by Matthew Ford and James Kitchen
Military history sells. The British public alone spends around £60 million a year on it.[i]
But the voracious consumers of the subject have little appetite for understanding – or influencing – its production. And this is dangerous. For Chilcot not only exposed the fact that Government had failed. The enquiry also demonstrated the dangers in creating myths about the effectiveness of Britain’s armed forces, myths that can only be exposed by promoting critical thinking about British military history.
It’s understandable that the public’s interest in warriors and warfare is not matched by a concern for the structure of archives and the ways that documents are managed and accessed. And yet the process by which certain documents are kept while others are destroyed is deeply important for the study of the past. This has been spelled out in recent high-profile court cases relating to abuses (both alleged and upheld) by British troops in Malaya, Kenya, Northern Ireland and Iraq. All of these cases involved detailed archival work both by those attempting to prosecute the government and those seeking to defend it. This has resulted in important discoveries, such as the Hanslope Archive, a repository of 600,000 previously classified documents, some of which were used by lawyers seeking compensation for tortured Mau Mau.
Historians, of course, have a responsibility to hunt down and follow the evidence. When it comes to war, however, it can be hard to offer critical and constructive analysis. This is not just the result of having incomplete access to the historical record. Just as important is the context in which researchers are working. Considering the death toll and the emotional and psychological turmoil it produced, it can surely be no surprise that the official histories of the First World War took so long to complete. Nor can it be a surprise that the conclusions reached continue to be contested.
That said, when it comes to the armed forces, if the public is to have effective and democratically accountable policy-making, then those studying the military and its history need opportunities to come to independent conclusions. Good strategy and good governance demand that the historical record is interrogated in ways that facilitate interpretation without leading discussion away from subjects that the armed forces prefer to avoid. This is a particularly acute problem when society’s losses have been high, soldiers have behaved illegally or a victory is pyrrhic in nature.
Only by creating an intellectual environment in which citizens can question and challenge established military narratives can the public come to a more meaningful explanation of war’s place in society. And if these interpretations are to have any impact then the public needs to have a sufficient understanding of and engagement with the military. However, recent UK surveys demonstrate that, although the public hold the services in high regard, few have had direct experience of being in the armed forces. Consequently most public understanding of the military is drawn indirectly from war memorials, Armistice Day and the copious number of war related programmes on the TV.[ii]
Because of this, military history is critical in shaping the public’s perception of the armed forces. Interrogating the historical record in a timely fashion is, therefore, crucial. It has taken over 100 years for scholars to come to a more balanced reckoning as to the consequences of the Great War. This is too long to wait. Military historians must speed up their work if they are going to have any meaningful impact on public discussions. Compared to the US Strategic Bombing Survey, which was published only four months after VE Day, it could be argued that even the Chilcot Enquiry, coming out 13 years after the start of Iraq War, took too long to report and so will struggle to affect public policy.
Of course, writing good history is bound to take time, especially when dealing with sensitive events or legal issues. But it also requires academic departments to recognise the importance of military history and to invest in it. Poor military history can have genuinely damning consequences. So, to allow a narrative to emerge that British counterinsurgency was successful during the Cold War only to discover the weaknesses of the approach while soldiers were deployed in Baghdad and Basra is unforgiveable.
The country now needs scholars who can go beyond placing war in its social contexts. Yes, we need to be attentive to the politics of memory and take the sociology of knowledge seriously, but we also need to extend our analytical skills right down on to the battlefield itself. Academics need to draw on skills that stretch beyond traditional historical methods and archives, supplementing their core skills and theoretical approaches with methodologies associated with forensic computing and electronic data management. Most importantly academics need to take a much closer interest in the document selection policies adopted by The National Archives.[iii] The alternative is that the historical record becomes even harder to reconstruct as officials destroy records without taking soundings as to what may be of interest to researchers in the future.
Military history is of vital importance in shaping the public’s views of the armed forces. In the 1960s, the boundaries of the discipline were redrawn to encourage scholars to study war in its social context, challenging established narratives and trying to improve the health of Britain’s democracy and policy-making. In the 21st century that challenge remains, offering an inspiration for the new British Journal for Military History, the epigraph for which reads: ‘Military history is now too important to be left to the military historians.’[iv]
DR MATTHEW FORD
Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Sussex and Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal for Military History
DR JAMES KITCHEN
Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and contributor the British Journal for Military History
[i] The public spend around £60 million a year for books on military history. Market data provided in private correspondence with Sales and Marketing manager from x publisher, 18 March 2015.
[ii] Hines, L., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., Dandeker, C. & Fear, N., ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom’, Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 1, Iss. 26, 2014.
[iii] The legislative framework makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the Keeper of Public Records to co-ordinate and supervise the preservation and safe-keeping of public records. See Section 2, paragraphs 1 & 2 of the Public Records Act 1958: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/6-7/51. Site accessed 8 July 2016.
[iv] This is Professor Sir Michael Howard’s endorsement of the British Journal for Military History.
This blog was first posted on 19 July 2016 at
Thanks to Matthew Ford for permission to republish.