of The Usual Aviation History Suspects, all of whom are published in magazines and books (some with hundreds of articles and/or scores of books), many also being high-time aviators.
The question arose: where’s the next generation of aviation historians?
I see the same discussion about The Next Generation of Historians in naval circles--somewhat less in military circles. When I spoke at Naval War College c.2010 the director, a PhD, said that the best work he sees is mainly from people without letters behind their names. He meant Jim Hornfischer, Jon Parshall, Tony Tully, etc (John Lundstrom has a master's but I include him in that company.)
There'll always be new subjects for aviation and military history--not necessarily for naval. My 2009 rant in Naval Institute Proceedings, addressing the Post-Naval Era (begining1946) noted that there simply isn't much to write about, with very few exceptions such as the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. Several years ago Naval History and Heritage Command began focusing on post-Vietnam material, and that's fine--every era deserves to be documented--but does anyone envision an Ambrosian best seller on that period? Me neither.
It’s intriguing to contemplate how long it takes to produce an historian, "irregardless" of credentials. Colonel Walter Boyne of course had a full Air Force career beforehand; Dr. Richard Hallion is one of the very few who built a career in the history business--and thank goodness he did. His work speaks for itself. (Reminds me that of all the writers I've known, exactly one set out with "malice aforethought" to become a specialist journalist--aka Gun Writer. And he did, but it took years.)
My closest aviation colleague was Jeff Ethell: we came up the same way despite much different origins: USAF and agriculture. He was born into a large pool of sources and potential subjects but expanded far beyond, and of course he flew a wide variety of military aircraft. IIRC his first book was on the Me 163, using German sources. He died flying a P-38 in 1996, age forty-seven.
I was first published in 1964, age fifteen, writing a national column on drum corps activities, but didn't make my first magazine sale for another six years. My first book was published in 1976, so that's--what? Six to thirteen years from start to Published Author, depending on how it's reckoned.
Occasionally I'm asked if it's necessary to be a pilot to write aviation history. The answer is No (John Lundstrom, Chris Shores, etc), but it certainly helps. I was BLESSED to grow up flying airplanes older than I was, from 16 onward. But how many youngsters today ever have that opportunity, that immense advantage?
As Flight Journal editor Budd Davisson properly notes, the WW II/Korea crop has all but dropped off the scope, and Vietnam is falling farther astern every day. That's a separate subject, but even though the global war on terrorism is open-ended, providing generations of potential interviewees, there’s little opportunity for individual focus as per WW II. The GWOT cannot produce individuals exerting strategic influence such as dive-bomber pilots Wade McClusky and Richard Best of Midway fame. And we need to admit that the first full history of the GWOT may not appear until the 22nd century—or later.
Meanwhile, what of sources? The hugely successful military historian Rick Atkinson doesn't interview WW II vets because of The Memory Thing, preferring to deal almost exclusively with original/primary sources. I understand that view, but primary sources often-often are incomplete, contradictory, or just plain wrong. A blending of archive and interviews definitely-definitely is mo' bettah'
My last few books all were published when fewer than half the contributors were deceased. The Marine Corps squadrons book last year had no remaining WWII flying leathernecks whom I knew well, and only one I'd ever known still lived. In fact, this week I dined with Colonel Bud Anderson, 8th Air Force triple ace who's the only WW II combat airman I know well anymore. He'll be 94 next month.
As for WW II subjects, I'm just about “Winchester,” out of ammo. Over half of my forty or so nonfiction titles are entirely or largely of that era, and today newly-minted at 67, there's almost nothing else I want to say about it. Of course, that could change if the money's right, but I don't see/scent anything approaching. I'd like to return to fiction, and not just aviation/military fiction, but it's a tough-tough market.
My experience is that you don’t go out looking for nascent historians--you find them wherever they grow. Two of my acquaintance were youngsters when they started, including the late Keith W. Noland who emerged as a Vietnam War historian at age 18. I was pleased to lend him encouragement that he probably didn’t need, and he died after a dozen books at age 45.
Soon-to-be Dr. Martin K. Morgan was another self starter. Now a frequent writer, TV commentator and battlefield tour guide, he says, “I do know several young guns in Europe (mainly Dutch) who will probably write books that contribute meaningfully to the field eventually, but they are not in the USA. I don't have anyone who is an apprentice to hand the baton over to, and I hope that situation changes. Maybe somebody will emerge some day, but I'm just not seeing it happen.”
Sothen: whither the next generation of aero historians? Walt Boyne says that it takes dedication as well as talent, in that order—and he’s right. IMO historians cannot be grown; they must be self-starters. At one point I wondered about Space History but obviously that subject dead-ended of its own accord. I just re-read The Right Stuff over a couple of months. It’s first-rate in nearly every regard, but I do not envision a public market for The Definitive History Of The Mercury Program. Maybe there's a boffo book in Apollo, but that's one book on one program: eleven flights in four years. IMO, Space is not the New History Frontier.
We can encourage and assist the self-starters, but we can't produce them. So I fear that we may be seeing the end of the line....