Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/December 2012/Interview

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Front pageProject newsArticle newsBook reviewsInterviewOp-ed

Less-represented areas of military history

In our latest interview, the Bugle continues its "Article writer's guide" series detailing the nuances behind certain categories of Wikipedia articles. We'll bring you answers from some of the foremost Wikipedia writers in the areas we examine, in the hope that their advice helps you enter these areas and find success. This month is unusual in that our focus is not on one specific form or subject like biography, aviation, ships, or fortifications, but rather on areas whose key shared characteristic is that they don't tend to receive a great deal of attention from military history writers in the English Wikipedia. We hope to shed more light on these areas with the following discussion. Don't forget that if you have a good topic for a future Bugle edition, please add it on our newsletter's main talk page.

Thank you for agreeing to answer some of our questions. Please tell us a little about your preferred subject(s) on Wikipedia...
  • Cliftonian: My specialities in Wikipedia writing roughly equate with my personal interests. Intellectually these mainly focus on Rhodesian history, particularly military and political.
  • Crisco 1492: I generally write about Indonesian topics. These are mostly related to popular culture and literature, but whenever I feel the need to write more traditionally encyclopedic entries I will write something military-related.
  • Constantine: In Wikipedia, I am mostly active in Byzantine and early Muslim history.
  • Piotrus: milhist wise, I write about Polish military history, as a subset of my general interest in Polish history.
  • Cla68: I have mainly written about the Pacific War, military controversies, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army, modern US military operations, and Japanese culture and history.

How did you come to choose the area(s) you specialize in, or what drew you to the types of subjects you write about?
  • Cliftonian: I knew nothing at all about Rhodesia until my late teens, having grown up mostly in England and America. I read The Great Betrayal in my late teens, and was transfixed by the story. I think what I found so interesting about it was that I had heard nothing about it before. I was so hungry to learn more that after a couple years I took a position in Zimbabwe and went over there. I found that I identified very much with the community I joined. My interest has endured even though I now live overseas. Indeed, it was partially this that motivated me to go to Israel and join the forces.
  • Crisco 1492: I've had an academic interest in Indonesia for the past six years or so, and have lived in Indonesia since I was 16. Although my main area of study is literature, I have always been fascinated with military technology and other matters related to warfare. Since the sources are generally easy to come by in Indonesia (and much easier than abroad), I am able to get an Indonesian viewpoint generally unavailable in English-language publications.
  • Constantine: Having grown up abroad I originally shared the general perception of Byzantium (thanks to Edward Gibbon) as somehow "decadent" and "barbarous" compared to the glories of Classical Greece, and the horrible coverage of the period in the Greek school system did not help matters. I only began to take an interest early in university, given that Byzantium is an essential part of the Greek tradition (someone once described modern Greeks as "Byzantines living under the shadow of the Acropolis"), and was captivated by the richness of its history and culture, its glories, follies and tragedies. As I began writing Byzantine-related articles for Wikipedia, I also began to inquire more about Byzantium's neighbours. Among them, the early Caliphate was the most important and impressive by far, but I was struck by how neglected the topic was, even more so than Byzantine history. So I devoted more time trying to learn about early Muslim history as well, and now share my time on Wikipedia roughly equally between the two fields.
  • Piotrus: it is rather simple, really. Non-English history (and geography, economy, and really, all other topics about non-English parts of the world) are underrepresented. Years ago, I decided to start trying to fix this problem, and here I am today - still looking at many decades of enjoyable work filling this particular niche.
  • Cla68: I am from the US but have lived off-and-on in Japan for over 10 years and have married into a Japanese family, so I'm interested in things related to Japan. I've always been very interested in World War II, but I notice that the European theater gets more study, so I try to balance that by being active in Pacific War articles. I write about military controversies, because I spent 10 years in the US military and I was fascinated by the unique nature of controversies and scandals which occur in and around the military, especially the US military. In the US military, when someone makes a mistake someone often gets killed. Also, with any military, whenever a mistake is made there is frequently some kind of attempted cover-up, or the appearance or allegations of a cover-up, which makes the story more dramatic and interesting.

