Saturday, 11 January 2014

History, Wargames and Ethics

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.


  1. Dame Veronica - despite her personal orientation, perhaps - also had a very strong liking for handsome men - check out the selected contemporary portraits in her 4-vol ECW history.

    It is possible in the writing of history to have a mixed approach - e.g. record only the heroics of our lot and only the atrocities of the other lot. This approach is what has limited my reading of English-language WW2 histories in the past.

    I am very impressed by the size of the task facing the historian - thinking further about this post, I see that the writer himself will have a suboptimal level of objectivity, which will affect his choices from, and interpretation of, the (subjective) primary sources and the (influenced) secondary sources, and his work will be judged by the readers in the light of fashion, current attitudes and their own lack of objectivity.

    It isn't going to work, is it? I'm glad they do, but why does anyone bother?

    1. Why bother? I think there are a few reasons. Firstly, given that we have arrived at a given position, one question which presses is "how did we get here?" One of the issues is that different ages approach ancient texts with different questions. Victorian historiography of the Roman Empire is very different from our own.

      Therefore, secondly, possibly historians write about the past to understand the present. Not what we might call 'technical' history, in diving through archives, but in the syntheses which are created, and the arguments that are had. Whether Cromwell was a good or bad egg actually depends, in part, on our view of politics today.

      As for languages, consider writing a history of the thirty years war, and the sheer quantity of languages needed for that: Latin, more or less every current European language except Russian, and probably Turkish too. Probably in slightly archaic forms, as well.

      And for the Dame? Well, she seems to be very fond of Montrose, for no political, military or common sense reason I can think of. Maybe he was just dashing...

    2. My question, "why does anyone bother", was - as you will realise - meant to be whimsically rhetorical. It does seem to me that a great deal of history has been written to support a particular view - maybe that is a historian's job. Maybe it isn't. Maybe even our "no-one-has-ever-been-so-clever-or-enlightened-as-we-are-now" present day historians, whether they realise it our not, are writing primarily to demonstrate their own superiority to the fools who came before. There are axes grinding all around.

      If we read history to get a better handle on what happened, it is difficult to get any degree of certainty that we get an objective presentation. We might even be disappointed or offended by an objective account if it did not sit well with our own preferred version.

      The point? Merely that any claim, by anyone (especially me), that they are in search of the truth is fatuous. We need to read as widely as we think appropriate, from a reading list which fits our purposes, and form our own view.

      My reference to languages has been hijacked a bit by subsequent commenters, which is maybe no bad thing. I can see, for example, that lack of facility with languages (plus a large slice of xenophobia) has contributed greatly to the lack of Spanish input into British accounts of the Peninsular War. My reference to English-language WW2 books simply referred to the dreadful patriotic bias that is prevalent in British and American works until fairly recently. I have heard first hand, unpublished, eyewitness accounts of the goings-on at Dunkirk, and about the wholesale shooting of German prisoners in France in 1944 which do not fit well with the official story. Some of that is starting to sneak its way into written history now - perhaps, as I suggested, the gradual demise in the UK of the heroes, the maligned and the backside-coverers is taking some of the pressure off, at the same time that more, non-British sources become available and acceptable.

      As for Cromwell - there are many people around who - when mention of the ECW comes up - will tell you very quickly that they are passionate Royalists (it's usually Royalists). We could have a good laugh in the pub about why they feel like that, but which monarchy is it that they are in favour of? - the Stuarts? - all kings? - only British kings? - the present British monarchy? - anyone who is not the peasants or the working classes? What is all that about? Do we need to have special history books written for these people, or will the existing ones do?

    3. I think that whimsical rhetoric sometimes conceals a real hard question; why do history at all? Mankind lasted a good many millennia without it, after all. But now we have it, we have to recognise its limitations. We rewrite history for our own times.

      I guess anyone can write biased history; it all depends on the level of bias. My grandfather once told me a story about observing a German officer who had been harassing the field hospital's nurses being injected. There was no fluid in the tube. A few minutes later he had died of wounds. I have no idea if it is a true story or not, nor how I could find out. But I doubt if it is even today in the annals of D-Day....

      Ah, Cromwell. Yes. As someone I know pointed out, most people who would claim to be Royalists would probably have been oppressed by them if they had been alive in the 17th C.

      And anyway, a recent book on political history describes the UK as a republic. Which, from some points of view, it is. Charles I wouldn't recognise the monarchy today.

  2. I think Mr Foy raises on a good point about, for example, English-language sources. As a history under-grad I liked the idea of becoming an academic but felt my lack of language skils would limit my scope for research. How can you expect to get a rounded view if you can't read allied sources let alone opponents'?

    Even the BBC seems to be economical with the way it covers stories, or more particularly, doesn't cover them. I think I know far more about a former racing driver's accident on holiday than I do about dozens of people being blown up in Volgograd.

    1. It is a little worrying, but interesting, to compare the BBC Radio News with the TV version. Although the reports are often the same, the order and focus depends largely on what film is available.

      I guess it is the same for history. Only read English and you will get a certain focus, and miss other stuff out. Certainly you will struggle to see how other people not writing in English came to make their decisions.

  3. I remember reading one book about the Crimea (and I can't for the life of me remember which one) which pointed out that the Russian recollection of the Charge of the Light Brigade was that it was a blistering success which wrecked two Russian cavalry brigades and an artillery battery and that Russian cavalry shunned any encounter with the British cavalry for the rest of the war because of it. It's entered British folklore, of course, as a disaster. Perhaps we never asked for the Russian perspective?

  4. Another, if less spectacular, example of that Chris, is the German view of the Somme. See Christopher Duffy's "Through German Eyes".

    1. I think one issue here is the existence and continuation of 'myth' or folklore. It seems that we like the idea of futile bravery and self-sacrifice. Plus the fact of 'winning' is so difficult to define (I think I wrote about that before, sometime).

      Who won the charge of the light brigade? Who won the battle of Balaklava? Who won the Crimean War? Possibly three different questions (or more) are encapsulated here.

      And similarly with the Somme: 'winning' was probably never an option. Did it mean that the French didn't cave in at Verdun? How exactly can we tell, anyway? History is not science; we cannot re-run the experiment to see if the same thing happens (which is probably just as well).