J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

“We begin to simplify experience into myth”

In a review of recent books about World War 2 in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic editor Adam Kirsch closes with some thoughts about historical myth-making, debunking, and revision:
It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis. . . . The fact that we can still be instructed by the war, that we are still proud of our forefathers’ virtues and pained by their sufferings and sins, is the best proof that World War II is still living history.
I think the same words apply to the Revolutionary War, or any other conflict that folks study with lively accuracy.

The image above is “Washington & Lincoln (Apotheosis)”, created about 1865, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


DebbieLynne said...

As John Adams said, "Facts are stubborn things."

Waldo4me said...

Good point, but this always raises questions. How does a "modern" historian separate out their own experiences and biases from their historical interpretations? Are we just substituting one perspective for another? Discovering new facts is much different from re-interpreting.

But, I suppose selling a book based on a radical new point of view is much more profitable than a rehash of old stuff. It makes you wonder what the science is in "social science".

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that marketing (of all sorts—to publishers, to the news media, to the public, to tenure committees) requires historians to highlight what’s new or, even better, groundbreaking and revolutionary in their work. Even the most conservative, traditional writers claim that they’re rescuing untold stories from obscurity.

As for separating out one’s biases, I think the best anyone can do is examine and acknowledge those. I try to operate with two perspectives: my modern tastes and values, and my understanding of how the people of the past viewed their world. The biggest difficulty is spotting the biases that we don’t even know we have, mostly because our society shares them so widely.

EJWitek said...

While I understand and appreciate the author's intentions, I must take exception to his statement that "moral compromises and outright betrayals are inseparable from every combat." That, to me, is a classic instance of an historian imposing his values and views and what he perceives to be the moral code of his own generation on history. And, I would argue that that is not the true purpose of an historian. He may be cognizant and even support contemporary values and beliefs, or what his perception is of the mainstream consensus, but he shouldn't filter the past through them.
A clasic example is the current consensus that WW2 was a "good war" and Vietnam was a "bad war." This is partially supported by the belief that WW2 was a great moral crusade and Vietnam was not. Yet the US only went to war against Hitler because Hitler, rather foolishly, declared war against the US. FDR could never have gotten a declaration of war had Hitler not acted foolishly. Where's the great moral crusade?
I don't mean to argue that we should not have fought Germany, I am merely trying to point out that I believe that Kirsch needs to rethink his statement.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not convinced that "moral compromises and outright betrayals are inseparable from every combat" is an example of a historian imposing his own judgments. It looks more like a historian stating a possibly discomfiting conclusion based on the historical record. I can’t think of an advanced culture that doesn’t have a discussion of moral compromises and betrayals in war as part of its literature, and I can’t think of a well documented war that doesn’t have examples of moral compromises.

As for World War 2 and the Vietnam War, I think they both were presented as moral crusades, starting well before the actual legislative approval of combat. One conflict has retained that image in popular culture, in part because the enemy turned out to be even worse than Americans thought. The other lost its pro-democracy sheen early on. We might remember one more positively than the other because of that difference, or because our team won one, or because of some combination of those reasons and others.

EJWitek said...

On the contrary, Kirsch's statement read on its own is precisely what I believe it to be and I would argue that "outright betrayals" are not part of every combat. I don't think he really thought through the implications of that declarative statement.
One must separate the "myth" of WW2 from the history. The US went to war because Japan attacked us; FDR made no request for a declaration of war against Germany because he knew he had no justification for it and the country had no stomach for it. It was only after Hitler declared war on us a few days later that FDR could go to war with Germany. It's often forgotten that FDR spent sometime in Germany as a teenager and brought into office a profound distaste for the Germans and had his own personal feelings about them.
Add to that the fact that WW2 was unique in that it had all of Hollywood putting out propaganda film after propaganda film so that the myth of what Hollywood indicated what we are fighting for overshadowed just how the country felt.
There was a distinct difference in the sentiments of the Americans fighting in the Pacific and in the European theater. Any readings in depth about the troops in the European theater brings out the fact that, whereas there was a profound passion about fighting the Japanese, partly because of Pearl Harbor and frankly racism, there was no such passion among the troops fighting in the European theater. Their primary attitude was to get the war over so that they could go home.
But, historians have characterized it as a "good war", the discovery of the barbarism and horror of the concentration camps helped to propel it into a moral crusade.
Historians only know are starting to come to grips with the Vietnam War and only now are starting to reevaluate WW2. But that's what historians do.
I would conclude by saying that, of course, historians should be aware of and examine the moral paradoxes of war and betrayals, but that's a far cry from Kirsch's statement.