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On History.

Posted 11-26-2010 at 13:35 by Critias

I often get a funny look when I tell someone I'm studying history. The looks get funnier when I tell them I'm going to grad school for history.

My mom -- God bless her -- is particularly baffled by all this. She tries to look happy and interested, but deep down inside I can tell she's tilting her head a little to one side, like a puppy, and trying to figure out why I'm wasting my time. She's proud of my good grades, proud of me getting published, presenting research, and all that...but she can't seem to really wrap her head around why I'm doing all this.

"But we already know what happened," she'll sometimes say, "What is there to still research?"

And so, in no particular order but stream of consciousness, here's a few of my own personal reasons, rebuttals, arguments, defenses, or whatever-you-want-to-call-thems:

We don't know what happened. Not all of it. And we never will. But let's not let that keep us from trying. In recent decades the whole historical community's been all kerfluffled (love you, Sharon!) and up in arms about Postmodernists. The "po mo's" are a bad joke, but they have one point: all written documents are biased. What's more, even if the primary sources weren't written with an obvious bias, they were written as just the information that one person could gather at the time; they're incomplete, even if they're trying to be honest.

One example of bias? When Caesar wrote home about how much Gaulish ass he kicked, do you think he was being completely honest? Or could he have been padding the ol' resume a little, and exaggerating how barbaric the Gauls were, and how handily he beat them?

For completeness? Just look at the modern media. How many times have we seen conflicting newspaper articles? Conflicting interviews from multiple witnesses? The 11 o'clock news revising a story from the 7 o'clock, as more info came to light?

History's the same way. If we -- with all our technology, globalization, communication, organization, cameras, microphones, the internet -- if we, today, can't tell you exactly how something happened last week...what on Earth makes people think that we know all there is to know about Normandy, or Gettysburg, or Hastings?

There are always new documents to be uncovered, new memoirs to find. There are new military records being declassified, letters from officers to be found in someone's attic, new archaeological evidence being uncovered, or even just new interpretations of existing evidence. The broad strokes of the Little Big Horn might be the same, we might already know how the story ends...but the devil's in the details, and the details change with new evidence.

Even if we did know everything, studying it in depth is still a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. "History" is also a verb. People do history all the time, every day. It's not just reading a Time/Life book or watching a History channel special, it's rolling up your sleeves and reading dozens of books on the same subject and then making up your mind about which sources to research more, which historians to take seriously, which ones are using flawed arguments or making fallacious mistakes or presenting poor evidence. It's digging through the archives of a library to find a book written by a Civil War veteran to see why he was fighting, or finding old letters a WWI soldier sent home and comparing his experiences to the official orders for a given day, or reading over correspondences between a pair of businessmen while you're trying to see what civilians felt about the Revolution.

It's work. And like all work, it makes you better at something. Larger muscles are a side effect of digging ditches, right? A sharper head for numbers comes after handling financial reports, a good eye for lies might follow being a detective, and a general hatred and loathing for people is a well known side effect of working retail, after all. Work produces, well, work, yes, and hopefully a paycheck -- but it changes the worker, too.

Working at history helps you develop a healthy sense of skepticism. It helps you notice when details from stories don't match up, and it trains you to figure out which is more likely to be true. You'll gather data, yes, but also how appraise it, filter through it, organize it, streamline it into a cohesive argument, and then present that argument to try to convince others you know what you're talking about. History majors make terrific lawyers for a reason.

Studying history teaches you about the past, sure. It lets you fill your head with (generally) trivial information about something that happened years ago, but it also changes how you read, how you think, and how you form an argument. You'll develop writing skills, researching skills, reading skills, and you'll get on a first name basis with your local librarian/archivist, who is sometimes one of those cute-in-a-nerdy-way girls with the chunky glasses. That's important.

It does teach you about the past, doggone it! And the past is important. It's a tired old saying, "Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it," but it's a tired old saying because there's some truth in there. People keep saying old sayings because they kind of make some sense, y'know?

Me, I prefer Mark Twain's quote -- Mr. Twain is generally a quotable guy -- which is something like, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it sometimes it rhymes."

Understanding the past gives you a glimpse of the general patterns that history sometimes takes. You might not know exactly what tomorrow will bring, but you'll know the trends, if you look hard enough. Rather than claiming to know exactly which way the road will turn up ahead, I like to think history presents us with a better understanding of the warning signs on the side of that road.

Imagine a disarmed general citizenry, with one ethnic or cultural group being singled out and blamed for what's wrong with a country. There is charismatic leadership that the people are handing the reins to, economic hardships are being blamed on external sources, or on an internal minority, or both. It's a nation reeling from a military loss less than a generation earlier, but gearing up to go reclaim their dignity at their neighbors' expense?

