With due respect to whoever wrote history is written by the victors, I'm going to try to explore the question of "who writes history?" from a different perspective.

In today's world of instant history as served up by the likes of CNN, we might be fooled into believing that the process of writing history after all the events in question are over has become, somehow, obsolete. Nothing could be further from the truth. In very real terms, it isn't possible to write a history of anything until well after the dust settles. There are a number of good reasons why this is true including:

  • the significance of the event can only be measured once the impact of the event has been felt.
  • the reasons behind the event are rarely as clearly defined as we believe them to be while the event is underway.
  • how the event fits into what else is going on is unlikely to be apparent until we are able to step back and view the events of the time from a distance.
  • the demands of military secrecy, the fluidity of events, the impossibility of having a neutral observer in all the right places, and more mundane factors like avoidance of embarrassment make it impossible to get any sort of accurate picture of "what happened" while the event is underway or is still part of "recent history".
  • we are unlikely to be able to view the event with sufficient objectivity until well after the event.
  • we are unlikely to be able to find witnesses who can describe the events objectively until well after the event (witness testimony is useful but rarely definitive as it represents recollections; in contrast, documents don't (usually) lie or forget).

Let's take a look at some recent and not-so-recent events to see when their history could (or will) have been written:

September 11, 2001

There is no doubt that the events of 2001/09/11 were major events. There is also no doubt that much has been written about 9-11 and a lot more is yet to come. What should also be clear is that little if any of what has been written to date about 9-11 could be fairly called history (it's current events). It will be a few years before anyone is able to write something that could truly be called a history of 9-11. In addition to other reasons (e.g. still too emotional an event to write about dispassionately), there's too much that we don't know about exactly what happened:
  • how the perpetrators planned and executed the plot
  • who helped them
  • who "looked the other way" (i.e. deliberately kept quiet while knowing actual details about the plot)
  • how the plot was missed by the intelligence and law enforcement services (I'm not suggesting that they screwed up or that they did everything correctly; I'm only saying that we just don't know yet (no matter how much we wish or believe that we do))
and the list goes on!

The Gulf War

The Gulf War happened over ten years ago yet we still aren't able to write any sort of complete history of the war. The reasons for this go beyond not knowing what happened (even though there are bound to be significant aspects of the war which are still shrouded in military secrecy or national security and I'm not just referring to U.S. miltary secrecy or national security here).

Other reasons include:

  • the war, as an event in our time, isn't over yet:
    • although Iraq has been defeated in military terms in the 2003 Iraq War, nobody is likely to argue that the 2003 Iraq War is truly over yet.
    • the U.S. motivation for attacking Iraq in 2003 was clearly at least partially connected to the fact that the elimination of Iraq as a threat to the region was not accomplished during the Gulf War
  • it is still impossible to get any sort of detailed view of events from the Iraqi perspective, the Kuwaiti perspective, the American perspective or the U.N. perspective (to name just a few of the important perspectives).
Need I say more?

I guess that I'll say more: the fact that I've had to almost totally re-write this section on the Gulf War since this w/u was first written in the fall of 2002 strikes me as pretty solid evidence that it isn't time to write a proper history of the Gulf War yet!

The Vietnam War

Some well written histories of the Vietnam War are starting to appear but it's still a little early to be able to say that anything resembling a definitive history has been written or can even be written yet. For example:
  • many of the key human participants are still alive or recently deceased. The risk of being accused of libel or slander or just plain speaking ill of the dead is still too great to expect all of the relevant personal-perspective information to become available.
  • although this is changing, there are still major events surrounding the war, e.g. events of the Cold War, which are still at least partially if not entirely clouded in secrecy.
  • The impact of the war on America is still too great (and emotional) for a history to be viewed as being dispassionate (even if it is!).
  • Vietnam and the West are just starting to develop the sort of communication pathways and exchanges necessary for any real understanding of the context of the war from the Vietnamese perspective (either North or South) to develop.
It's still too early for the Vietnam War.