Generally speaking, what should be covered in an article on your preferred subject(s)? How do you structure your articles?
  • Cliftonian: Where Rhodesian history is concerned, a certain amount of background material is always necessary, as most readers won't know much about Rhodesia, even what would be basic facts to a local (that Salisbury was the capital, for example). Generally speaking I structure my articles into about four or five rough sections, with maybe two or three sub-sections in each, depending on length. Very roughly I will usually make it background—prelude—body—aftermath—long-term, or something like that. Obviously a lot depends on the subject in question. I have learned to try to make good use of footnotes to properly explain complex issues that aren't directly relevant to the topic at hand.
  • Crisco 1492: Like Cliftonian, I've relied on background material in my featured articles. In the Sudirman biography, my best MilHist article thusfar, there are some 30 footnotes giving contextual information which can be useful for better understanding a certain context. The most pertinent contextual information is built into the text. The division of the article depends on the subject: two of my three FA-class MilHist articles were biographies, so the division coincided with major events in the subjects' lives. The other one, 1740 Batavia massacre, was essentially divided into Background, Causes, Event, Effects, Legacy.
  • Constantine: Like everyone working in the more obscure subjects, I too have to devote much space to context or explaining dissenting views. In structuring articles, I generally follow the standard tripartite division background – main topic – aftermath/impact, but this depends mostly on article length and the level of detail I can go into.
  • Piotrus: I write articles about people, battles, wars and units; primarily historical - I don't really do much with the post-1989 topics. I try to follow our MoS. Nothing special here, really.
  • Cla68: An article has got to have both sides represented. With a war history article, it may be difficult to find English sources about the non-English-speaking side in the event, but you've got to try to equally represent both sides. I still can't read more than a menu in Japanese, which is unfortunate because there are actually a lot of good sources in Japanese on the Pacific War which haven't been utilized by Western historians, likely because of the language barrier.

What kinds of sources do you recommend using?
  • Cliftonian: Contemporary book sources (1970s–80s) are usually best. Later ones, from my experience, often tend to oversimplify or be biased, usually towards one side in particular. Google newspapers is very good for direct quotations and views of the time.
  • Crisco 1492: For me, Indonesian-language sources are often the best for providing in-depth information (except if the subject has a biography in English). English-language books should still be referenced for contextual information and outside views. Sadly, newspapers are hard to come by so their use so far has been limited.
  • Constantine: A large number of very good books, both specialist and more general, have been written over the past three decades and are readily available, and I mostly rely on them. In general, the more recent the source the better, as the way scholars look at Byzantium and the Caliphates now has changed considerably over time, and what was common ground in 1960 is now outdated. However, it is often necessary to resort to primary sources and studies published in the early 20th or late 19th centuries for some more obscure topics.
  • Piotrus: as I gained more experience, I increasingly rely on books and academic articles, also I'll use some more popular sources for convenience, below GA+ class levels. One issue that often arises is that I have no choice but have to rely on Polish language sources, sometimes offline only, as certain facts have not been translated into English or digitized. You wouldn't believe how much I have to rely on Google Books snippet views (as most non-English works are not available even for preview). Sigh.
  • Cla68: All of them. Use as many sources as you can- academic books, popular histories, newspapers, dissertations. The authors of different sources have different motivations and biases towards a subject they cover, so you need to review as many different ones as you can to get a complete picture. If you are writing on war, doesn't it make sense that authors from the different countries involved will likely have very different takes on what took place and why?

Have you found it easy to obtain online sources? What about free images?
  • Cliftonian: Reliable online sources for Rhodesian history are quite hard to come by, as most websites on the subject are inevitably biased towards one side or the other. That said, there are some good articles you can find. Free images are difficult because most of the pictures are in private hands. On a whole you have to depend on people donating them.
  • Crisco 1492: Like Cliftonian, I don't depend on online sources that much. As for free images, thusfar they've been easy enough to find assuming I'm willing to check out the archives for old newspapers. My topics have generally been focused on the Indonesian national revolution, from 1945 to 1949, and thus images published at the time are PD.
  • Constantine: Google Books has been invaluable in finding sources. JSTOR and other such databases are also extremely useful, as are a few online encyclopaedias like Encyclopaedia Iranica, the Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World or Prosopography of the Byzantine World. Unfortunately, the online sources are a fraction of the printed material. Good-quality free images are also rather hard to come by, and are of a limited subject range.
  • Piotrus: All hail Google Books; much more useful than Google Scholar (although that can come in handy, too). There are some digital, free and reliable Polish historical publications, through most still fail on one of more of those criteria. Images are a pain; mostly due to copyright - often, a website (like one of Polish digital libraries or historical institutes) will publish some images, but they are copyrighted. It is really annoying and the best we can do is to link to those images in external links, try to contact the copyright holder (if they are known, which is rarely the case), and wait for their response (or for the anonymous copyrights (who are they protecting, really?) to expire...). This is particularly an issue for 20th century; for pre-20th, at least we don't have to worry about copyright. Still, there is much to be scanned and added to Commons, or even plainly some moved from the web. If anyone reading this thinks that Commons galleries for most public domain artists are complete, think again.
  • Cla68: Although you can use Google Books to access many sources, I have usually preferred to buy a used copy of the book so I can scribble notes in the margins.

