Letter from Military History – January 2011

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:

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.

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