Documents, Talk and Hard Objects

Military history, or any other kind of history, is mostly just words. What we learn reaches us through the filter of someone else’s words—published, unpublished or spoken. Words in print have some authority, but the fact of print does not mean the information is entirely true. Much depends on who wrote an account, when and why—and who published it, when and why.

Spoken words are more problematic. People can and will say anything. People stretch the truth, distort the facts and lie, even in this age of ready recording. That’s not new: People likely lied in 1066, in 1519, in 1812, in 1914, in 1939 and in 2001. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate, and oral histories can be fabricated. Recently we rejected a lively article because it was solely the words of an individual who (purportedly) lived through the events, unsubstantiated by any other source. The account may be true, or it may be a fantasy, but there is simply no way to verify it. Entertaining, yes; history, no.

Military history, fortunately, can lay claim to a special source of hard facts: artifacts. Unlike political or social history, much of military history rests on a wealth of hardware, from swords to plowshares, that has survived the ages. Objects establish truth: We can be sure that Tutankhamun had war chariots, not from written accounts but because actual chariots were in his tomb. We know how Monitor’s innovative turret was made and how it worked in 1862 because it was retrieved from the Atlantic sea floor and we can examine it today. We can infer other facts from such objects: that Tut’s armies were mobile and highly organized; that Monitor had the advantages of rotating guns and sufficient protective armor. Tangible objects cannot tell us everything about the past and may need interpetation, but they do establish parameters of solid fact. When it comes to history, it’s far better to stand on chariots or turrets than words alone.