Terra Nullius | Reading history

Does personal experience humanise history as a discipline that is more than just unfolding of events and its clinical analysis? 

Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, is a colossal piece of writing spanning the author’s 30 year career as a journalist in the Middle East. Fisk’s book takes into account multiple narratives that have framed the contemporary Middle Eastern history and political discourses. His experiences, first person accounts, interviews and access to multiple personalities leads to a strong and passionate historical analysis of a complicated era in contemporary times. The book delves into multiple situations in the middle east– ranging from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Algerian Civil War, Iranian Revolution, The Iran-Iraq War, the American Hostage Crisis in Beirut, the Gulf War of 1991, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 along with many others— giving deep insights of someone who saw these situations actually unravel on the ground.

Reading this book on somewhat recent events, makes one wonder, how does one ever know the fact from its interpretation? When an event unfolds, multiple perspectives seem to explain its sequence, and in such situations, is history, whether contemporary or medieval, a reliable discipline? In an interview, historian Antony Beevor says, “History can only be a branch of literature. It cannot be tested in a laboratory and I don’t believe in the notion of scientific history.” While framing or analysing history, whose account matters and how is one able to clinically differentiate the right from the wrong?

The acknowledgement section of Fisk’s book mentions this when he says:

“I was also faced with the fact that those who did directly assist me in The Great War for Civilisation include the good, the bad and the ugly. Can I place a suicide bomber’s father alongside a Western humanitarian worker, a heroic Iraqi who was tortured after resisting Saddam Hussain’s nuclear ambitions in the same column as a man who handed his unsuspecting pregnant girlfriend a bomb to take into an aircraft? Should the late Margaret Hassan, so cruelly murdered in Iraq, stand on the same page as Algeria’s ‘exterminator’ interior minister?

 The most extreme example of this problem is Osama Bin Laden. In my last two conversations with him, he knew I was writing this book and clearly spoke in that knowledge. So should a man held responsible for the greatest international crime against humanity in the Western world be dignified with an entry?”

Who are the players in defining the narrative of an era and can one hold a judgment against them? Does the personal experience humanise history as a discipline that is more than just unfolding of events and its clinical analysis? Does it make real, the descriptions of characters who shape and mould the world or does it explain their psychology? Does personal experience lead to an authority and simultaneous understanding of history- one that is more accurate and intricate than others? Does it taint the narrative with personal bias’ and partialities?

Reading Fisk’s book made me wonder, how much of our history will be influenced and shaped by journalist and reporters who live through and write about the events happening today. How much will their first hand experience influence their analysis. How will the history of the last five decades, be read three centuries from today?


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.