The Challenge of Writing Contemporary History

Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies and Vice Principal, King's College, London, is the author of A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East (PublicAffairs, 2008). In 2009 he won the Gelber Prize.

Contemporary history is a challenging craft. Unlike other forms the official archives are usually limited, the actors are very much alive and ready to comment on any misrepresentation, while the subject often remains a matter of current debate and even bitter dispute. In the case of anything to do with the Middle East, and especially recent American policy, where a lot of time and energy is expended in assigning blame for the current mess, historical claims are part of the controversy. Was Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy responsible for the fall of the Shah of Iran? Was the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit only Yasar Arafat’s fault? Did George W. Bush begin to understand what he was doing with Iraq?

A Choice of Enemies started with a simple aim, which was to try to explain what was going on in the Middle East to people who found the situation confusing (in the first instance, my daughter during the 2006 Lebanon war). It soon became apparent that trouble with this simple aim was that the story was very complex. There were many distinct but intertwining strands, and that one—Iran, Iraq or Israel—could not be understood without reference to the others. The other minor difficulty was that while I have always followed Middle Eastern affairs closely in no sense could I claim to be a Middle Eastern specialist. On the other hand I have long worked on American strategy and foreign policy. As the American role was a common theme among the different strands it seemed sensible to tell the story as a problem in American foreign policy.

The next problem was where to start. The common punctuation points in international history are the ends of The First World War in 1918, The Second World War in 1945, and The Cold War in 1990 and then the start of the “war on terror” in September 2001. If anything the first of these was the most appropriate, because of the impact of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but that risked rendering the whole project unmanageable. The next two seemed too European in their focus while 2001 was too recent. I wanted to give the fight against al-Qaeda some context. I decided instead to look at what had been going on the region and it was soon clear that the events of 1978-79 worked best. This was a momentous period, encompassing the Camp David summit and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the Iranian Revolution and the later seizure of diplomatic hostages in Teheran, and the attempt to impose communism on Afghanistan culminating in the Soviet invasion of December 1979.

Not only are their clear links between the events of this period and those of the present day, but more generally this can now be seen as a critical transitional period. The secular, pan-Arab movement, set in motion by Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s (what I call the first radical wave) was about to enter its terminal decline. This was marked by the readiness of Nasser’s successor President Anwar Sadat to work closely with the Americans and deal with the Israelis, as well as the in-fighting among the factions that made up the Palestinian Liberation Organization and between the two Ba’ath regimes of Iraq and Syria. At the same time Islamism (the second radical wave) was beginning to make its mark, most notably in its Shia form, with the Iranian Revolution, but also in its Sunni form, as the Muslim Brotherhood began to reassert itself. It was also a transition period in American foreign policy. Now that the United States had left Vietnam and was friends with China, it was Middle Eastern issues that began to dominate foreign policy and provide the setting for the use of armed force.

It was then comparatively straightforward to organise the material according to the presidencies – Jimmy Carter being caught out by Iran and Afghanistan while being diligent in his pursuit of an Arab-Israeli peace; Ronald Reagan’s erratic course, going boldly into Beirut and then withdrawing after the bombing of the marine barracks in October 1983, tilting towards Iraq in its war with Iran, but then trying to do a deal with Iran to obtain the release of hostages held by Shia groups in Beirut; the elder George Bush’s successful management of the crisis caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and his tough line on Israel; Bill Clinton’s tentative approach to Iraq and Iran, and to the first stirrings of al-Qaeda, and the last-minute effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; and then the younger George Bush’s uncompromising approach to all challenges, and in particular the forced entry into Iraq in 2003.

I was well aware, especially as a non-American, of the political minefield I was entering. These are issues that excite strong feelings. The polarization of opinion is often reflected in books that are seen as being for or against Israel, sympathetic to the Iraq war or unremittingly hostile, cynical or forgiving about official motives. Single, simplistic explanations are offered, pointing to the influence of the “Israel Lobby” or Big Oil or neo-conservatives. Yet at the same time there was no shortage of excellent material on all the events I wanted to cover, as well as the memoirs of key participants. Together these allowed for more subtle interpretations of events that recognized what the different actors thought they were doing.

The available archives had already been fully explored, and this seemed to be one of those cases where mastering the available secondary literature was likely to be more profitable than searching for nuggets among primary sources. There are of course times when there is no substitute for close scrutiny of original documents, but I have often been struck by the reluctance of modern historians to treat contemporary secondary materials as vital and informative sources. With such dramatic material it would be impossible to find a bland and inoffensive middle course. I hope I found a way to stay close to and respect the evidence, interpreting it with care, avoiding polemics and so doing justice to this fascinating though frequently tragic story.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2009

Gregory, although I cannot pass judgement on Freedman's work, I respectfully disagree with your main point.

First, even most works rich with primary sources depend on secondary works for significant portions of their narrative or analysis.

Second, there is a important place in the world for historians who synthesize existing scholarship. That place is not simply in writing more popular accounts of significant topics (as crucial as that is) but in presenting to other historians one intelligent synthesis of the current works.

As a 19th Century US historian who periodically teaches courses that go up to the present, a work such as Freedman's can be immensely useful.

At their best, secondary-source based histories can be fine works, and the profession is a poorer place when such works are automatically relegated to a second-class status.

Gregory Canellis - 4/20/2009

Okay, I was following along nicely, until the last paragraph, where Sir Lawrence gracefully prepared us that he consulted mostly "secondary materials." What he is really saying is that it is much easier to obtain published sources. Traveling to archival depositories located in a slew of countries stretched half way around the world involves foot-work. There are also language barriers. He would have no trouble with documents in English, but for Israeli. Iranian, Iraqi, and other documents, a translator would need to be hired. If Sir Lawrence was not willing to engage in the much more time consuming and gritty work of his craft, and trust other historians to do his sifting through archives for him, how thorough is his finished product? After all, Sir Lawrence, you are an historian.

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