Biases exist in many forms -- how have you dealt with biases in sources?
  • Cliftonian: In the Rhodesian case it is important to deal in facts and to avoid loaded words and phraseology. I try my best to use direct quotations from the people in question so far as possible, and to explain both sides rather than taking one or the other.
  • Crisco 1492: Aside from the measures mentioned by Cliftonian, I generally try and get foreign opinions as much as possible. They are generally more objective, as they are not as indoctrinated.
  • Constantine: Older sources tend to show up ideological biases, e.g. Marxist influence on social or economic matters, nationalist interpretations or cultural prejudice. As the primary sources are often ambiguous or contradictory, one has to be careful to make sure that all competing interpretations are covered, since even good scholars sometimes don't bother to allude to the existence of counter-arguments to their views, especially in books destined for the general public. In the large part of the literature that is Western, nationalism is a non-issue, but it is still interesting to note different approaches on the same subject between different groups of scholars, e.g. between Byzantinists and Arabists.
  • Piotrus: Sources will often have a national bias. It took me years to begin to see it. If I realize a source is biased, I'll usually try to attribute it in the article, writing something like "according to XY...", in rare extreme cases, with a note to a reliable criticism of an author of a book cited.
  • Cla68: Just be aware of the biases. As you are writing the article, constantly think to yourself, "Will the reader of this article be able to tell what side I'm taking?" If the answer is no, then you are successfully maintaining a distance from bias. I admittedly haven't always been successful at this.

How do you deal with with language barriers in both the subject and the sources about it (e.g. a non-English source)?
  • Cliftonian: I don't generally come across language barriers in the Rhodesian subject, as almost all of the sources for it are in English. When I have written about Israeli subjects, I have used Hebrew sources. When I have a problem with the Hebrew I ask Mrs Cliftonian for help. I have also used Russian sources, which I have had to tackle alone.
  • Crisco 1492: The biggest issue with language that I've had was with the Batavia massacre, in which I had to use Dutch sources. That involved a lot of Google translate and bothering Drmies, who was pretty nice about it.
  • Constantine: It is not really a limiting factor. On Muslim topics, while knowledge of Arabic, Turkish and Persian would be useful, not to mention fun, much of the relevant secondary and tertiary literature is in Western languages, and even the primary sources are available in high-quality translations. The same generally applies to Byzantine (and in general, Greek) history. Being able to read Greek sources is of course an advantage for more obscure topics or for a more local perspective. It is however better not to rely solely on English sources, since many of the better studies are in German, French or Russian as well.
  • Piotrus: I'll try to translate the source title. Usually I don't bother with quotes; direct link to Google Book pages are useful.
  • Cla68: I try to use English translations of Japanese sources as much as possible, then ask Japanese family or friends for help in finding information from Japanese-language sources. Because it is so difficult and time-consuming to translate Japanese into English, I usually only use this route when all else fails. It probably will work better if I just study my head off for the next two years until I can more-or-less read Japanese.

What are the most common issues you strike when submitting your articles to formal review?
  • Cliftonian: People sometimes think there are point of view issues, and these take explaining and occasionally compromise. I also tend to sometimes ramble on a lot on things that aren't particularly relevant, and so there is sometimes quite a lot of trimming down. Other than that there are formatting issues, accessibility issues, issues of books without ISBN numbers and so on.
  • Crisco 1492: Getting people to review is a problem, especially at PR. The topics are generally not known outside of Indonesia.
  • Constantine: Aside from the usual prose and formatting issues, providing adequate context or explaining native terms for the "average reader" is the one advice I most frequently get. And although there are people who are familiar with the periods, getting really in-depth reviews is rare.
  • Piotrus: if you mean issues I encounter on articles I've written myself, I'll usually run into the problem that I am an ESL, meaning my work has to be proofread and corrected by somebody with a better grasp of English than myself, or it will fail due to poor prose.
  • Cla68: Copyediting and grammar.

