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