It has been a while since I have written anything about ethics, possibly because I have run out of thing to say about it. But I think it is worth having another go because I have noticed recently that even writing history is an ethical process, in so far as the historian has to make some decisions about what counts as history for them and what does not.
To try and show what I mean, consider that you are a historian, however amateur, and you are investigating a battle. It would also help if you had a large quantity of time available, which is not normally the case for most of us, but let us pretend that you do.
Firstly, you have to accumulate the data. By this I mean you have to dig through the archives, find documents, track down other sources, go and view that battlefield and so on. You might also want to read some secondary sources, which will guide you in what other people, at least, have thought about the battle and which bits are important, and, hopefully, some more general works about the period, the general political, cultural and social parameters in which the protagonists operate and the structures of society and their development.
That is quite a sizeable chunk of work already, but now it starts to get harder. Firstly, of course, you need to read your sources. And you need to do more than just read them; you need to try to understand each source as a source on its own. What is the viewpoint of this eyewitness? As we have discussed before, this makes a significant difference to the weight we place on a given source and how we interpret it. You get a very different report of the battle of Balaclava if the eyewitness was with the 21st Lancers or brewing tea on the heights.
You also have to try to treat each source on its merits, and not to discount one because of what you have read in another. It is likely that things in different accounts will contradict. At this stage, you cannot really worry about that. Simply, you have to park these concerns on the shelf until a bit later in the process. It is much like science, really; you often get results you do not understand, and have to leave them until you know more, have done more experiments, more theory, more reading, got more understanding.
Now you are hopefully in a position to check over the history of the interpretation of the battle. This might be very simple, because no one is really interested, or it might be very complex. Perhaps the battle is part of the foundational myths of a country; perhaps it is an obscure skirmish the in annals of distant history. Either way, you will, as a historian, have to come to a view of the history of the interpretation. At this stage you will, quite likely become aware of the different viewpoints of different historians. In part, this will be because of the sources they have access to. It is quite possible that new documents have been found, to add to the data pile, since they wrote. But it is certain that they will have particular social, cultural and, possibly, ideological points of view and axes to grind. For example, Dame Veronica Wedgewood is possibly a little biased towards the Royalists in her accounts of the English Civil War. On the other hand, Christopher Hill is the key historian for a Marxist interpretation of the same period. And so on. These issues cloud a historian’s judgement, necessarily.
There are other, more subtle, influences. In her book of essays History and Hope, Dame Veronica describes a trip to the battlefield of Rocroi. Her taxi driver is baffled as to the destination. There are plenty of more recent, more important battlefields nearby to visit. Why this one? But she was writing just after the upheavals of the Second World War. Did she edit the influences out immediately? Did the more recent struggles colour her view of, say, Oliver Cromwell’s regime? These are not questions we can directly answer, but we need to hold them in mind.
Having got so far, it is time for you, as a historian, to try to bring some order. You have a pile of interpreted accounts from the original data. You have also a pile of secondary sources, with some idea of what the historian is trying to say, and the influences and biases they might bring to their works. Now, it is your turn; it is here that ethics creeps in.
Even for a fairly small battle, you are probably going to have far more material than you could possibly fit into a book. There is the background to the war, the background to the campaign, the background to the specific battle. There are orders of battle, the combat histories of the units involved, the biographies of the commanders, assessments of the accuracy and utility of the arms and armour, and so on. You need to make choices as to what you are going to write about. You need to make judgements about what is important and what peripheral.
In these judgements, of course, you are making ethical decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. To take a simple example, a history of the Second World War leaving out the atrocities would be rightly condemned. But, give the limits on the size of a book, how do you achieve a balanced view? Your ethical stance will be coloured by your social, cultural and political views. How do you make honest judgements and assessments? Finally, of course, your aim in writing comes to the fore. If you are writing a military history, how far do you go in describing the atrocities the units involved in the battle may have perpetrated?
I do not, of course, have any answers. But I can say that honesty is the best policy. You can read Hill on the ECW because he is well known to have a Marxist view and analysis. Allowances can be made; his sources can be checked. Arguments about how important the Levellers and Diggers were can be had, because we know why he has highlighted them.
Of course, as wargamers we then have to design our rules, create our scenarios paint our figures and organise our armies, which is another set of problems in itself.