Am I being a little hyperbolic and describing America today? Or, wait, was I describing Hitler's Germany, maybe? Rome, during the centuries the Empire was failing? Or Athens, just after the Peloponnesian, maybe? See how universal some of these issues are?

And that goes double for military history. Young officers still read Clausewitz and Sun Tzu today, and for good reason.

People are awesome, dammit, and they've done some awesome stuff! Some of you might remember my old signature line, but too bad:

"Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds -- some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians -- may not be without their glory, and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other."


That, right there. Herodotus nailed it, in the very first words of the very first real historical text written by man. He wasn't just the father of history because he was the first guy to actually try and use verifiable sources, to interview witnesses of historical events, to systematically gather data and test the accuracy of that data...he was the pimp-daddy of history, because right there in his introduction, he gets it. That sentence, more than any other single sentence of text I can think of, is why I'm doing what I'm doing -- particularly as a military historian.

Wars are important. They're not great, or good, or easy, or happy things...but they're important. There's absolutely no denying that the point of the spear has influenced the course of human history, and still does today (Korea, anyone? Iraq? Afghanistan? Detroit?), and that means that military history is worth studying. You want to look at how state-organized violence has shaped the world, how it has affected economies, cultural norms, religious mores. You want to learn about it because it matters, yes.

But, to me? I also want to learn about it because by definition people fought and died in those wars, and those individual people -- no matter which side they fought on -- were important to someone, somewhen, and their stories deserve to be told.

Yankee vs Confederate, Greek vs Persian, Roman vs German (or Gaul, or Egyptian, or Carthaginian, or Greek, or Jew, or...), Cowboy vs Indian, Axis vs Ally, Englishmen vs Norman, GI vs VC -- they all had a lot in common. They were scared to be there, but they overcame it. They cared about the man next to them. They trusted their shield or flak vest, their sword or rifle. They had a girl waiting at home. They knew they might die, but they were there anyways.

And some of them did some amazing stuff, and deserve their little slice of immortality for it! We don't know the name of the Viking of Stamford Bridge -- yet -- but we, by God, know he clanked when he walked, and that he and his axe almost changed the course of history.

So give a historian a break, would'ja? We're passionate about our subject, we're working hard to study it, we're learning while we go, and we're sharpening our minds doing so. Many of us are planning to teach, so that future generations will appreciate their history -- history, not the rote memorization of dates and places and people for standardized tests, but history -- in order to help them be more well rounded, well educated, critically thinking, logically writing, cohesively arguing, people.

Plus we learn some really cool stories.
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  1. Old Comment
    Critias's Avatar
    I ran out of space in the above post, but still managed to convey my general, rambling, points fairly well. So studying history also teaches you how to be concise, I guess? Yeah, we'll go with that.

    In other news, for those who might be curious about my current signature line (and I'm sure folks are losing sleep wondering what it's all about!), it's from a gentleman scholar named Marc Bloch, aka "The Last Great Frenchmen." Okay, he's not really known as that, I just made it up.

    Bloch was Jew from an academic family in Paris. He was a Captain in World War One, earning the Legion d'honneur (a pretty big deal). The son of a historian, he went to university at Strasbourg, then became a professor of history, himself.

    At the age of 52, when France mobilized for war, he took up his old rank and signed back up. Friends and family urged him to leave, instead -- the guy was French and Jewish, remember, so the Nazis weren't gonna be very nice -- and he replied "I was born in France, I have drunk the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests."

    Then, France dropped about as quick as the prom queen's panties, as you may recall. He wrote a history book (called "Strange Defeat," a fascinating read) about how swiftly France was overrun, and then this academic in his mid-fifties decided to start up and run a call of the French Resistance.

    He got captured by the Vichy police and turned over to the Gestapo. In between torture sessions and fun crap like that, he wrote "The Historian's Craft," a book about the study of history, why it's important, and his own look at why it matters and how it should be approached. He was four chapters in (out of seven he proposed) when he was executed in June of 1944. He wrote the book, according to his own introduction to it, as a means of answering his young son's question from years earlier. "Daddy, what is the point of history?"

    The guy lived a hell of a life, and wrote a hell of a book under one hell of a set of circumstances. My signature line is the last line of text in the book. It was an interrupted sentence in an interrupted paragraph of an interrupted chapter of an interrupted book...but it bears all that weight pretty well, I think.
    Posted 11-26-2010 at 13:59 by Critias Critias is offline

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