The Public Humanist

Historiographical Gulf

Twenty years ago today the Gulf War began. I remember it well. I was in Zaire that Thursday morning, riding atop the back of a lorry through the rainforest, when first I heard news that “Desert Shield” had become “Desert Storm.” One of my fellow riders had a shortwave radio, and all of us aboard—some thirty curious Zairians and me—gathered close to hear the latest news from Iraq when we made a roadside pit stop for cassava and tea. The French broadcasts gave me some problems, but once the station was changed to the BBC (specifically for the Américain) I learned that coalition air strikes had taken out Iraqi air fields and “bombed Iraq’s air force uncontested,” according to my travel journal. For me, it was a surreal moment, being there in the middle of Africa, and so far from home, listening to these initial reports on the first real war in my lifetime (or that I could remember, for I was only six when the helicopters evacuated Saigon).

A year earlier, as I prepared to graduate from college, I had felt rather optimistic about the world—during my senior year alone the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia, Romanians overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It was some year. Sure, the Chinese had cracked down in Tiananmen Square the previous June, but most of the news gave me reason for hope. Having perhaps taken one too many IR classes at Tufts, I was feeling rather optimistic about the possibilities for future global cooperation, and the role that “supranational organizations” (a poli-sci term I used to throw around a lot in those days) like the U.N. might play in achieving it. Less than a year later and now halfway across Africa, I felt quite the opposite, and far more cynical. “One wonders how long this war will last,” I wrote, “and what the ‘end’ of it might really mean. Occupation? Escalation? A new Middle East? And all of it for oil.”

The first Gulf War turned into another “splendid little war” for the United States, and not the military quagmire I was imagining (although I wonder how historians will look at it one hundred years from now). Be that as it may, I mention this personal memory today for a reason: It has me thinking about how much has changed in twenty years. And by change I don’t mean geopolitical change. Indeed, with nearly 50,000 U.S. troops still serving in Iraq, the old cliché about the more things change, the more they stay the same might very well apply here. And actually, our current presence in Iraq sometimes reminds me of the British in Egypt following the 1882 invasion. Despite countless declarations over the years that they were on the way out, British troops remained in Egypt until 1956. That’s over seventy years. But I digress. The change I intend to discuss is how different the private recordings of travel and war are today from twenty years ago, and how this might affect future historians.

When I traveled through Africa in 1990–1991 there were no cell phones, and there was no Internet (at least no cell phones that could fit inside a backpack, or a Land Cruiser…and although I’m pretty sure Al Gore had invented it by then, the Internet wasn’t widely available). E-mail was yet to arrive. Skype was a long way off. And Mark Zuckerberg was six years old. Thus I was only able to make a handful of phone calls from Africa, all of them short, all of them expensive—quick hellos to let people know that all was well. I did, however, keep a detailed journal and shared my travels with others via postcards and letters sent in blue “par avion” envelopes. The only way I was able to hear back from anyone in the States was through letters sent to me at American Express offices or by “poste restante” in major cities along my route. I still have all these letters, and all my Africa journals too, packed deep away in a bedroom closet for safekeeping. And the same is true for my 1995–1996 Prague diary and 1997 Sumatra trip journal. I imagine, in a similar manner, that soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf in 1991—albeit likely having greater telephone access—were also keeping journals and sending letters home to loved ones, writings that have perhaps been saved by their authors and recipients.

Today, on the other hand, it strikes me that twenty-something travelers and soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are communicating home constantly, sometimes on a daily basis, and thanks in large part to the existence of the Internet. I wonder how many of them are keeping travel/war journals, and how many are writing actual letters or sending postcards to friends and family back home. Far fewer, it seems to me, than in any generation prior. Now, I don’t necessarily want to get into the existential question as to how these technological changes may have affected the core nature and immersive experience of traveling/serving abroad (that is, assuming that Millennials still go on the post-college “hadj” like we Gen-Xers did, what by the 1980s and 90s had become almost a rite of passage…indeed it’s my anecdotal impression that unless it is a university-sponsored, helicopter-parent-sanctioned, resume-building exchange program or guided tour of some sort, it is extremely rare these days…but again, I digress). Rather, I would like to briefly speculate upon what all this might mean in terms of primary source materials available to future historians when writing about the early twenty-first century.

When I recently went digging at the National Army Museum in London for sources on the 1890s Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of the Sudan, I found the diaries of soldiers and their letters home, as well as the photo albums they later put together—just the kinds of things social historians use to tell “history from below.” But what eventually happens, I’m now wondering, to all the e-mails, texts, instant messages, Twitter tweets, and Facebook status updates that travelers and soldiers (or anyone for that matter) produce today? Is anybody printing up hard copies of these for preservation purposes? It seems highly doubtful. It’s a lot more likely, I would think, that some folks are archiving this “born-digital” content on their computer hard drives or storing it somewhere on the Internet. But where will these computers and files be ten or twenty years from now? Or fifty? Will people re-archive these files onto their new computers? Will they care or take the time to save old messages when they change servers? I literally have boxes of 5.25-inch floppy disks from the 1980s and early 1990s that I have no way to read. And most of my old e-mails are sitting on retired PCs in my attic, correspondence that may or may not be saved when I get around to recycling these computer relics. How will any of these various primary sources get into the archives, digital or otherwise, for future historians to dig through—or perhaps “scroll” through, as the case may be? Is anybody thinking about these things? Doing anything about it? I hope so.

And yet, for me, this issue leads to another set of questions. For one, even if we were to preserve these born-digital documents for future historians, how do these more “public” and “published” sources compare with those from the pre-Internet era? Is someone’s blog going to be as forthright and revealing as a private journal entry? I doubt it. I know it wouldn’t have been in my case. Moreover, even were these sources to be made widely available via on-line archives, how will this alter the experience of doing archival research, and of practicing history? For me, one of the most satisfying things about going to the archives is the tangible nature of it, and being able to hold in my very hands (sometimes with dainty white gloves on) an actual historical document—the very journal, say, that a British soldier scribbled in following his first time in combat, or the handwritten letter (often still kept in its original envelope) that he wrote home from the front. And thus the idea of sitting at home in my pajamas in front of a computer screen, scrolling down one typewritten PDF after another, is rather unappealing. And, for that matter, what about the use of this digital content in documentary films or other public history projects? How much more authentic and aesthetically pleasing as visuals are physical documents versus computer screens?

Of course, maybe I’m looking at the glass as half empty when really it’s half full. There are lots of good things about born-digital and digitized primary source materials. They take up less space. They are easier to preserve. They tend to be more widely accessible. And from my own experience, I can say that initiatives like the Internet Archive and Google Books have made things a heck of a lot easier, and faster, especially when it comes to using specific search terms to pour through thousands of pages of text in an instant. And as for the aesthetics and experience of it, I should probably just get over it, go out and buy an iPad, and try to look at the bright side of things. Indeed, the more I think about it this morning, sitting comfortably here on the couch with my laptop and a cup of coffee nearby, I suppose there’s something to be said for practicing history in your pajamas, on the other side of this historiographical gulf.

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