Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/April 2013/Op-ed

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Down the Rabbit Hole

By ErrantX
Piecing together the "truth" from multiple sources

A popular Wikipedian refrain is "verifiability, not truth". Unfortunately, in many areas of military history this can be a problematic approach. How far can we, as editors, go in confirming facts without violating the spirit of original research? And should we?

I was introduced to the problem of inaccurate sources back in early 2012. I caught a BBC documentary about Operation Bodyguard, the major Allied deception operation covering the Normandy Landings. The documentary cited an intriguing book, Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown. Surprisingly this area of Second World War history was poorly covered, so I grabbed a copy and set to work. Brown's book is hefty, and extremely detailed. You can feel the weight of research, quite literally, in the work. What I didn't realise was how deeply inaccurate it was.

My first inkling came while expanding Wikipedia's article about the book; some very respected historians were ripping into Brown's work. A respected author himself, he was criticised not only on grounds of factual accuracy but also the conclusions he drew. Why, then, had a competent writer produced such an inaccurate book? It didn't take long to find out where the problems lay. Brown was writing in 1975, at which time most of the deception material was still highly classified. Relying on what he could prise from the US archives (he was denied access to the British archives) and from oral interviews, his material was very often second or third hand.

The clearest example of the problems associated with Bodyguard of Lies is in Brown's characterisation of the German bombing of Coventry in November 1940. The popular historical viewpoint at that time held that Ultra intercepts had given the Allies forewarning of the raid, but that commanders chose to do nothing, so as to protect the source. Brown based significant analysis on this view, bolstered with oral evidence. Only a year after publication, however, it was shown to be untrue.

That's not to say the work was poor; Brown's writing is strong and he puts forward analysis that sounds downright reasonable. This isn't a positive thing, however, as the author completely fails to recognise the weakness of his sourcing. And, so, the book seems stronger than it in fact is. Or, as Russell J. Bowen backhandedly describes the book: "an outstanding example of scholarly investigative journalism applied to the field of oral military history".[1]

It would seem, then, that writing even 30 years after the war is dangerous if your topic is still top secret. During the 1970s and '80s significant portions of the Allied archives relating to deception were declassified, and slowly the shaky foundations of Brown's work came apart.

Perhaps the solution is to look for the most recent material? Often that does work. Deception has sparked a lot of interest in the last couple of decades (and since 2000 several excellent books have been written). But you should still not feel safe. Recently, whilst working on an article about Ops (B) I came across a particularly tangled error that exists in all of the most recent books. Thaddeus Holt's 2004 book The Deceivers positively identifies Antony Jervis Read as the first head of the section. However a cursory glance at this prominent Army officer suggests, strongly, that at the time Holt places him safe behind a desk in London, he was in fact fighting in East Africa and Burma.

It took an earlier book to pick up the discrepancy; David Mure, who was actually part of the London deception establishment, mentions a "J. V. B Jervis Read" in his 1980 book Master of Deception. Finally I had a thread to pick at, and extensive research in the London Gazette turned up trumps. In 1963, there is record of a "Brigadier John Vaughan Bruce Jervis-Read OBE" retiring from the Army. Next stop was The National Archives where I turned up his 1945 citation, which makes specific mention of his work with Ops (B) and deception. Mystery solved, and I could happily put correct information into the article.

But this raises a broader question. At least three books, written since Holt's, contain the same error, while older works contain inaccuracies through the lack of declassified sources or narrow viewpoints (Mure, for example, was a close friend of Dudley Clarke and idolises him in Master of Deception). Pick any article within the deception topic area and you will find discrepancies and disagreement between every single source. The examples above are only the tip of the iceberg. Exactly which dates and times are accurate in D-Day naval deceptions, did James join Montgomery's staff for Operation Copperhead or merely pose as a journalist? (This latter was especially hard to decipher).

So, how far can we and should we go in unpicking the "truth"? With the First and Second World War we are most fortunate. They produced an almost endless mound of paperwork which, while often incomplete, is at least detailed. But if we as editors go digging into this primary material at what point do we become the peers of the secondary authors we are analysing? The balance between accurate articles and original research is tenuous.

To date I've not found a happy compromise. The best advice, I think, is to make sure you have the widest array of sources possible - both primary and secondary - and to compile the most accurate picture you can from their collective consensus.

