Interesting Discussion at H-CivWar

Thanks for posting this, David. I found the discussion worthwhile and honest. But I feel compelled ask one question: did Thucydides ever do this sort of self-examination? Did Livy? Did Herodotus?

Of course not. Or not that we could ever know. So, I suspect that with all our doubts, most practicing historians today are doing better than those guys -- even if we have to admit, they probably did the best that they could.

For my part, I'm not a practicing historian, but I dip my toes in historical waters through writing book reviews, and a few essays published in online military history websites. And I do anguish over everything I write that will see the light of day. I think most people I know who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) do the same. And because, when it comes to history, we weren't there, you may be justified indulging in some informed speculation.

These days it is easy to do the right thing: have web pages on which you acknowledge errors in your books. That is what I do, and I consider myself fortunate that for my recent books the errors I reveal are very minor. I am a bit nervous that when Lien-Hang Nguyen's long-delayed book on the Tet Offensive finally comes out, it may reveal that I got something seriously wrong in my own book on Tet.

But there were ways of doing the right thing before there was a Web. When I was an undergraduate, I bought the book Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, written by one of my professors, Ben Schwartz. My copy included a preface, which Schwartz had added to recent printings of the book, acknowledging that he had been wrong about something pretty important.

I read the discussion thread last night and in my estimation the author and her point may have been overly stated. I have been a research historian focusing on the Middle East for nearly twelve-years now. I deal mostly in Middle East military history and I have been working in both ancient and modern contexts, which as brought me to have a very broad view of the patterns of the region’s military history. As a research historian I am happy to work both on developing original concepts and research as well as seeking to correct past errors or, in better ways, to elevate subjects that have been either ignored entirely or left to collect dust.
Having published journal articles and material for books since 2011, I have long been very familiar with the idea that the rigors of our profession, such as seeking archival material, strong primary sources, reviewing the historiography of a topic (if any), and the final step of peer-review, are in place to ensure that we have done every practical step to eliminate the chance for casual or overt error or ‘getting history wrong’. There is no way that a historian may be able to find every possible source but strong sources and authoritative sources often take that place. If I checked every single possible text on an idea then it would take decades for any of my journal articles or chapters or magazine pieces to make it to print. The use of valid, well founded and recognized sources aids in preventing paralysis by over analysis and overabundant sources. Also, in seeking to go through archives I am also aware that there may be another text “out there” that may challenge or change my conclusions but that is far from getting history wrong.
I recently completed a project that was featured here in this listserv. When I was researching the topic and going through monographic and multiple author sources because there was not much there and I was afraid that my initial thinking was incorrect. I was a bit distressed, then I turned to my archival sources and found a wealth of information and data, in many cases information and data that my book sources would not have had access to due to not being declassified at the time. I was disappointed that there are still archival materials awaiting declassification which may have further aided my writing and eliminated some of that on my part but I am unable to do anything to correct it at this time. So, I must do the best I can with what I have available. Thus, they got the conclusions wrong but not maliciously so, there was no intent to mislead, there was just a strict limitation on what they could access. There may also be too much of the specialization silo phenomenon, not knowing of a text because broad, comprehensive study has been eschewed in favor of narrower focuses, but by-and-large, we have what we have at the time.
The only thing that truly took me aback was the level of overt bias, there was clear evidence of academic high mindedness and treatment of certain sections of the country and even political bias that says that their work is about something more than teaching, it’s an agenda. While some noted this within the string and took exception, the majority of the responding authors seemed to be very comfortable with this bias and that is where we get history wrong, when we cannot allow a text or our research to speak for itself. At the core of our profession is a cry for a rigorous self-examination, an ability to ask whether the conclusion is coming from the text or ourselves. It can happen in any area of history research and the first and last question is, how much of this is me?
As a limited historicist, I strive not to render moral judgements on the past that at least do not fit with the morality of the time or place. If it is a cultural or temporal value that has changed over time, I am not allowed to pass moral judgement on it given that I was not a participant nor can my moral judgement change the past; it is being a judge in hell, all too late and far too little to make a difference. I have been taking some feet wetting classes to get ready for taking PhD courses and my current class is one the topic of asymmetric and irregular warfare. At my present institution I am a bit of a pariah because of this, many of my classmates feel that I am not tough enough on certain issues, I have actually gotten feedback that suggested I was better off at another institute because I was not conservative enough and in other instances just completely ignored. This has caused me to miss my American Military University days and I am applying at other institutions because, I guess in the long run, I might be better off somewhere else.
In conclusion, if we stick to the valid principles of our profession and seek to eliminate bias as much as is possible then we are doing the best we can. While it is helpful to periodically stop and ask, are we getting it wrong, self-flogging and overwrought concerns as expressed in the post tend to detract from more than help what we are seeking to accomplish, as does politicizing history in any direction. History and its re-writing and re-evaluation will not end until the world does.

