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

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Article writer's guide: Biographies

This month, the Bugle kicks off a new series detailing the nuances behind certain types of 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. We will be looking at biographies first, with input from experienced editors both inside and outside of military history.


Thank you for agreeing to answer some of our questions. What draws you to the biographical spectrum of Wikipedia's articles?
  • Ian Rose:
    • I think that personalities are at the heart of recorded history -- "historical" events don't just happen, people make them happen, generally with a particularly forceful personality in the forefront. I suppose I also find that writing a person's life history comes more naturally than writing the history of a campaign or a battle or an incident. Of all the articles I've taken to A/FA-level, only one hasn't been a bio, namely the "Morotai Mutiny", and even that was heavily driven by the personalities involved (needless to say I created bios for most of the key players)... ;-)
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • There is properly no history; only biography (Ralph Waldo Emerson). I am a techno-military historian, and alternate articles on topics with biographical articles. I found that it was difficult to examine a topic without reference to the people involved, and vice-versa.
  • Wehwalt:
    • I don't think you can understand much about history without understanding the people who were part of it. We see only sepia photographs of them, they were just as real as we are, and so was their world.
  • Ed!:
    • Of all the articles, biographies are where a person's humanity shows most. It's a different art than recreating complex moves of a battle, or the impersonal history of a ship, so I enjoy bios in a different way.

The range of biographies, even in just the area of military history, is quite diverse. How did you choose an area to specialize in, or what drew you to the people you write about?
  • Ian Rose:
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • Everywhere you look there are articles crying out for attention. I chose to specialise in the Southwest Pacific Area during World War II, a spin off from my doctoral thesis. I am slowly working my way through them all. The original idea was to create featured topics, but I had to accept that some of them will never make it to featured. But I got bored after a while and began dabbling on other subjects. My most recent effort has been a series of articles on the Manhattan Project. Again, the articles on topics led naturally to a set of articles on personalities.
  • Wehwalt:
    • It startles me how little work has been done on articles on very important men, the movers and shakers of their times. Very often, it is little more than the public domain biography someone uploaded to start the article, from the 1911 Britannica or the Congressional biographies, or similar. Much work needs to be done here.
  • Ed!:
    • Well, I started working in an area where I felt there was next to no good coverage (the Korean War) and once I did enough battles, it became clear that the people calling the shots in those battles needed coverage, too. Then, it became about covering anyone and everyone I could, because it gave such a brilliant mosaic of understanding the overall war.

What should be covered in a biographical article? For a military history biography, how do you structure your articles?
  • Ian Rose:
    • I don't consciously work to a formula but there are things I always try to to cover, and how well I can cover those will decide whether I take an article to FAC, or only to ACR, or only to GA. Aside from obvious things like military training, postings, promotions, decorations, and participation in major actions, life before and after the military should be covered too. Essentially I want few if any gaps in the subject's chronology. I've taken subjects to ACR and then stopped because, although I think I've covered their military life in sufficient detail for A-Class, info on their post-military career is lacking for that next step to FAC.
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • Most military biographies have the same structure. The challenge is not to merely recount biographical details, but to give the reader an enhanced understanding of the topics.
  • Wehwalt:
I don't think I've written an article on a career military man. Some of them, however, served, mostly in wartime. I do my best to put it in context. To answer the general question, what I almost always do is some variation of biography, spread over several sections, followed by some sort of legacy/analytical section. If the subject attained high office, it may be well not to go chronologically through his tenure, but rather to break it down by topic. Sometimes there are significant side issues that must be covered; my current project is Avery Brundage. In addition to him as IOC president, there needs to be sections devoted to him as art collector, and as business executive. Still working on those.
  • Ed!:
    • A lot of weight is always placed on a person who is notable entirely in their military service, but a thorough covering of their entire life is important. I find some exposition into their personality, leadership style, and accolades to be important context, too.

