Letter From Military History – May 2013

But Is It Good History?

When reading a new book on military history, especially on a well-worn subject like Gettysburg or the Bulge or George Custer, it is fair to wonder whether it is good history, whether it is worth your time to read yet another book on the subject. One smart way to gauge the quality of a new work is to read the parts few readers ever bother to look at: the notes, the sources, the bibliography and sometimes even the acknowledgements. There the author chronicles the research that enabled him or her to write the book.

While examining the lists of sources, ask some questions: How many sources does the author cite? Are all sources books? Were these books written by participants in the events described? Were they professionally reported? How soon after the events were these source books published? Are all the books written from the victor’s point of view?

Among the sources does the author cite official records, like after-action reports and unit histories? Does the author cite periodicals, journals, memoirs and manuscripts? One of the advantages of military history, at least in the modern era, is that most countries maintain a wealth of official records and accounts of events and the participants. Does the author rely heavily on oral histories? If so, perhaps some caution is warranted, as individual memories are fallible, especially if they are the sole sources and if decades have passed since the events. The quality of such sources is an indicator of the accuracy and reliability of the author’s work.

There are many reasons to read and enjoy a new history book. It may be the author is a gifted storyteller with a cinematic eye for scene-setting and detail. It may be the author is presenting the history in order to argue a larger political or strategic point. It may be the author has a beguiling voice that simply carries the reader along.

But with history books the bedrock consideration is that the author has made a serious effort to marshal the facts, to deliver an account of events as accurate as humanly possible at the time it is written, that he has gotten as close to the truth as he could. And the evidence to support that claim lies at the back of the book.

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