The history-maker

Professor David Horner.
14 October 2014
Professor David Horner.

ANU academic sets new record with launch of second official history.

When it comes to official histories, ANU professor David Horner is in a company of his own.

His newly released official history of ASIO, The Spy Catchers, is the second he’s overseen.  In 2004 he was appointed official historian of Australian peacekeeping, humanitarian and post-Cold War operations.

Australian official histories began with Charles Bean’s seminal account of the First World War, since going on to cover the Second World War, the Korean War, and Southeast Asian conflicts, including Vietnam. Horner’s two histories are the nation’s latest.

“In each case what is meant by official history is the government’s military activities told by an independent historian with full access to the government’s records,” says Horner.

“In other words, the government says we trust you to get this right.”   

Horner says that writing an official history has many challenges. They include dealing with classified records and their clearance, and that they are a history of record – which can “at times work against making a riveting story”.

But the challenges are worth it. For Horner they of undoubted value to the national fabric and memory.

“They are absolutely crucial and I’ve been advocating publically for a number of years now that we should get on with writing an official history of our involvement with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Horner.

“The people of Australia have a right to know why troops were deployed there.

“The soldiers who have served overseas have gone on behalf of the nation. They are not mercenaries…they are doing it with the Australian uniform and representing Australia and so they deserve to have their story told.

“And their story needs to be told in an authorative way as a record of what Australians have done.

“We can’t afford to wait 20 or 25 years until government records are finally available – particularly as people pass on, or their recollections change.”

Horner’s calls for an authorative account of Afghanistan and Iraq are all the more pressing as the nation gears up to observe 100 years since the Gallipoli campaign.

“Wouldn’t it be a dreadful thing if Australia says it can commemorate 100 years since ANZAC, but we’ll keep secret what we have been doing in recent times?” asks Horner.

But more important is the consideration that, as Horner points out, “access to records is more difficult than it was in the past”.

Which raises a murkier question about official histories. When the information is controlled and the history is ‘official’ cannot sceptics be forgiven for thinking that history becomes whitewash?

“I don’t think that anybody had accused the previous official histories of being whitewashing,” says Horner.

“And I would say to critics that while I had access to official records, eventually those official records will become available and people will be able to read them and they will be able to see whether it was a whitewash or not.

“So I have a very much vested interest in ensuring that is not the case.”

It’s not just a matter of being true to the historical record. At its core it is a question of the historical record in its own right. And in most cases, an official history is only the beginning of the story.

“It is not the be all and end all,” says Horner. “The fact that it’s got official history written on it doesn’t mean that it is the last word and in many cases it provides the starting point.

“People can pick up the official history and say well the historian didn’t deal with that in too much depth, so I’d like to pursue that a bit further. In some ways they can be a starting point for further research.

“So I expect that people will criticise me and say that my history of ASIO is a whitewash. But also you need to understand that it is the story of ASIO told from ASIO’s records. It’s not the story told from outside looking in, it’s the story told from inside looking out.

“Naturally people within an organisation have a good opinion of what they are doing. So, it is not the last word." 

David Horner AM is professor of Australian defence history at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team