One of the challenges that I consider central to the study of history, in fact one of the cornerstone duties of every historian, is to attempt to write history as neutral as humanly possible on a topic. Now it is probably impossible to be truly neutral, the very process of analyzing history or choosing a topic to explore puts a bias on things, however I still feel a historian should do their absolute best to try to present the material that is free of emotion or effort to direct the readers’ emotions. The book that I read recently that caught my eye with its textbook example of such emotional coloring was World War I: An Illustrated History by David Scott-Daniell, printed in 1965 in London by the Ernest Been Limited Corporation. It is a entry level short history of World War I, I picked it up originally because the library had mistakenly bound it as a World War II history but filed it properly in World War I, so I gave it a whirl.
The quote that exemplifies the moral/emotional coloring of the book throughout is as follows, from page 76 of the book:
“Captain Bell [British pilot] was officially credited with the destruction of forty-one enemy aeroplanes in battl, but there were others not reported. Richthofen [German pilot] had eighty victims, all British. Richthofen had eighty victims, all British. Richthofen was a pilot of outstanding skill and daring, even among his fellow heroes of the air. He led the famous ‘Richthofen Circus’, twelve Fokker fighters, all painted bright red, and flown by outstanding pilots proud of the honor of following Richthofen. Like the other ‘aces’ Richthofen died in battle in the air.”
For those who might not have caught it, Captain Bell, a British pilot, destroyed forty-one enemy airplanes, Richthofen had eighty victims, and in that simple word choice an emotional and moral slant is bluntly placed upon a historical point of fact. Neither pilot skimmed through the air hunting down innocent civilian pilots who happened to be taking a pleasant flight through an active combat zone, both pilots engaged other fellow combatants in battle during a period of active, declared war. Any of the pilots who were shot down, and killed, by Richthofen would have gladly killed him in turn had the chance presented itself. (In fact one did, Richthofen was killed in a confused air battle in which ground artillery and a British pilot in combination resulted in Richthofen’s combat death.) Describing anyone who goes into a war as an armed combatant as a victim of enemy action is at best emotionalism and at worst misleading, the business of war is death and destruction and those who march forth to engage in it should be remembered as such. Fellow combatants joined in a test of strength, economic, political, social, and military strength, a contest in which some on both sides will die. This in no way lowers the emotional impact or tragedy of their deaths, but historians have a duty to my eye to record these deaths in a tone free of emotion. Either everyone who falls in a battle is a victim or no one is if you are a historian, to write otherwise is to shirk your duties as a scribe of the past.
Which though leads itself to a more pressing question in history, in this era of modern war were can one use the term victim selectively to describe individuals caught up in the actions of war who should not have been. Using the word “victim” for everyone in war misses the point and power of the word but who, in a modern war, is actually an honest victim when two or more nations war with each other? Civilians are no longer a clear distinction because during a total industrial war some citizens engage directly in war production, generating materials of war, where these individuals work is generally accepted as a viable target for military strikes. What of the citizens who raise food, some of which feeds the working population and some of which directly feeds the armies in the field fighting the war, are they a viable target? What of the crops they raise, is famine a valid tactic of war or does it create victims of the conflict? The children of dead soldiers, are they victims or is their loss acceptable because their fathers and mothers marched to war? What of those killed in military actions who are only engaged in a war to the extent they are citizens of a nation engaged in hostilities?
Plus then of course that opens another dimension to this question, what of the contrast of aggressor to defender nations, many historians writing of World War I and World War II will describe Belgium, France, Greece, Holland, Norway, Russia, and Yugoslavia as all victims of German aggression, and therefore by implication the suffering of their populations in all forms as that of victims. But is that the marker and, if so, does that place upon a historian a duty to try to tease out which nation struck first, which nation is the true aggressor, to even create a framework to analyze that difficult relationship. Take the current military action the United States is engaged in Afghanistan, the United States argues its actions are justified because of the events of 11 September 2001, that terrorists with direct links to an organization based in Afghanistan represent a threat to the security of the United States, i.e. the United States and its losses on 11 September 2001 made it the victim of aggression. Not by a nation state but by a rogue organization, but what of those who were then injured in United States military actions only peripherally associated with terrorism in Afghanistan, are they victims or aggressors dying a death due to a chain of action they began?
The use of victim is a powerful term, I do not have answers to the above questions, I don’t believe historians will, or should, ever have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that a historian should use the word victim with care and careful thought and, to my eye, only in the most unique circumstances when speaking of combatants operating in the field of combat.