Now that the Super Bowl is in the past, we can move on and ask ourselves an interesting question: how recent is history? In other words, how far back in the past should a topic be before it qualifies for historical study? In the following essay from History Today, Suzannah Lipscomb asks this very question:
Lipscomb points out that at the 2014 Grierson Documentary Awards, the Best Historical Documentary Prize went to a three-part BBC2 production entitled The Iraq War: Regime Change. Such an award would suggest that the Iraq War has fallen within the jurisdiction of history. Yet history journals would not review Jack Fairweather’s The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan (2014) because they did not believe it was history. So who is right, the Grierson Documentary Awards that gave the prize to The Iraq War or the history journals that refused to review A Good War? Lipscomb strongly believes that Fairweather’s works (he also wrote A War of Choice: The British in Iraq 2003-2009) are history, and she makes the case that events as recent as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be the subject of historical studies. She presents two arguments to support her position. First, Fairweather employed the methodology of history. Second, he could employ this methodology in the first place because these wars (like many other events in the recent past) have produced reams of primary-source material which is the stuff of historical research.
In contemplating this question, One Thing after Another is reminded of many things, including Season 6, Episode 3 of Beavis and Butt-head, entitled “US History” (1995):
If you do not feel like watching this episode because it will somehow lower you in the grand scheme of things, One Thing after Another understands, so perhaps a synopsis is in order. When called upon by his teacher, Mr. Van Driessen, to present an oral report about American history, an obviously unprepared Beavis relates an experience of his that took place the week before. While at a fast-food restaurant with Butt-head, he discovered that if he wanted to stare at girls without getting caught, he could look at their reflections in the window. Beavis ends his story by claiming, “That dinner, um, like, changed my life and stuff. . . . And, like, um, I’ll never forget it. . . . The end.” At the conclusion of this sorry performance (which, by the way, earns Beavis a D-), Mr. Van Driessen asks, “What did your report have to do with American history?” Beavis response is as follows: “It happened last week. . . . And, um, and it was, like, in America. . . . So it was, like, history.”
One Thing after Another does not wish to trivialize this question of when history starts, assign undue brilliance to Beavis and Butt-head, or spend too much time parsing a dialogue that probably isn’t worthy of parsing, but this episode (probably inadvertently) stumbles upon an important criticism of Lipscomb’s position. As we have already noted, Beavis claimed the experience at the fast-food restaurant the week before changed his life (which, of course, is the most pro forma part of his report). Yet, after only one week’s time, how could he know the experience was important let alone how it was important? This dilemma is exactly the one faced by historians attempting to study events of the recent past. While discussing contemporary events like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is it possible for us to understand the nature of their significance? US troops only ended combat operations in Afghanistan in October 2014, and the war still continues. In February 2015, do we possess sufficient perspective to make historical judgments about events that are still unfolding? Or are judgments made in such circumstances more akin to journalism? We may agree or disagree with the decision to go to war in Afghanistan. We may also agree or disagree with the way in which the war was fought. But such agreements and disagreements must remain in some way provisional because we know little about the consequences of Anglo-American intervention in Afghanistan. So long as we remain in this position, it is hard to make historical judgments.
If Lipscomb were to respond to this argument, she would probably claim that history is a conversation and that Fairweather’s contribution is the first installment in that conversation. She does indeed assert that his work “can offer only the first interpretation of the campaign.” Fair enough, but a first interpretation, especially so near the event, suffers from great limitations. In other words, it may be history, but it is a kind of circumscribed history. To use one example, One Thing after Another has read histories of the American Civil War written between 1864 and 1866 (all of which used numerous primary-source documents), and while such works were indeed histories, they were, understandably, not very good. The authors had not permitted themselves enough time to reflect on the events of the war. Moreover, these writers could not judge the war’s significance because they did not know what its outcome or consequences would be (i.e. they had no idea about how Reconstruction would turn out).
Such a response to Lipscomb, however, does not necessarily answer the question of “how recent is history?” Lipscomb seems to detect a kind of inconsistency or confusion among historians who end courses in 1945, 1997, 2000, or 2005. Yet perhaps these varying dates represent a necessary flexibility among historians rather than an inconsistency or confusion. It all depends on the specific narrative these historians wish to relate. Some topics lend themselves to definitive treatment today better than others. For example, a definitive history of the Soviet Union, which dissolved in December 1991, is probably easier to write than a definitive history of the European Union (which is still a going concern–more or less). Will the European Union’s present difficulties become part of a story about challenges surmounted or a narrative that chronicles the beginning of the end? That is not to say that we should not write histories of the European Union, but such histories will be somewhat more provisional or limited than those about entities that met their demise in 1991.
So “how recent is history?” The answer appears to be the usual unsatisfying (but prudent), “it depends.” As for Fairweather’s work, it is history, and it may be very good in its way, but One Thing after Another would like to suggest that it is a bounded history of narrow horizons.