Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Beauty And the Sorrow - An Intimate History of the First World War

The famous American war correspondent Stanley Washburn was invited in 1915 to contribute to The Times History of the War. He refused, even though he had been asked by none other than the mighty Lord Northcliffe: 'I told him quite frankly that I did not want to write anything during the war which was published under the name of "history", saying that, in my opinion, no one who lived in a campaign could possibly be sufficiently well informed, nor have the proper perspective, to write anything of that nature.' I have had reason to think of Washburn's words on a number of occasions. I am an academic historian by profession but I have also tried my hand as a war correspondent in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and, most recently, in Iraq. As a historian, there have been many times when I have longed to be present where and when events happen, but once I had arrived in, say, Kabul, I discovered the same thing as many other people in the same situations: to be right in the middle of events is no guarantee of being able to understand them. You are stuck in a confusing, chaotic and noisy reality and the chances are that the editorial office on the other side of the planet often has a better idea of what is going on than you do - just as a historian, paradoxically enough, often has a better understanding of an event than those who were actually involved in it. You become aware that distance is frequently the ingredient that makes understanding possible. But distance exacts a price: perhaps inevitably, much of the direct experience is lost.