World War II

Surely enough time has gone by for comprehensive histories of the Second World War to be written? Well, although I'll admit that we may seem to be getting close to that point in time, I'm going to argue that we aren't there yet. For example:
  • The British Government has a policy of keeping certain categories of information secret until 50 or even 75 years after the individuals involved have died. Many of the key military and political leaders during the war havn't been dead for 50 years yet.
  • Some have argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Second World War. That's not very long ago!
  • To take a possibly extreme position, there are still governments-in-exile dating back to the war. For example, check out http://www.net2000.com.au/customers/danzig/index.html to see the web site for the Free State of Danzig / Government-in-Exile. Some might argue that it is time for these folks to give up the fight. Feel free to suggest to them that they give up the fight . . . (and before you do, consider the governments-in-exile of many former Warsaw Pact countries that survived to see their countries freed after 40 years).
  • There's an astounding amount of documentary material about the war. Much of it has never even been looked at since the war and some of it is still secret. Who knows what we might learn once it has all been explored. For example, it would be interesting and possibly even important (from the perspective of understanding "war" and "warfare" as concepts) to really know why Germany hesitated long enough for the miracle of Dunkirk to happen and Canadians are still wondering and learning about why the Dieppe raid happened. Many theories exist on both topics. Some of them are backed up by various forms of documentary evidence. As far as I know, nobody really knows. There are other events, many of which are more important than Dunkirk or Dieppe, which could conceivably be explained by documents that have yet to be studied.
Just to be clear - many good, solid and reasonably comprehensive histories of the Second World War have been written. It just seems a little early yet to claim that the task is done. Lest we appear arrogant, maybe we should give it a few more decades.

World War I

Quite comprehensive histories of the First World War have been written. Putting aside the argument that WWI and WWII were really just one war with a twenty year resting period in the middle, the events of the First World War have been well documented by historians around the world. Still, there are grounds to suggest that a little more time is needed:
Britain recently pardoned some of the men shot for cowardice who were really suffering from battle shock. If we've just come to understand the difference between the two then are we really ready to try to explain why troops did what they did during various events of the war? (I'm pushing things a bit here but could a history of the First World War which described these victims of battle shock to be deserters have been truly comprehensive or even accurate?)
On the other hand:
Britain mourns today (2009/07/25) the death of Harry Patch who was considered by some to have been the last surviving British veteran of WWI (this point of view would seem to ignore another British veteran of the Great War, Charles Choules (108) who lives in Australia. The last surviving American veteran of the war is Frank Woodruff Buckles (108). There are not believed to be any French or German veterans left alive.
Then again . . . what sort of interesting documents will appear as the various 25, 50 and 75 year rules allow even more documents to come to light? Hmmmm . . .
So when DOES it become possible to write a good comprehensive history of an event? That's a pretty hard question to answer (i.e. sorry - no answer today) but one thing should be clear - real history isn't written while an event is unfolding!
Sidebar: I've cheated a bit here. If I had selected less important mid to even late 20th century events then we'd find that many are ready to have comprehensive histories written about them. The existence of relatively recent events that are ready doesn't affect the essential point - if the reporters are still "on the story" then the "story" isn't ready to become the target of a comprehensive history.
Let's consider the (relatively recent) events of September 11, 2001 again - although some of what is being written today about 9-11 is at least a valiant attempt at writing history, much if not all of what is being written today about 9-11 is still news or current events.

The distinction between reporting news, reporting current events and writing history is important:

  • reporting news is describing what is happening now or in the very recent past in order to inform the reader/viewer about what's going on in their world.
  • reporting current events is the process of trying to explain what is going on today or in the recent past by placing it into a context (think of this as the full page articles that you read in the Sunday section of the paper).
  • writing history is the process of trying to describe events in their entirety including what happened, why it happened and what impact it had.
If one is to write history then one must be in a position to at least attempt to answer the big questions:
  • what happened?
  • where did it happen?
  • when did it happen?
  • who was involved?
  • why did it happen?
  • how did it happen? (e.g. external factors and the influence of random events)
  • what impact did it have?
A news reporter's job is to focus on "what", "where" and "who". They don't get paid to figure out "why" and "when" is usually pretty obvious. A current events reporter's job is (arguably) to focus on "why" and/or "how" with a certain amount of effort being expended on the rest of the questions. It is the historian who must step up and deal with them all.

As we struggle our way through the deluge of news and current events reporting, it is important that we keep in mind that history is written by historians.


