How recent is history?

We now live in an age of speeded-up history. To what extent should historians reflect this in their practice? In short, when does history end? Suzannah considered these questions in her February 2015 column for History Today.

When I was at university, the Modern History degree ended at 1945. Today the degree I teach ends in 1997. Elsewhere, it tracks even later: BAs in History at Manchester and Lancaster have modules that bring the story up to 2000. The University of Portsmouth even has a course on British identity that ends in 2005. In short, these history degrees include events that happened in the short lifetimes of the students reading for them.

I ask because of two events. At the Grierson Documentary Awards in 2014, the winner of the award for Best Historical Documentary was the first of a three-part series for BBC 2 called The Iraq War: Regime Change, made by production company Brook Lapping. It was a powerful and informative series, with an authoritative narrator, archive footage and photographs, and interviews with the key players from Washington, London and Baghdad, including Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, the deputy director of the CIA and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

It is not to detract at all from the brilliance of that series to point out that of the four historical documentaries shortlisted for the award, only one – Oxford Film and Television’s Story of the Jews: Over the Rainbow, the fourth of a glorious five-part series written and presented by Simon Schama, and produced and directed by Hugh McGregor – did not focus exclusively on the 20th century.

It is hard (harder?) to make documentaries about pre-20th-century history for obvious reasons. There is no archival footage; it’s hard to interview eyewitnesses and key strategists. The field of vision must therefore be filled with lingering shots of locations, documents, objects and archives, interviews with expert contributors and presenter’s pieces to camera. There’s lots of footage of presenters walking around historic sites to provide opportunities for crucial narrative voiceover. Yet, programmes on the very recent past are considered, by the establishment, historical enough to win awards.

The Iraq War series is the sort of programme that, like all good history television, should make you turn to your history books. One of the books you might pick up is Jack Fairweather’s A War of Choice: The British in Iraq 2003-9. Fairweather, a former war correspondent in Iraq for The Daily Telegraph and now Bloomberg News Middle East editor, conducted 300 interviews to compile his analysis of the abominable failure of the war in Iraq. And the second event that brought this question of the end of history to mind was that he’s pulled off such an exercise again and published his companion volume, The Good War: The Battle for Afghanistan 2006-14.

Described in the cover quotes as ‘a superb history’, ‘a sweeping work of history’, and Fairweather as ‘a narrative historian of the first order’, the book has nevertheless been rejected by leading history journals and magazines for review because the subject matter is not thought to count as history. If television programmes on recent political events count as history, why not books?

Is it perhaps because the author offers first-hand war reporting? Or because his book has a didactic purpose, offering a moral tale of the consequences of a lack of preparation, a lack of purpose and a surplus of military power – although William Dalrymple’s excellent history of an earlier Afghan war, Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan, did this too? Or is it simply considered too early to believe in the sort of clear-eyed, insightful analysis that Fairweather provides? Is it too raw, too subject to change, to be canonised as history?

Certainly, close to events, he can offer only the first interpretation of the campaign. Yet, he uses the same scholarly methodology one would hope to find in a work of history and demonstrates that it is possible to treat the recent past in an historical fashion: like The Iraq War programme, for example, Fairweather interviewed the key players – but hundreds, not just a key few. And, by writing these books, he alerts us to the fact that we now live in an age of speeded-up history: an abundance of immediate primary evidence makes writing history possible much closer to the event.

I wrote to ask Fairweather’s views on this, and he replied with a call to arms: ‘Why are historians writing about Lawrence of Arabia when there’s 10,000 government memos from diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan that tell us something fascinating about the evolution of how we fight wars, government institutions adapting, military tactics evolving, and anthropological interactions between cultures. I think it’s odd we stop weaving the tapestry in 1945 or 1997. There’s urgent stitching to be done’.

Other historians of the page too might want to learn from those of the screen.