Writing History: Detectives Need Apply

Writing History: Detectives Need Apply

Posted on January 24 by Bernd Horn
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History is not what actually happened, but rather what is recorded to have happened. For numerous reasons, some deliberate, others not, the recording of history can often be a distortion, if not a complete misrepresentation, of the events as they actually occurred. As such, the historian must be a sleuth to uncover, as closely as possible, the actual reality and drivers behind those events. This can be a daunting task as there are a myriad of challenges to obscure the “truth,” especially for military historians.

The official records

A principal barrier is ironically presented in official records such as war diaries, after action reports, situation reports, and battle narratives. Although a potential gold mine of information there can be some serious concerns with these sources. First, the quality of the document rests on the author who may have been tasked to write the respective document as a secondary duty, sometimes a distant second to their primary military responsibility. Therefore, the detail, accuracy, and extent of description varies greatly depending on the individual skill, experience and attitude of the writer. Moreover, these documents all must be signed off by a commanding officer and rare is the individual who puts historical accuracy over personal, unit, or regimental loyalty and reputation.

The eyewitness account

The battlefield viewed from exhausted, hungry, cold, frightened, if not terrified eyes, situated in a trench or advancing along a very narrow lane becomes a very constricted view of events. Add time, after-the-fact reading, and re-circulated war stories about the event, as well as personal considerations, and the account becomes somewhat blurred with regard to what was actually seen or experienced. For example, while in Afghanistan I was involved in an extended firefight. When it was over the historian in me couldn’t help but immediately interview the participants. The raw feedback was that what had occurred was a surprise Taliban attack that caught everyone off guard and resulted in an ad hoc, instinctive reaction to return fire by the various groups in the forward operating base. Yet, within 24 hours of my initial interviews, individuals came to me to qualify some of their statements. The attack now became a predictable enemy action from a location that was expected and covered by fire and observation. Furthermore, the reaction to the onset of the attack was a coolly directed set of orders from the chain of command who to a person reacted with precision and calm.

The memoir

As with the other above mentioned sources, memoirs are a potential treasure trove of information. They allow the reader insight into what a decision-maker, commander or participant were feeling, thinking and experiencing. However, the memoir can also be used as a vehicle to seek absolution, vindication and / or even-up some scores. Again, it’s the extraordinary person who publicly will declare “Wow, did I ever shit the bed on that one.” More often than not, the memoir is their history, emphasizing their important role in the recorded events, importantly, as the author wants people to remember it. For example, in writing the history of 1 Canadian Parachute Battalion, my co-author and I found that the first history written by the directorate of history at the Department of National Defence relied heavily on a memoir written by a sergeant in the unit. Subsequent narratives quoted the original DND history or the memoir itself. The accounts, now repeated by a number of different historians, became de facto facts. We found it strange that the sergeant in question, a section commander, seemingly was in the lead for every major event that transpired. We found his consistent presence in this role strange and contrary to our military experience. “Lead” is always rotated within a platoon, company, battalion, brigade. So it just didn’t make sense. When I spoke to the individual and brought this discrepancy to his attention, he quickly admitted that his “memoir” was actually written originally for his grandchildren and wasn’t exactly 100 percent factually accurate. He added that he was surprised that so many people had shown interest in it without ever even asking him how it had come to be. In addition, in writing the First Special Service Force history we consulted close to a dozen unpublished memoirs from Force members. It was amazing how similar they all were. Although written by individuals from different regiments and different rank levels, the stories were almost identical. But, again, after over 50 years of reunions and story retelling, it often becomes a blur and someone else’s story becomes someone else’s experience. Moreover, inaccuracies are repeated giving the impression of a factual event.

Human behaviour, that volatile and unpredictable factor, adds another barrier to writing history. People are often unpredictable, bound by emotion and often capricious in their decisions and actions. This element always represents a wild card in deciphering events and the catalysts behind them. As such, the historian must try to factor in personalities and human behaviour into what prompted individuals to act as they did. In this vein, when writing military history the lack of military experience can be a disadvantage. Military culture, bureaucracy, process, understanding the differences in rank (i.e. mentality, behaviour, attitudes, etc), experience on operations and in operational settings, all provide context and understanding of how and why decisions / actions are taken. Ironically, however, military experience can also be a disadvantage as it can create a filter through which every decision and action is seen, thus potential skewing true understanding as well.    

Historical interpretation

This last land mine for the historian that I will briefly mention. Personal experience, skill and knowledge play a huge part in the deciphering of history. The trained historian is fully aware of research methodology and has an array of historical knowledge that helps to make sense of records, actions and events. But, importantly, this knowledge does not limit biases and personal likes and dislikes from shaping a historian’s perceptions. Personalities, intrigue, political context, working in alliances and coalitions (and all the nuances that go along with that) all have an impact on decisions and events. Often, individuals, particularly those who focus strictly on what a written document seemingly states, fail to account for the context and / or the importance of personalities. In addition, it is not uncommon for some who write history to develop a thesis and then try and shape (if not hammer) “evidence” / research to support their theory. That is why checking sources is so critical in evaluating whether a historical account is credible or not, is so important. Do the sources actually exist? And, do the sources quoted actually support what is written?  

In the end, writing history requires some serious detective work. The Holy Grail is to factually provide an accurate account of what actually happened, and how and why it occurred as it did. The reality, however, is more often than not, trying to get as close as humanly possible to the ground truth of what transpired. The challenges in this process, however, should never be forgotten by the writers of history or their consumers.

Bernd Horn

Posted by Dundurn Guest on April 19, 2016
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Bernd Horn

Colonel Bernd Horn is a retired Regular Force infantry officer and military educator. Dr. Horn has authored, co-authored, and edited more than forty books, including A Most Ungentlemanly Way of War: The SOE and the Canadian Connection and No Ordinary Men: Special Operations Forces Missions in Afghanistan. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.