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© 2019 by Zack White and the NapoleonicWars.net team.

A proud coloniser of military history

July 16, 2018

There has been controversy recently in the world of military history.


A well-known, and respected, commentator on military history (who I won’t name out of courtesy) has remarked that military history is being colonised by young researchers who have no experience of conflict.


It is easy for young researchers to be annoyed at what is essentially a deeply patronising slur against their collective intelligence and competence. Truth be told though, being upset by such a remark is as unhelpful as the comment itself.


The suggestion is, of course, deeply flawed. The implication is that only those who have experienced military training, and served in the armed forces, have the necessary qualifications to comment on military history. By extension then, this would suggest that the study of political history should be left to former politicians, or that you cannot be an economic historian unless you have run a business.


That kind of argument looks dangerously like elitism, and risks being socially backward in an age where the only limits to a person’s achievement should be their ability, ambition, and determination to succeed. In fact, political history only being written by politicians would create obvious issues in terms of bias, and people seeking to ‘re-write’ history for their own ends. Fortunately, there is no serious prospect of this happening.


However, this is not for a moment to suggest that ex-service personnel should not write military history, or that they are not capable of making extremely valuable contributions to subject. The experience of serving in the armed forces provides those people with a unique knowledge of the broader attitudes and approaches of the armed forces, which in turn had a significant impact on crucial decisions that were made both in war and peacetime.


Equally though, there are deeper points that the ‘coloniser’ comment fails to recognise. If the purpose of history is to uncover the truth about our past, then the training that ‘academics’ receive to divorce themselves from their emotions and preconceptions is absolutely vital to avoid the writing of biased history, which misinforms the public. Whilst I wouldn’t dream of being so rude or patronising as to suggest that this is something that only ‘academic-historians’ can do, the fact that ex-forces personnel have invested significant periods of their lives in the military system means that it requires a more conscious effort from them.


As a result, the perspective of those without ties to the armed services can be a useful one. It cannot be denied that military historians with a ‘university-based’ background approach the sub-discipline with a different perspective from their ‘forces-based’ colleagues. That does not, however, mean that they are incapable of researching the issues in enough depth to understand the ‘forces perspective’, whilst the fact that, in the course of gaining their qualifications, ‘academic military historians’ have explored social, political and economic history in great depth helps to broaden their view, and approach conflict from a range of perspectives.


It is also worth considering the point that the past is an alien place. Attitudes change over time, and as a result, the military perspective of the modern era is not necessarily the same as the one that was commonplace 200, 400, or 1200 year ago. In truth, then, ‘forces based’ historians are not necessarily any better, or any worse, equipped to explore military history than ‘academics’.


You will notice that I keep using inverted commas to refer to ‘academic’ or ‘forces based’ military historians. This is because these labels are frankly unhelpful. Neither one of these pointless categories can, or should claim dominance over the other. No one should be blind to the fact that we can, and must, learn from each other. Without discussion between these two unnecessarily disparate camps, we stymie the debate which is the life-blood of history.


In December I wrote a post on a related theme to this issue (‘Military History Pride: Breaking the stigma attached to being a military historian). Military history is regarded as the ‘inferior sibling’ of the historical discipline. If it is to emerge into the light, and be accepted as the valuable, sophisticated and fascinating sub-discipline that it is, then these squabbles for ‘ownership’ of military history need to be put to one side.


As I have said before, we are ALL custodians of the past. Our task is to serve the past, and those who forged it, to ensure that their actions are remembered accurately by current, and future, generations. That is what matters. It is only by working with unity, and with mutual respect, that we can achieve that goal.


I can therefore say that I am proud to be one of those ‘young colonisers’. I don’t have military training. But the truth is I don’t need it, because I love my job enough to do my research properly in order to find the truth, and I will work with anyone who can bring us closer to that truth.


If you don’t share that passion, and that vision, perhaps being a historian isn’t for you?

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