Skip to main content
John Hall
Caption: John W. Hall, Ambrose-Hesseltine Associate
Professor of U.S. Military History
(photo courtesy UW Madison)
In some ways, the average working day of John Hall (M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’07) as an Army officer is not unlike his workday as a professor of Military History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, Hall was placed on active duty last August to work in the Pentagon as an historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The History Office of the Joint Staff asked Hall to write the official history of the Pentagon’s war against violent extremism. He will trace the development of counter-terrorism policy from the 1990s to the present. Hall is writing a history that is still unfolding, so he gathers evidence by not only researching at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, but also by observing meetings among senior Pentagon officials. Because Hall’s official history will consult documents considered “top secret,” it won’t be publicly available in its entirety.

Although Hall has only worked in the History Office for a short time, he already recognizes that his colleagues are committed to producing serious official histories. “Official history can have some negative connotations that go along with it, and in some instances, that’s certainly warranted,” Hall explained. “None of the work that we do is designed to tell a flattering story, necessarily, of what the U.S. military has done in the past, or what the Joint Chiefs of Staff in particular has done. The principal function of the History Office is to provide critical, incisive historical perspectives to inform contemporary decision-making and to shed historical light on challenges that the Joint Staff and its leaders are confronting on a regular basis.”

Sometimes, urgent requests from the Joint Staff interrupt Hall’s research for his official history. “If there’s something that you might read about in the news, be it a contemporary security challenge or issue, typically a senior leader within the Joint Staff wants to know the historical backstory to that issue and wants to know if there are potentially historical episodes that may have any relevance to goings-on at present.” Hall said. “We’ll write, then, point papers and special studies that are designed to provide that historical perspective.”

Hall’s research on the origins of contemporary policy takes him beyond his formal academic training. At UNC-Chapel Hill, he worked with specialists in American Indian history, including Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, and with historians of the early American Republic, including Don Higginbotham, Richard Kohn, William Barney, and Joseph Glatthaar. Hall’s dissertation, which became his book Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War (Harvard University Press, 2009), was an American Indian military history focused on the territory that would become his home state of Wisconsin.

The position with the Joint Chiefs is not the first time that Hall’s military and academic careers have intersected. He came to UNC for graduate school after the Army selected him for Advanced Civil Schooling. After completing his M.A., he taught at West Point for three years while writing his dissertation. Recently, he worked remotely as a historian for the U.S. European Command.

Hall’s position in the History Office of the Joint Staff will last only a few years. After that, he will return to teaching fulltime at UW-Madison. Yet even from the Pentagon, Hall continues to fulfill obligations to his home institution and the historical profession. He is currently teaching a graduate seminar over Skype, and he was elected Vice President of the Society for Military History for two years. From afar, he is also working with colleagues at UW-Madison to create a War in Society and Culture program, which is modeled after UNC’s Peace, War, and Defense program, among others.

Hall sees his time on active duty as contributing to, rather than detracting from, his career as a historian. “My expertise is going to remain in the borderlands of American Indian and U.S. history in the era of the early Republic, so I’m interested in the opportunity to perhaps broaden the topics on which I might write, but I think the real dividends, for the War in Society and Culture program and the students who are in it, will be my breadth of experience in more contemporary affairs.”

–Aubrey Lauersdorf

Comments are closed.