Understanding wars – the visual way!

For those keeping track, I give you yet one more example of my desire to replace reading text with seeing icons (check the blog’s graphics tag for other examples). Turns out I can trace my fascination with visualizing info to my teen years. My first recollection of being amazed at the visual organization of lots of information was my high school periodic table of the elements. It was a fancy two-side sheet brimming with colorful detail – I can’t find that particular version online, but here’s an example:

Periodic Table of Elements element

Periodic Table of Elements element

In addition to the way in which the elements were organized into periods and groups, other info (in a smaller font, as above) was included as well. One side of the sheet included the atomic mass and many other numeric values for each element, while the other side illustrated some kind of 3D shape/structure associated with each element (haven’t taken chemistry since high school, so I don’t know what it would have been exactly, but I think it looked kinda like the shape of a crystal, or a molecule). I remember being excited, literally excited, at how much information was grouped into that little space – a very efficient micro-macro reference device.

Eventually (as a sophomore in college) I became a historian. What a let down in the visualization department (with the exception of those wacky Annalistes). So let’s talk one of the most frequent ways historians summarize historical info: the timeline. I hope I’m not the only one who hates simple two-column timelines that waste space by spelling out Battle of Mohács, Siege of Vienna… Not only does it take up a lot of extra space, but you can’t include any other info in the list with text alone (who won the battle? which sides were involved? what did it lead to?…). You can of course use a limited number of font style options to add one or two more dimensions to the info in the timeline, but why not use icons, which can manipulate Bertin’s visual variables of shape, orientation, color/hue, value, size, position and texture? Lots of permutations there. This ability to include much detail in a small amount of space is also the motivation behind Tufte’s sparklines, which would be awesome to include in campaign narratives: march rates, casualty rates, army size fluctuations… Yet such things almost never appear in military history, despite our heavy reliance on maps. It’s particularly odd how historians expect these kinds of symbols on maps, but don’t think about using them elsewhere. (Not that I’ve got anything against maps, mind you.)

Thus my mantra: Condense the info and add more, dammit! And, lest you fear, notice that a lot of this info doesn’t even require BIG DATA and massive quantitative datasets – it’s simple nominal and ordinal data.

But back to my timechart-of-the-day (wait for it), which illustrates the major military events of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 16C. It probably has a lot of mistakes, but it’s not my fault you see. When you try to create such campaign overviews for most early modern wars, you quickly discover that historians love to mention big events like major battles and sieges, but rarely do they mention the operational context, and they happily skip over entire years when there may (or may not) have been fighting. Half of the time we can’t even be bothered to specify the year: “Several years later the Turks returned…”. Yet even if every combat and campaign doesn’t merit narration, they could at least be included in an appendix or table/chart. (Note to publishers: I would gladly pay an extra $20 for a book that included such basic information, data absolutely critical to judging the quality of an author’s argument. Or I’d pay $20 for digital versions of the kinds of timecharts I post here. Am I the only one?)

So this chart (wait for it) provides yet another example of the challenge non-experts and experts alike face trying to assemble a systematic overview of a campaign based off of spotty narratives that leave out all sorts of details and important information. Reminds me of grad school, where I quickly realized that we could argue about Roberts’ or Parker’s Military Revolution (how much change? when did it change? how did it change?), but since we didn’t know the details of all the various battles/sieges and campaigns, it was a pretty speculative discussion, and not incredibly worthwhile. Now if we had systematic empirical evidence to back our hunches up rather than a decontextualized quotation or two…

In other words, I haven’t found the perfect source that provides Ottoman campaign narratives by year – most of what I have are thematic works by the likes of Rhoads Murphey, Gabor Agoston (apologies for the lack of accents), and Virginia Aksan.

So check out the Symbol page for my icons if you haven’t memorized them by now. And finally, without further ado, I give you the Ottoman wars chart.

Ottoman Wars timechart, 1505-1547

Ottoman Wars timechart, 1505-1547

So was it worth the wait? I think it works as a good reference sheet, but I won’t say too much about its content, other than to suggest that it does a decent job of illustrating how the Ottomans had to juggle expansion (and defense) along several different frontiers, from North Africa and the Mediterranean, to southeastern Europe and Hungary, to Persia to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Palace coups, revolts, plagues and fires, raids, battles and sieges – they sure were busy!

Feedback (corrections especially) appreciated. And please make your own timecharts and share them; feel free to use my iconography if it helps (I think it does, needless to say). As usual, feel free to use this chart (no publication), as long as you properly attribute it to this blog.

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4 responses to “Understanding wars – the visual way!”

  1. Gary says :

    Pretty interesting, but too text-oriented. I wonder what Edward Tufte could do with it?

    • jostwald says :

      I must admit I’m a bit confused by your comment. The goal of a timeline is to display chronological progression, and to quickly answer questions like “When did battle of X happen? With the exception of a few “Raids on X”, every bit of text is a proper noun – all of the repeating info (i.e. things that could be symbolized) are colors or shapes or orientation already. If you care about knowing the names of battles and treaties (and historians do, particularly in a timeline/chart), you need to label them.
      If exact spatial location was the point, you could combine it with a map, but you’d probably have to do lots of small multiples. Something I hope to do in the future, but you couldn’t include all those names on a map and still easily see the chronology.

      • Gary says :

        What I mean is this: In great data visualizations one’s understanding of the data is greatly enhanced by the graphic presentation. Tufte’s chart on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is a good example. To my mind (and perhaps to no one else’s) yours depends almost entirely on the user reading the data; not a lot of insight is gained just from looking at it other than the idea that some years there’s a lot going on. This is not a criticism, just a comment.

      • jostwald says :

        Thanks for the feedback. I see what you’re saying now, but I’d suggest there are several differences with the Napoleon map, which I will naturally promote to a post of its own.

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