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The Historian's Conscience

Bought a book entitled The Historian's Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History, a collection of essays written in response to a series of questions put to various historians. None are military historians, who are outside the mainstream, but I thought that I would respond to the questions myself.

1. How do historians choose their histories? Are they attracted to congenial subjects? What sort of emotional investment do they make in the subjects they choose to study and how do they control their sympathies?

Harking back to an earlier post on why I choose to write on Australian Military History, it because of my location and access to sources. Yet there is undeniably an emotional attachment to my subject. On The Old Thesis, everything was, as this time, from an Australian point of view but I put some care into being fair to the enemy. Too many accounts spread credit for victories around while blaming defeats on uncontrollable variables. So I made certain to say that at Gallipoli, the Turkish Army fought hard and was the better one on the field on the day. In this sense, this has carried across into my current work but there is a difference. My own attitude remains that the war was absolutely just, that the Japanese, whom I refer to as "the enemy", were despicable and measures taken to kill them in what became increasingly lop-sided actions as the war marched to its conclusion were absolutely justified. I leave it to someone else to take my work and contrast it with the Japanese, who are inaccessible to me. However, I have made efforts to fully understand the point of view of our American allies and my text incorporates what I believe to be a balanced account of General Macarthur's strategy and operations. 

2. What balance do historians strike between history as objective knowledge and history as a form of empathetic understanding?

Writing about the Great War, I put some effort into understanding the thinking of British generals who were unable to break away from their preconceptions, not just about tactics but the world in general. Still, I regarded and classified these thought patterns as degenerate memes and warned against promotion of people with certain attitudes unconducive to adaptation to technological change. 

3. On what basis can historians claim such understanding? What are the responsibilities that arse when they make the imaginative leap into worlds other than their own? How do they deal with those versions of the past that are powerful markers of present identities?

The imaginative leap is therefore not really there for me. This is, after all, my country, my people and my army. The people I and writing about and their attitudes are very familiar to me. I have known them all my life. I can still talk to some of them today. 

I ran into trouble with remarks about the British Army in the Great War. In recent years there has been a movement to "rehabilitate" the British Army in that war and, in very recent times, in the Second World War as well. As a result, I was accused of "Australian exclusivism" and, notwithstanding unpalatable facts, should have taken a kinder, gentler approach to the British Army.

4. How are historians constrained in their investigations? What sort of obligations are they under to bodies that sponsor their work, or those that control access to information? The practitioners who undertake commissioned history as a professional activity have developed codes of ethics, while research agencies and universities impose ethical requirements on academics: do these help or hinder the historian?

I am under no obligations to the University. Copyright on my work is mine. I took care to ensure that use of computer equipment did not cause the company I work for to have any claim on it either. There is no obligation towards the archives where I obtain my sources and they have routinely declassified material for me. The University does have certain ethical guidelines that have to be followed but none affect me. Military historians, for example, seldom do much work with animals. 

5. How do historians deal with unpalatable discoveries? Do the conventions of quotation and citation provide adequate warrant for the integrity of their writings?

Quotation and citation provide little help, while consuming a great deal of effort. There were parts in the Great war thesis that I still misunderstood or got wrong. The trick while working with the less well known and well documented Second World War seems to be to keep digging until you are satisfied.