A side story

Winston S. Churchill had a substantial impact on the 20th century and he found himself making history fairly often. Churchill was also a historian. He wrote many history books including a biography of (his ancestor) the first Duke of Marlborough called Life of Marlborough, a four volume A History of the English-speaking Peoples, a six volume history of the First World War called The World Crisis and a six volume History of the Second World War.

The last two, The World Crisis and History of the Second World War are particularily interesting as Churchill played a major role in both wars. Let's focus on the History of the Second World War books as his role in this war is, presumably, reasonably familiar to all of us (click here for details). When Churchill set out to write his history of WWII, he knew exactly what he was doing (read the Preface to his History of the Second World War if you're in any doubt):

  • he was documenting the war from a truly unique perspective (i.e. providing a service to history that he was uniquely able to provide).
  • he was writing such a comprehensive work that he was essentially setting the context within which the Second World War would be viewed.
  • he was getting his story out before anyone else got around to writing it.
It was precisely because he was a historian that he wrote what he wrote when he wrote it. After all, his earlier works certainly established his credentials as a historian and his place in history was certainly secure! (clarification: his A History of the English-speaking Peoples was published after his History of the Second World War although he'd already published quite a few other histories prior to the war)

One question that comes to mind is "should he have written his History of the Second World War?". The answer is, obviously, YES - if for no other reason than that he had a unique perspective on the war.

Maybe a better question is - "did he write it too early?". Unfortunately, time was running out - he became Prime Minister of Great Britain at the age of 65. If he didn't write it soon after the war ended then it wasn't going to get written by him and he was determined that he was going to write it.

On the other hand, if one asks "was it written too early?" then the answer is quite different. Churchill, of course, knew many MANY secrets about WWII which he wasn't at liberty to reveal when he wrote his history of the war. Consequently, his history couldn't possibly be comprehensive as he had to leave holes in the story or even tell lies to protect the secrets. His histories of the Second World War were written too early in the sense that they aren't as comprehensive or as authoritative as they appear to be or as one might like them to be. Let's be VERY clear: I'm not criticizing Sir Winston S. Churchill here. I'm just making the point that even someone with Churchill's perspective on WWII wasn't able to write a comprehensive history so soon after the end of the war.

One final note: if you've never read any of Churchill's work then you've been missing a real treat. He's an excellent writer who really tells a great story. If you don't know where to start, here are a few suggestions:

  • His A History of the English-speaking Peoples is a delight to read. Even though they're best when read in sequence, they can be read separately. The books in the series are:
    • The Birth of Britain
    • The New World
    • The Age of Revolution
    • The Great Democracies
    Just pick one and read it - you won't be disappointed.

  • His History of the Second World War is truly amazing. His personal perspective on the war allowed him to be both authoritative and comprehensive in a way that nobody else could be (even given the constraints that he was writing under) and his dry wit and humour show through at the most unexpected moments. Now consider that you'll often forget that you're reading his work and almost start to imagine that Winston is sitting in your living room telling you about the war and something else might happen (true story):
    I was reading about one of the battles involving Tobruk and got to an excerpt from a cable which talks about making water dispotable. He then explains (in a footnote) that this means 'to make water unfit to drink' and then he apologizes for the use of the word.

    I stopped and thought to myself - "Sir Winston S. Churchill has just apologized to ME! Wow!"

    The books in this series are:

    • The Gathering Storm
    • Their Finest Hour
    • The Grand Alliance
    • The Hinge of Fate
    • Closing the Ring
    • Triumph and Tragedy

    These books are definitely best read in sequence unless you're already quite familiar with the war. Even if you don't manage to finish them (about 5,000 pages), you'll still enjoy what you read and you'll learn things that you never knew before.

  • Here's one that you will be able to finish - Savrola is his only novel. It's only a few hundred pages long and anyone over the age of about eleven years old who enjoys an adventure story will find it quite enjoyable.
Bias alert: Winston S. Churchill is, without a doubt, my favourite author.


An amusing on-point quote: “History is written by historians, when politicians get involved, it's always bad news” by Manuel Fraga, a minister under Franco and later a senator from the Popular Party (found in a New York Times article titled "Spain’s Dilemma: To Toast Franco or Banish His Ghost?" by Renwick McLean; published October 8, 2006).


P.S. I'm a computer geek who just happens to be interested in history and spends a fair bit of time reading history books and thinking about history.