  1. ^ a b Bowen, Russell J. (1996). "Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown". Central Intelligence Agency Historical Review Program. 
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An intriguing question here, one I don't think any of us have a firm answer for. Thank you, Errant. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 22:03, 23 April 2013 (UTC)

While secondary sources always err to a greater or lesser extent, an anonymous or pseudonymous editor here simply cannot be the peer of a reputably published secondary author. What makes us competent to assess the meaning, veracity, or appropriate weight of primary sources? More to the point, how would we demonstrate to readers that we all have such competence? Any mechanism for doing that would be the end of "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit". So yes, we must wait for a published secondary source to challenge the faulty one before we take issue with it, even when we know better. That said, if we know of such failings, there is no reason we can't publish them elsewhere, just not on Wikipedia. If such publication is credible, independent editors on WP can cite it. LeadSongDog come howl! 22:45, 23 April 2013 (UTC)

This is a really interesting article. As ErrantX notes, the quality of sources on intelligence topics vary wildly, and there can be considerable inconsistencies in the 'facts' they provide. Much of this is due to the 'cloak and dagger' nature of the topic, which leads to records being deliberetly not kept, destroyed or declassified long after the event (some WW2-era British intelligence files are apparently still not available to historians as they would identify possibly still-living people). However, the authors of books on intelligence matters are also often at fault: many approach their subject either with an axe to grind against the wickedness of spies or with the deliberate goal of writing a positive 'puff piece'. The trope of the intelligence agency being under-appreciated by unimaginative bureaucrats for far too long also still turns up (as a ridiculous recent example, in his recent book Spies in the Sky Talyor Downing tries to present a supposed slowness to assign Spitfires to RAF photo recon units at the start of WW2 as being a considerable scandal - as the book progresses it turns out that it only took about six weeks for PR Spitfires to go into action after the outbreak of the war, and the PR units were actually given priority access to the type from late 1939!). The official histories of the British intelligence services which have been published since the 1980s are probably the best thing which has been written on the subject of military intelligence, but are far too detailed for casual readers (and, it would seem, many hack historians). Nick-D (talk) 00:13, 25 April 2013 (UTC)

  • Thanks very much ErrantX, for opening up and discussing this area of editorship, and for your statement: "The best advice, I think, is to make sure you have the widest array of sources possible - both primary and secondary - and to compile the most accurate picture you can from their collective consensus." Lest we forget. --Rskp (talk) 00:54, 25 April 2013 (UTC)
  • Thank-you for this interesting example of the problem. Right now there is an AFD concerning Juggalos as a gang that utilizes classified US Government files as a source which is suffering from the same problem. Are there any "controversy"-templates available that could be useful? In the example that you provide, and others that I have come-across, one idea that I have thought which could help would be to title, or sub-title the article differently? Your example was an article based-on the controversial research of mostly one source, or one school of thought. A more transparent labeling of that predicament could help to avoid loosing the information.TeeVeeed (talk) 17:54, 27 April 2013 (UTC)

Only just spotted this was published :) thanks for the kind words. One thing I forgot to mention was the risk in Wikipedia publishing similar falsehoods - because more and more we are being used a basic reference by the pop history writers. A very recent book a friend lent me actually referred to my article on Clarke - the book only tangentially referred to Dudley Clarke and his work (so using Wikipedia is, I suppose, at least excusable) but embarrassingly it seems to have been written during the articles development when a glaring inaccuracy existed... later fixed, but not immortalised in print. A similar problem occurs with my discussion of Clarke being photographed in womens clothing. I was careful in the timeline section not to make mention of sexuality etc. However naturally those photographs raised eyebrows in whitehall. Clarke may have like cross dressing (although only one source really goes that far, so I was uncomfortable saying as much) and certainly within the Army establishment people privately wondered about his sexuality. Sadly none of the sources seem to take a firm stand on the matter and carefully skirt the issue with a few pages of "knowing looks". Anyway, the point it, I recently read a news article mentioning Clarke which again clearly drew on my article - they made a real meal of his arrest in female clothing and *did* go as far as questioning his sexuality. So I am left wondering whether me mentioning those raised eyebrows in the personality section is unfairly casting Clarke in that light. Or perhaps that is a fair way to cast him? Who knows!! --Errant (chat!) 14:09, 12 May 2013 (UTC)