"I was disappointed that there are still archival materials awaiting declassification which may have further aided my writing . . ." "True that," in today's vernacular. James Bowden is absolutely right that the classified archives kept by many federal agencies could greatly enhance the history we would like to write.

As an intelligence analyst back in the 1980s I published a number of analytical reports on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, "all-source" intelligence but mostly from classified sources. Much of the unclassified reporting on that war was published by the Army's Soviet Army Studies Office (now FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, which relied heavily on what they learned from interviews with the Mujahideen. There were a number of wide discrepancies between what the "Muj" had to say and the extremely detailed, first-hand information from the Soviet side to which I had access. Nearly all of this good information remains classified; when (upon retirement) I submitted a FOIA request for one of my reports, I eventually received, years later, a copy of that document that was mostly black and thoroughly unreadable. Almost thirty years after the fact!

Well, no use complaining. "Sources and methods" will keep a lot of useful historical information in classified channels for many decades to come.

As I am sure Col. Hitchens knows, the British Official Secrets Act is a 30 year ban on release of classified materials. That means a delay for 3 to 5 decades likely. Probably even longer delays exist as well.

Re: Ralph Hitchens first post [Historians and self criticisms] :

'And because, when it comes to history, we weren't there, you may be justified indulging in some informed speculation.'

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I take exception, as lawyers say, to this observation.

I am understanding this exception as, 'Unless you were there and part to History, yourself'.

First hand accounts, results from being part to that History are and should be recognized, as exception [A number of members on H-War have been part to the histories about which they write].

Mr. Bowden has set forth his quite well stated description and knock on recently observed and concluded academic tendencies with this passage from his published HWar response. Have reached some of Bowden's same conclusions, over recent years and consider it a serious matter. Cannot trust sources and substances offered by some, due to such biases mentioned by Bowden's discussion text. It does not improve levels to historical truth nor the levels of society. Book burning by Nazi Germany and bannings were a terrible historical example of truth, such experiences ended thru 20th Century warfare: --

"The only thing that truly took me aback was the level of overt bias, there was clear evidence of academic high mindedness and treatment of certain sections of the country and even political bias that says that their work is about something more than teaching, it’s an agenda. While some noted this within the string and took exception, the majority of the responding authors seemed to be very comfortable with this bias and that is where we get history wrong, when we cannot allow a text or our research to speak for itself. At the core of our profession is a cry for a rigorous self-examination, an ability to ask whether the conclusion is coming from the text or ourselves. It can happen in any area of history research and the first and last question is, how much of this is me? As a limited historicist, I strive not to render moral judgements on the past that at least do not fit with the morality of the time or place.'

I not conclude with Bowden however, that historians have no right to render judgements on changes in 'moral ' positions from different times. [The recent Review on Bernard Fall raises exactly this issue, with its discussed history to 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, seen as practice needed for judging conduct of war, by Fall].

'In conclusion, if we stick to the valid principles of our profession and seek to eliminate bias as much as is possible then we are doing the best we can. While it is helpful to periodically stop and ask, are we getting it wrong, self-flogging and overwrought concerns as expressed in the post tend to detract from more than help what we are seeking to accomplish, as does politicizing history in any direction.'

I would tend toward agreement with Bowden here. Would go further and state 'political history' needs be recognized as 'political history'. Is it possible subterfuge in a history with political prejudices would remain undetectable ? I do not think this can be. Yet history written with obvious biases and prejudices exist and recognizing them is part to any professions' purposes; medical history alone teaches how medical bigotries and prejudices have passed into the night. So does legal. There seems some will always be who cannot rectify nor accept these truths, as modern day equivalents testify; and are still around. such as the 'Flat Earth Society'.