Posted tagged ‘soldiers’

The Archives

March 25, 2011

I just spent the last few days at the National Archives digging up documents that have not been touched in decades… some perhaps not since they were placed in their boxes a century ago. There’s something thrilling about the archives.

There’s also something quite bothersome about the monotony of research. Though we have moments of clarity and discovery, we have many more moments of drudgery, flipping page after page hoping for something “good,” only to find more minutiae.

As I worked, I kept thinking of the social responsibility of the historian, as expressed by several authors in the *Confessing History* book. Namely, I kept thinking “these soldiers were people… I cannot reduce them to numbers” as I compiled empirical evidence for my dissertation. I hope I do them justice. I hope I represent them honestly. I hope they, though not alive to defend their honor, would appreciate the way in which I express the complexity of their lives.

Another observation that I made while researching was the temporality of “generalizations.” No matter what conclusion I came to, I could think of a way around it. In other words, if I thought “all soldiers…” I could always think of an exception. If I thought “no soldiers…” I still yet thought of exceptions. So I decided to make qualified assessments, hoping that my ultimate conclusions in my larger argument hold water, yet are not over-reaching in their claims. When I say that a piece of information “complicates our understanding” my advisors always comment that I need to be more specific. Sometimes, though, that’s what I mean… it complicates it… in millions of different non-specific ways.

I guess there’s no neat moral to my story. There’s no easy conclusion to wrestling with history, I’ve learned. There’s no check A, B, or C. The answers are complicated and murky. The sources don’t answer exactly what I want. They are a bit like putting together a jigsaw with no reference picture and no certainty that all the pieces were in the box. Is it still worth assembling?

I think so.

Anyone else want to share their experiences from the archives? How are your classes this semester? Please submit ideas for book reviews or thinkpieces. Together we can make this organization exciting, but we all need to read, contribute, and engage.