Paid Advertisement
Historynet/feed historynet feedback facebook link World History Group RSS feed World History Group Subscriptions Historynet Home page

Letter from Military History - January 2011

By Michael W. Robbins 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: November 03, 2010 
Print Friendly
0 comments FONT +  FONT -

A Fine Mess
In most areas of life, messiness is bad. No one celebrates a messy desk, a messy closet or messy work. And in military-speak, a messy uniform or a messy formation are certain to draw negative reactions from superiors.

But messiness is not necessarily a bad quality in history, including military history. Because human events and interactions are fiendishly complex, interconnected and even chaotic, historical accounts balance on a line of tension between accuracy and order. For the sake of accuracy, to include all the details, nuanced events and subtle connections may render a historical record unmanageably messy. But the more structure, neatness, generality—order—is imposed on those events afterward, the less accurate the historical account.

One might argue that people in all times and places feel what poet Wallace Stevens termed "a blessed rage for order," and certainly historians see their fundamental task as imposing some sense of order on what are almost always chaotic and ambiguous events. That's an understandable human impulse, perhaps driven by fundamental fears of the dangerous consequences of disorder. Those fears were prominent during the Renaissance and were frequently voiced by Shakespeare; in Troilus and Cressida, for instance, the Ulysses character says:

Subscribe Today

Subscribe to Military History magazine

But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents, what mutiny?
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth?

For historians, the challenge is that in moving from fully detailed (and inevitably messy) historical accounts to a smoother, more generalized popular understanding of long-past events, most details are sloughed off, most actors are forgotten, most subtleties are simplified and much information is simply ignored. So a complex event is oversimplified and thus distorted into misunderstanding. What was once messy but accurate becomes orderly but wrong.

A compelling illustration of that accuracy/order tension is the host of important events, decisions, actions and words of the American Revolutionary War of 1775–83. The simplified version, as popularly understood, is that a whole continent of like-minded, wise, freedom-loving American patriots conducted an exemplary revolution against a tyrant king and his lowlife military machine and ultimately prevailed to the lasting benefit of all mankind.

The messy reality is that the Revolution was rife with internal conflict, and the motives, actions and beliefs of the participants on either side, Patriot or Loyalist, were far more mixed—to put it mildly—than many have long believed.

Leave a Reply

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.

Related Articles

History Net Images Spacer
Paid Advertisement
Paid Advertisement
History Net Daily Activities
History net Spacer
History net Spacer
Historynet Spacer

Which of these wars resulted in the most surprising underdog upset?

View Results | See previous polls

Loading ... Loading ...
History net Spacer
RSS Feed Daily Email Update
History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement
What is HistoryNet? is brought to you by World History Group, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.

If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.

From Our Magazines
World History Group

World History Group Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Achtung Panzer!
Today in History | Ask Mr. History | Picture of the Day | Daily History Quiz | Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 World History Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Advertise With Us | Subscription Help | Privacy Policy