I’ve been watching some of the debates centred on military history with great interest. The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres (or is it Paschendaele?!) and the release of the film Dunkirk have inspired much navel-gazing and hand-wringing from military historians.
I think it’s fair to say that my thoughts on military history have evolved somewhat over the years. My interest was piqued at a very young age by my family history. Of course I went through the watching-war-films phase, and the button-counting and badge-checking and predictable-self-righteous-indignation-when-something-was-wrong phase.
But over time I think – and hope – that my motivation for ‘doing’ history has grown up somewhat. Accuracy is great, but what does it achieve? Yes, it is misleading if things are wrong, but is it possible to worry far too much about things that are details, and completely forget about the bigger picture? That is, what people are thinking and feeling, and what the bigger lessons of conflict are?
I guess I am quite lucky in that I have been ‘doing’ my history in quite a public way, and I get to interact with a lot of ‘normal’ people (even if that has involved writing books that are longer than a PhD thesis but most ‘proper’ historians would not lower themselves to cite as a source…) But it has reallt reinforced my belief that preaching to the converted on the minutiae is one thing, but making a real difference to people who are not enthusiasts is the real coal face of history.
The more I have worked in public history, the more I have become more and more convinced over time that echo chamber history is virtually pointless – what purpose does it really serve? Recent events – Brexit, for one – suggests to me that history, and especially military history – has failed in terms of its broader role in society. Or, at the very least, history has not exactly covered itself in glory.
If the most important thing about a war film, for you, is that one of the cap badges is wrong or the repro battledress is the wrong shade of khaki, personally I think that you’re kind of missing the point. Anal retentiveness really will have overtaken the bigger issues. It reminds me of an account I read of the BEF in 1939-40. Apparently Lord Gort issued numerous orders regarding uniforms and standards of dress, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Guardsman. Yet sartorial elegance did not stop the debacle that led to Dunkirk.
I think the crux of all history is that what you do is affected very much by why you do it. If your primary interest is checking cap badges and counting buttons and then getting smugly outraged when not everything is completely right, chances are you’re probably less worried about what effect your work is going to have on people. Which does lead me to wonder if some historians really aren’t all that fussed about what effect their work has. After all, there are plenty of supposedly influential academic tomes that retail at £80 and have probably sold four or five copies, and can only be found in impenetrable libraries somewhere. What effect is that kind of history really having on anyone? Yet I have also seen plenty of sneering posts on twitter bemoaning arts projects, interpretive dance, and well, anything that isn’t either a book or a lecture. Aside from showing a complete lack of understanding of the modern world and the potential to reach new audiences, it seems possible to me that many enthusiasts would not be unhappy if militaty history stays in a position where they could bemoan the lack of interest of the general population, but they can also also smother the field so that said population are less likely to become interested in it. Schrodingers geek, you might describe it as.
To put it quite bluntly, I started out on the path of military history because of my family history. That family history tells me quite unequivocally that war is pretty awful, and really, isn’t that the whole point of military history, letting people know that war is a god-awful business? To be quite blunt, aside from making sure that something does not look completely ridiculous, I’m really not all that fussed about counting badges. However, if something I write or a display that I put together makes people go away and think something or feel something, that’s an outcome I can feel proud about.
The centenary of the Great War does feel like a missed opportunity in some respects. Not, I hasten to add, to just re-energise interest, but for military history as a concept to take a deeper look in the mirror. Maybe the nature of military history in 2017 is the problem. Caught between the ivory towers of academic military history on the one hand and the geekier end of the spectrum, there is more than ever a need for a middle way that takes into account the nature of the world we live in today, and the needs of the people who live in it.
For that to happen all parts of the field would need to take a hard look at themselves. It would require less factionalism between sectors, and academics, museum professionals, enthusiasts, tour guides and broadcasters. Getting away from secret societies and closed shop conferences and journals that won’t acknowledge your existence if you are not a PhD. Ironically, I think these kind of factors that have been in evidence during recent debates, are also part of the problem. And, even more ironically, military historians are showing signs of fighting todays problems with yesterdays tactics.
But most of all, thinking long and hard about why we do military history, and what it is all for.