Friday, January 11, 2019

"History, History Is Our Cry (H-I-S-T-O-R-Y)"

I like reading history, and it occurred to me recently why.

History is “Soap opera with real people.”

What’s more compelling?  A fierce battle with “live” ammunition, or a titanic conflict using imaginatorial blanks? 

There are tangible consequences to history.  Things happen to actual people that – often radically – change things in the actual world.  In fiction, nothing really happens to anybody, because everybody in fiction is made up.  Not that you cannot be deeply moved by fiction, because of course you can.  But at the end of the day,

History is real.

And fiction is fictional.  Not my most artful articulation but there you have it.

Or do you?

Going to Hawaii, specifically the island of Oahu, brings to mind Pearl Harbor – because Oahu is where Pearl Harbor is located – and when I think of Pearl Harbor, I think about this:

Pop quiz. 

What words most prominently describes the 1941 event that took place at the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor?

“Sneak attack.”

That’s how we remember it. 

“The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.”

The two words appear inseparable, as if “attack” were a magnet and the word it adheringly attracts to it is “sneak.”

“The sneakattack on Pearl Harbor.”

It’s a cliché – though not an inaccurate one – that history is written by the winners.  End of the war, the ultimate winners, dictating the terms:

“We are taking your weapons.  And your pens.”

History gets “sneak attack” because we won, and “the enemy” had no pens.
Pondering this “shading” phenomenon, a paralleling example popped into my head.

I do not recall why, but I am thinking about the Battle of Trenton, a pivotal engagement in the Revolutionary War, wherein General George Washington and his Continental army defeated a superior number of Hessian mercenaries, working for the British.

How do we historically describe the strategy behind the successful Battle of Trenton?

A “surprise attack.”

And there you have it.  “Pearl Harbor’s” a “sneak” attack.  The “Battle of Trenton”?  A “surprise attack.”

Is that an entirely fair distinction?  Let’s examine this further.  Because it’s fun.

It is the day after Christmas… well, it actually began Christmas Night.  George Washington directs his men into boats, and they cross the Delaware River at night.  The next morning, they surprise the heck out of the Hessians.

You think the Hessians were expecting an attack on “Boxing Day”?  They were probably hung over and bloated from holiday schnaps and schniztzel.  And the very wobbly next morning, there’s George Washington and his revolutionary forces, firing guns at overfed people with really bad headaches.    

Attacking at Christmas – okay, the following morning, but still – could that not – if you can use the word “objective” in these matters – be considered a sneak attack?  I mean, even if you won, couldn’t a small, guilty part of you feel just the tiniest bit “sneaky”?

On the other hand, at Pearl Harbor, we were totally not ready.

People attacking when you are totally not ready –

Isn’t that the precise definition a “surprise attack”?

So why – I mean we know why; we had the pens – but why, from a historical accuracy perspective, these contrasting depictions?

The Japanese Imperial Navy was insidiously “sneaky.”

“The Father of our Country” gave ‘em a Christmas “surprise.”

“Hm”, “Uh-oh” and possibly “Yikes!”  Because the people who weren’t there, meaning subsequent readers of history, what do they then spend posterity believing?

I imagine Japanese historians view the attack on Pearl Harbor as a – literally – surprising success.  

And the Hessians?

“Attacking on Christmas?  What a schneaky thing for them to do.”

So there’s that… to think about.

Maybe I should revise my idea of history, viewing it more specifically as “Fiction with real people.”

The thing is if I do that,

I’ve got nothing to read.


JED said...

Well, for one thing, we were already at war with England and the Hessians and all's fair in love and war. But we weren't at war with Japan when they snuck in and attacked. But I take your point - they were both pretty sneaky.

And I never thought of this before but George Washington actually started the War on Christmas! It wasn't Mr. Obama as the non-mainstream media would have it.

Rebecca said...

I have been saying for decades that history should be written in the same format as People magazine, so that everyone would see that it is not a dry, boring subject. Textbooks make it so boring, and teachers can be so stuck on dates instead of motivation. But I had an American history teacher in high school who was so enthusiastic about his subject that he really brought it to life, and another in college who assigned 2 small paperbacks about different branches of British royalty instead of a textbook. Between the two, they made history my favorite subject. Even more than the English classes that were all about reading - which is my all-time favorite activity. I didn't like most of the classics I was made to read, but to this day, the most thrilling part of travel for me is learning about the history of places I visit.

I can't even imagine what the history books will say about this particular period of US history. But it would have been far more interesting in hindsight, rather than having to live through it. "Interesting" is not how I'd describe it, tortuous is more like it.

I'd also just like to mention how very much I enjoy your blog. I rarely comment, but I've been reading it for a very long time, now. So I thought I'd just take the opportunity to tell you now, since there's no telling how long it'll be before I comment again. Thanks for sharing!

YEKIMI said...

Even in this country, you can have different interpretations of events. I'm old enough now, that when I was growing up in the South that some of my classmates and teachers had grandparents [or great-grandparents] that had fought in the Civil War. But in school, in the South, the teachers referred to it as "The War Between The States" and it was distinctly implied that the North had cheated to win the war. When I moved North, the schools taught it as the Civil War [and since when has any war ever been civil?] and I was like "I have never heard of this Civil War, when did it take place?" and when it was described to me I said "OH, you're talking about The War Between The States." Most everyone looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. I distinctly remember this because I was unmercifully made fun of because of it and what teenager likes to be made fun of? [Also, I didn't "talk funny", it's YOU people up here that "talk funny".]

Ralph M said...

As Jed said, we were not at war with Japan. In fact, negotiations were going on in D.C. between US and Japanese diplomats, attempting to maintain the peace. It's sneaky to attack while negotiating for peace.