Repeat the Question
MYSTERIES AND HISTORIES have much in common. One of the important keys to understanding what really happened, in both genres, is asking the right question: Who stood to gain the most from the victim’s demise? Where does the money come from that funds this illicit enterprise? When clear answers to such questions can be found, the mystery is on the road to resolution.
How was it that Company A of the U.S. Army’s 9th Armored Division was able to cross and secure the intact Ludendorf Bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, Germany? Why did Union major general Ambrose Burnside continue to order suicidal attacks by brigade after brigade at the impregnable Confederate defenses on Marye’s Heights? What was he thinking? How did those P-38 pilots from Henderson Field manage to intercept a Japanese bomber carrying Isoroku Yamamoto at Bougainville and shoot it down, killing the admiral?
Asking the right questions can fill in the blanks and lead to a coherent and accurate historical account. But there remains an important distinction between solving a mystery and completing a historical narrative: A mystery once solved tends to stay solved, with the answers valid for all time.
But history is dynamic. The answers to those right questions can—and often do—change over time. As every archive rat knows: Documents get declassified. Old letters that shed new light on events and characters get discovered. Hitherto unknown battlefield evidence is literally unearthed. Forgotten photographs come to light. So, contrary to the common stereotype of history as merely a province of the static past, it changes all the time.
As William Faulkner famously observed (in his Requiem for a Nun): “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Asking the right question is an essential step toward truth. But for historians, there is another step: Repeat the question.
—Michael W. Robbins