How much detail needs to be paid to events the subject participated in?
  • Ian Rose:
    • You want to relate the subject to events around them where possible. I approach this two ways: 1) ideally your sources will tell you something in particular that your subject did during wars, battles, or peacetime postings; that's the best thing; 2) if however you just get the bare bones regarding a posting, like so-and-so ran Operational Command from 1965 to 1967, and that's it as far as explicit mentions of the subject go for that role, you can always dig around and perhaps be able to add a sentence like "During this period, fighter squadrons converted from Sabres to Mirages" for context.
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • The art of it is to discuss the subject and not retell the story of the war. You have to provide a true perspective with the subject in the foreground and the topic in the background. This can be a challenge. I like to provide technical details. Oppenheimer was a scientist, so I inserted science into the article. To be sure, many readers will have to follow the links if they want to understand it, but that will lead them through a series of scientific articles, which was precisely the idea. For generals, I want to give some appreciation of generalship, recounting key decisions and the reasons behind them.
  • Wehwalt:"
    • It can be challenging. Sometimes one event can overwhelm the article, making putting covering it a challenge. In my recent William Jennings Bryan presidential campaign, 1896, it was a major challenge not to have the Cross of Gold speech, which occurs about midway through, take over the article. It has its own. I suspect it is much the same for military biographies where the individual is known for a single event and had a mundane life otherwise. What I did with Bryan was write that section last, I suggest that could be applied elsewhere.
  • Ed!:
    • I tend to believe each article should be a standalone piece, ie. not requiring too much clicking on other links, so people can easily read an entire bio without becoming distracted. That said, the person's contribution to the event is, in my mind, more important than the event itself. For commanders, I prefer to gloss over the actual event and instead focus on what that person's actions and motivations were.

What kinds of sources do you recommend using?
  • Ian Rose:
    • Every subject has differing levels of material available to you. I like to check if someone has an article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, or the Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, or at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) site first up, because they give you a nice succinct overview. Generally I nail down their decorations pretty early on via the AWM Honours and Awards database, and the London Gazette. After that I see about dedicated full-length biographies (for my somewhat specialised subjects there's never more than one). I'll also check on the official -- and prominent unofficial -- histories of the relevant periods to see if the subject's mentioned -- they can give you good context. Then I check out GoogleNews and the National Library of Australia's Trove site for digitised newspaper reports, that can sometimes help flesh out the article. I also look for digitised personnel and other files at the National Archives of Australia -- while I tend to avoid using service records if I can get the information elsewhere, oft-times they're the only way you can pinpoint the dates of postings and promotions, and occasionally you'll also find newspaper cuttings or personal correspondence that's useful. I'll also use Who's Who for dates if I have nothing else. Lastly, the AWM hosts many detailed interviews with RAAF pilots that are a great source of quotes, which can liven up a biographical article. One type of source I avoid using unless there's no alternative is autobiographies and memoirs; I prefer to see their information filtered through the eye of a professional historian in other works.
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • It is always best to have books. Unfortunately, few have multiple biographies. Those that do are interesting cases. I have a dozen biographies of Douglas MacArthur. I also have six on Robert Oppenheimer. In cases like this, instead of fleshing out, one is attempting to pare to the bone. I am reminded of Robert Caro, who has completed four volumes of his five volume (so he says) magnum opus The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Each volume has taken longer to write than Johnson took to live. I am also lucky enough to have access to a JSTOR account.
  • Wehwalt:
    • I agree with Hawkeye7. It's good to have two or three biographies. Sometimes whoever has their papers has clippings and articles too, but going to an archives can mean travel. I also agree that JSTOR is a great resource. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank User:TCO, whose stellar report on the FA process is well worth a read, and who has now retired, for supplying WMF with basically everything except money that they needed to get editors JSTOR. It's regrettable that that's had the ball dropped/been hijacked. Even if they eventually get it, that's six months of article writing (he gave it to them last November) that we aren't getting back. I was able to get it through a neighboring county's library, again at TCO's suggestion (I was so excited at the idea I drove forty miles in the rain to sign up). Editors need more resources for quality, malign neglect is no way to run a railroad. LEXIS/NEXIS would be good to have too, so who's going to do the work to get that?
  • Ed!:
    • Per above, book sources are always better. I tend to go for people who are less covered, like Medal of Honor recipients, flying aces, and line generals, and with those you usually only have a few good sources, anyway.

