Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"History Is Written By The Victors"

You may notice a similarity between this post and the one immediately previous. I can’t help it. It’s simply the way they come out. Please excuse any redundancy.

“History is written by the victors.”

Which makes a lot of sense. If the vanquished wrote history, what exactly would they say?

“Oh, man! It was brutal!”

“What the heck were we thinking?”

“It’s funny to say this now, but I really thought we were going to win.”

“You know the worst part? I’m wounded in every part of my body.”

This is hardly “Best Seller” material. Think about it.

“Tactics That Didn’t Work” – How I Lost The Battle Of Hastings And Got Shot In The Eye; by Harold, King of the Saxons (deceased).

Try finding a publisher for that.

So of course history is written by the victors. By default. The purpose of the quote – attributed to Winston Churchill, but for all we know, his butler said it and Churchill just took the credit – the purpose of the quote is not informational, because from an informational standpoint, it’s obvious. Most victors wouldn’t bother giving the other side the option, as if they’d accept it, in any case.

THE VICTORS: “We thought you might like to write the history.”

THE VANQUISHED: “No, thanks. We’re happy being servile and alive.”

The purpose of the quote, “History is written by the victors” is cautionary.

The quote reminds us that when we read history, because it is written by the victors, it may not be entirely trustworthy. There is no rebuttal history saying, “That’s not exactly how it happened.” We have, especially when referring to events occurring along time ago, perhaps only one version of the events. We call it history, because it’s all we’ve got.

(NOTE: Even recent purported history can be highly questionable. Remember Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman? You have to keep your eye on whoever’s writing this stuff.)

We thought it might be illuminating to go back in time and talk to a chronicler, someone whose job it was to record the important events of the day for posterity, and see exactly how that worked.

CHRONICLER: Welcome to the past.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you. You are famous for having chronicled the greatest military victory of your people.

And a magnificent victory it was. In truth, I chronicled all of our battles. Except for the last one, which we lost. That one was chronicled by somebody else.

Did you actually attend the battle yourself?

Myself? No. I was busy buying ink. I knew if we won, I’d be needing a lot of it for immediate chronicling.

What if you’d lost?

I kept the receipt.

If you weren’t actually there, how would you be familiar with the details of the battle?

The king told me.

The king.

Yes. As soon as we won, His Majesty called me in and told me exactly what took place.

Did you have other sources for that information?

I’d be a fine chronicler if I didn’t.

So you interviewed a number of people.

Absolutely. The king brought in his generals and they reported the events from their various points of view.

Was the king present when they made their reports?

You bet. He wanted to hear them too.

So they made their reports in front of the king.

I’m not sure I appreciate the insinuation. This was no whitewash, I can assure you of that. The king instructed his generals to communicate exactly what took place. Besides, there was nothing to cover up here. We won.

Was the battle difficult?

Touch and go. It could have gone either way. Our side suffered enormous casualties. And you didn’t have to take my word for that; anyone could walk onto the battlefield and count them.

And you did that?

Not me personally. I sent my assistant. You work your way up in this business. They sent me out when I started. But very quickly, I learned that my strength is not as a “heat of battle” chronicler. My specialty is “overview.” I’m actually a liability in the field. I have absolutely no “poker face”. I’d be out there, counting casualties, and a badly wounded man would look up pleadingly and say, “Am I going to die?” and I’d say. “Of course not”, but he’d read in my face that I’m lying and immediately lose all hope and succumb on the spot. It was not helpful for me to be out there, amidst the carnage. And, of course, there’s the serious possibility of picking something up. When you’re your country’s foremost chronicler, you cannot take that risk.

A large number of casualties could be a reflection of an evenly fought battle. But it could equally be a reflection of high-level incompetence, even though you wound up winning.

It was definitely the former of those two.

According to your generals. Who were at the high level.

Who else was I going to ask, the other side? They’d just lie their heads off. And we couldn’t interview the casualties. They were either dead, or moaning.

What about the soldiers who still had their wits about them.

I’m not sure we had any.

So it was a glorious victory of historic proportions. The army fought magnificently. And the generals’ strategies won the day.

I see you’ve read my chronicle.

You mentioned that the king did not lead his army into battle.

He did lead them.

But not into battle.

He led them in prayer. Before the battle.

Where was the king during the battle?

Safely in the back. Which, by the way, speaks to the credibility of this chronicle. If we had wanted to “fake it”, we could have had the king boldly leading the charge, cutting a swath though the enemy with his broadsword and other weapons. But the king said, “I command you to tell it exactly as it happened.” Which I dutifully did. Noting, of course, this ingenious innovation in battlefield tactics. Our king was the first leader in history who chose, against all of natural instincts, not to place himself in the forefront of the fighting. And the strategy worked perfectly. The enemy’s king was in the forefront, and was cut to pieces, at which point, his army fell into instant disarray, and ultimately gave up. This was unquestionably the turning point in the battle. The determining difference. Our king kept out of harm’s way and we won. Their king positioned himself on the front lines, and wound up hanging from a lamppost in the capital square.

One last question. How was your chronicle received?

His Majesty loved it. In all humility, I am very proud of my work. The participants in the events may see themselves as “making history.” But I know who really makes history.



Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

You know the worst part? I’m wounded in every part of my body.”

Very very funny.

You raise funny and serious points at the same time here.

It isn't just that history is told differently, but that history is created by the victors. That's done with religion, for example. The powers that be create entire stories, but people centuries later remember the stories as if they happened.

It's been long known that a single man named Shakespeare did not write the Shakespeare plays and poetry. Evidence has pointed to Edward De Vere and even Christopher Marlowe (faked death) as the real writers. Whoever did this, we now have this "history" of a a literary figure who never existed. The real Shakespeare was a front, he never wrote anything, and his children were essentially illiterate.

I majored in American History in college. Now, I agree with whoever wrote that history is a lie agreed upon to be true