Monday, October 18, 2010

Card-carrying experts

There has been a lively discussion on the H-WAR list over the past few days about whether journalists "ruin" military history.

H-WAR is one of 100 or so interactive discussion lists on the H-NET website devoted to various disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, and it's downright lousy with academics — members of that professional guild that as a rule guards its turf more assiduously than a moose in mating season. True to form, a few of the card-carrying certified PhD authorized expert historians who weighed in offered the standard supercilious assessment of mere writers who attempt to venture into their rarefied precincts:

far too often journalists produce shoddy, sloppy work. . . The real danger is that too often journalists create a narrative of the event that gets seared into public memory, usually an inaccurate, simplistic narrative. This then becomes the dominant narrative that historians struggle to overcome and reverse, rarely with much success.

But it was striking that this view was very much in the minority; much more typical was what another PhD military historian, one who teaches at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, had to say:
Journalists who venture to write history, or more specifically military history, have — on the whole — done the reading public a huge favor. Their biggest assets are their rather finely honed investigative techniques and instincts along with a real ability to communicate in writing. . . . I for one am glad to have journalists involved — they not only provide the framework for further analysis but they are often the larger reading public's conduit into military history. 
This actually follows very closely a rule that I have observed for some time. I have written as a journalist about a wide range of topics over the years, and almost without fail, the more technical, difficult, specialized, recondite the field, the more its practitioners welcome "outsider" non-specialists writing about it. Within the sciences and social sciences, the subatomic physicists, engineers, and linguists have been unfailingly encouraging and polite and generous and full of praise for the result; the cell biologists and geneticists somewhere in the middle; the ecologists and psychologists hands down the worst.

Likewise, in my forays into writing history, the professional historians who dealt with more technical matters like intelligence, codebreaking, and to an only slightly lesser extent military history have uniformly treated me like a colleague from the start. (Dick Hallion, the U.S. Air Force's chief historian — a PhD historian and author of many well-regarded books on aviation and military history — went out of his way to pooh-pooh the very idea that there was anything terribly hard about his field; he airily assured me it would take me "six months" to get up to speed on the literature. He also could not have been more kind, helpful, and supportive to somebody who basically just showed up on his doorstep naively announcing he planned to write a book covering the entire history of a subject that Hallion himself had devoted his entire professional life to studying.)

The Tudor historians I ran into while writing my book on Sir Francis Walsingham were a distinctly mixed crowd, some being warily helpful and others unmistakably hostile; the most clannish and condescending (and in some cases downright insulting) by far were the American and Southern historians.

Some of this of course is that practitioners of obscure disciplines are just so happy anyone notices their existence at all that they are thrilled with the attention and the company. But much more I suspect is simple protectionism: the nuclear physicists know that a popularizer is no threat to their livelihood. The more a field is open to anyone who can read and write plain English, the more its professional occupiers take refuge in credentialism and mystification to hold their fort.