Many military figures have official biographies online or in official sources. How do you deal with these and other possibly biased sources?
  • Ian Rose:
    • I believe we are pretty blessed in the Australian military history realm when it comes to official sources, particularly re. the Air Force, in terms of availability and neutrality. The main RAAF site is not always consistent, or up-to-date, but there is the Air Power Development Centre, which hosts a wide array of journal and book sources, many of them digitised and free to download. Then there's the Australian War Memorial, with its vast array of photographs, many in the public domain, and its digitised copies of the official Australian histories of the World Wars. Australian official histories are "official" only in that they were sponsored by the government; there's hardly been any accusation I can recall where they were considered as 'toeing the government line'.
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • Nowhere near enough in my opinion, but there has been a major push in Australia over the last two decades to produce biographies of the generals of the two world wars. They are about half way there. The Americans, unfortunately, have nowhere near as much interest in these conflicts. The most senior officers have been done, but most of the rest still await their biographers. Bias is something that historians work with all the time. Often it is just a matter of a narrow point of view, which happens all the time with primary sources. Fortunately, Australian military history has a long and proud tradition of covering "the good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness". But have to bear this in mind when dealing with people from other English speaking countries with no such tradition of openness. You also have to be cognisant of the fact that just because something is accepted by every reputable military historian does not mean that it may not come as a shock to the lay reader.
  • Wehwalt:
    • Use them for uncontested facts, information about childhood and background, and similar matters. Memoirs can be fiction.
  • Ed!:
    • Balance is incredibly important to me. My philosophy is that it isn't my job to interpret for the reader; I just need to present the information completely and let them judge the quality of each source themselves. Because of this, many of my articles will be sourced to everything I can find, and often have a note or two with caveats about which sources contradict one another.

How do you deal with with language barriers in both the subject and the sources about them?
  • Ian Rose:
    • For my subjects the issue doesn't arise.
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • The usual way is to avoid them, but I prefer tackling them head on. I studied French and Russian in high school, and have a grasp of these languages. The writer should not shy away from sources in other languages. I have also read through German and Italian sources; my article on Albert Kesselring made considerable use of these. We don't make enough use of non-English sources. I do not want the readers to be in a protective bubble wrap of English; that just breeds cultural insensitivity.
  • Wehwalt:
    • Do your best with Google translate, friendly foreign language speakers, etc.
  • Ed!:
    • It can be very frustrating. At the same time, I've learned to collaborate with language-speaking Wikipedians. For my subjects for example, Jim101 has been invaluable at finding and adding things I didn't understand.

What is the most common issue you have with a biographical article at any formal review process?
  • Ian Rose:
    • I'm assuming this means issues I find when reviewing others' biographies? Most are things I find when reviewing any article, like issues with prose, or inferring too much information from the sources cited. As far as biography-specific things go, it's generally not seeing enough context for the subject's actions or experience, or not getting enough of the human element, that is only seeing a bare recitation of events rather than some insight into the personality as well.
  • Hawkeye 7:
    • What will kill an a review of a biographical in its tracks is an obvious gap in the narrative. Fortunately, this does not occur too often, because I usually will not nominate unless I think the article is good enough. lately, the biggest hassles are over images.
  • Wehwalt:
    • Agree again with Hawkeye, sometimes long periods of people's lives are uncovered. I suspect that's more true for military service than political, though.
  • Ed!:
    • Balancing which things are most important in the biography, definitely. How much weight should be on a person's military career if it's the only reason they're notable? What if they only served a few years? How important is an analysis of their personality or their background? These questions are a moving target from article to article.

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+ Add a commentDiscuss this story

This is a really great article. Nick-D (talk) 01:43, 26 May 2012 (UTC)

Agreed, a good read. I'll be taking a lot of this on board for my own articles. Zawed (talk) 04:03, 26 May 2012 (UTC)
Thanks to you both, I hope the ones interviewed see these posts too! If you have any suggestions for improvement in the next issue, let us know. :-) Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 07:07, 27 May 2012 (UTC)