Do you think that the Military history wikiproject's focus is too heavily weighted towards particular topics?'
  • Cliftonian: Not from my experience. The Wikiproject is weighted towards what its members are good at, which is the way it should be.
  • Crisco 1492: Per Cliftonian.
  • Constantine: No more than Wikipedia in general is biased towards the Western world, which is a result of editors' origin and interests rather than the project's fault.
  • Piotrus: I agree with Constantine to the letter.
  • Cla68: Third Constantine.

What suggestions would you make to editors considering working in a lesser-known field of military history?
  • Cliftonian: Give it a real go, and keep at it! Perhaps try picking a subject you are curious about, but not completely familiar with; that way your interest in it will be maintained as you go along. That said, be sure you go back and check what you're writing as you do it to make sure you actually understand what you're writing.
  • Crisco 1492: Write what you know, and if that bores you go for something that interests you. A lot of battles and other military events which occurred between or within non-Anglophone countries have poor coverage on Wikipedia, so even a moderately knowledgeable editor can make a big difference.
  • Constantine: Don't be daunted, even if you want to write on a subject you are not familiar with. There's enough material available online for a solid grounding, and usually more than a few editors you can ask for help. Making sure that you know the context of the subject well is probably the most important task, since your article's accuracy and clarity will depend on it. Begin with a general overview history to familiarize yourself with the subject's period and then progress to the details. If you are familiar with the subject, try to present it as precisely as possible using simple terms. That does not mean avoiding specific terminology, but presenting it in such a way that the reader can understand it without needing to navigate away from the article.
  • Piotrus: Don't expect much interest from anyone, unless you stumble upon a controversial topic; then expect you may find that the talk page about a minor issue (spelling, the use of a word "liberated", or who won) will become much longer than the article. Try to make the best of this.
  • Cla68: Second Piotrus. Don't expect much help from anyone. Expect to spend some money on hard-to-find, out-of-print books.

Are there any other points you'd like to raise that we haven't covered in this interview, or parting advice that you'd like to offer?
  • Cliftonian: POV-pushers are a pet hate of mine, particularly when when they contribute some diatribe of inaccuracies and conjecture, then accuse you of rewriting history or obstructing the truth when you revert it. Some even then re-add their contributions, saying something along the lines of "the truth will set you free" in the edit summary. Oh the irony.
  • Cla68: Wikipedia has rules against synthesis. In my experience, however, if you synthesize what sources are saying in an article that is relatively uncontroversial, you can usually get away with it as long as you can back up your assertions with sources and reasoning.


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Hmmm, so this interview got answers from CCCCP :) --Piotr Konieczny aka Prokonsul Piotrus| reply here 17:09, 17 December 2012 (UTC)

  • Why am I not informed of this? XD My specialty is also an obscure part of military history, I think. No offense. :) Arius1998 (talk) 09:25, 24 December 2012 (UTC)
    • Fair comment! The names we picked were a sample of quite a few possibilities but we felt that five or so respondents was enough for one sitting. Rest assured that we're already thinking of another interview along the same lines in the first half of next year...  :-) Cheers, Ian Rose (talk) 11:44, 24 December 2012 (UTC)

Very interesting interview, guys! Thanks for doing it; I feel like I've learned a lot. I would like to second the mention of the Google News Archive; even though they have stopped adding new papers to it (and don't really have a home page anymore; this is the closest I've found), the sheer amount of searchable articles is a great help for just about every 20th century topic. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 05:44, 25 December 2012 (UTC)

  • Not quite useful for Indonesian sources... international takes, maybe... — Crisco 1492 (talk) 07:39, 25 December 2012 (UTC)
    • I could have specified that... I used it for international perspectives in South American dreadnought race and found it invaluable for that. Also many of the Australian newspaper archives are online, though that is certainly a well-covered area in Milhist. ;-) Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 04:44, 26 December 2012 (UTC)
      • Hmm, yes, you'd have to shoot quite a few editors to make Australian military history "under represented"... ;-) Cheers, Ian Rose (talk) 05:02, 26 December 2012 (UTC)
  • Working in a fairly obscure area myself, it was interesting to see the similarities. Thanks for agreeing to do the interview, it was enlightening to say the least. One thing I have noticed about myself particularly when doing reviews is that I look really closely for POV issues as they are so common in the area where I work. Thanks again. Peacemaker67 (send... over) 11:34, 25 December 2012 (UTC)
    • I think sometimes it's because we're stuck to the sources. If we only have access to a single point of view, the article will naturally follow that. — Crisco 1492 (talk) 12:05, 25 December 2012 (UTC)