1 - IN HISTORY, nothing is clear cut. [A] Contradiction and confusion are always present in the texts we use to interpret the past. Nowhere is this more so than when we analyse war stories. Sometimes, the letters and diaries of British servicemen seem to stutter in a desperate attempt to make sense of the unutterable horror of their surroundings: 'I cannot, cannot bear this, dear wife, the cries are just awful, terrible, oh my,' scrawled one soldier during the Battle of the Somme. Then, at another point, their letters become an eager hymn to the 'joy of slaughter', the 'exhilaration' and 'satisfaction' of destroying human life.
2 - What is the historian to make of such tensions? [B] With a few notable exceptions, military historians flinch away from distasteful subjects involving 'our men'. Discussing British men and women who were both victims and executioners is taboo. My own case, a female historian writing about killing in warfare, elicited looks of horror and, occasionally, rage among some of my fellow historians.
3 - We need to be more willing to discuss such topics, however. [C] There is no sense in being controversial for the sake of it (poor scholarship wrecks careers, rather than making them), but [D] historians have a duty to men and women in the past to discuss them in a full-rounded way. Their stories maybe contradictory, consolatory, and often fantastical, but bewilderment, hope, and fantasy are the very stuff of human experience.
Prof Joanna Bourke is the author of An Intimate History of Killing
BBC History Magazine