Is History Too Slippery to Really Know?
Now there's a good question...
All here yet? Good, just checking. The Great White Father in DC keeps rattling our sabers—before his staff walks it all back.
We’ve been talking about how history is written, how there are different versions, not all of which are in concert with verifiable facts. One issue pointed out a while ago was:
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
This phrase implies that we shouldn’t carry our present thoughts, ideas, and especially attitudes into our study of the historical record. We’ve all done it; we shouldn’t, but we do. It’s unavoidable.
Lately, there’s a lot of debate about that, with the 1619 Project demanding that race be the ONLY consideration in thinking of the past, especially in the Americas. This attitude is called “presentism” by some in the historical trade. It’s a tendency to judge the past by the standards and especially attitudes of the present. When the record is used, it’s misused to make political points. I say usually, because sometimes these attitudes are injected into historical narratives to score moral points. They can be the same, but not always. My view of this practice comes down to this:
There are two uses for history: to learn from the past or as a cudgel on the present.
John D. Beatty
This goes back to Hartley’s point. We shouldn’t view the past as an early version of the present. The past was often completely different in attitudes, especially in mores. Those peopling the past weren’t us; they couldn’t know how what they were doing would affect the people of the future, no matter how hard some pendants claim that there is a “the right side of history” that I talked about last week.
There’s how warfare was conducted in days of yore, among many other things. Our fathers, grandfathers, and even before had different tools, weapons, and attitudes. WWII was a total war, in that whole countries committed a maximum of resources to prevail. It was probably—hopefully—the very last of its kind because when mankind learned to put together flying machines and weapons that could destroy cities in a flash, warfare changed from a struggle between people to a domain of machines. Even before Hiroshima, bombers could wreak havoc on the ground, like in…
I wrote Crop Duster after I got this idea from…I have no notion where. The basic story is of two men—an American bomber pilot and a German fighter pilot—pitted against each other over Europe. They both knew how to fly before the war and entered their respective air forces with enthusiasm and faith.
I knew a little about aviation when I started researching for the book. I’d seen Twelve O'clock High, the 1949 film and the ‘60s TV series. I figured it would be like them.
I’ll tell you a secret: writing a book of any kind has to have a story to carry the narrative along. A novel, especially, needs such a device. The story depends on defining characters and what they do in a given situation. Some writers, myself included, map or write or outline defining scenes and write the rest of the book around them. That’s what I did in Crop Duster. Unfortunately, everything I “learned” in Twelve O'clock High was wrong. Very little of it survived the research needed to make Crop Duster authentic. Sure, the book was based on Bernie Lay’s experience flying B-17s in England, but the movie…
This is the clash between popular and real history.
The German fighter pilot had no movie corollary with the partial exception of The Blue Max, which was about WWI. Thus, the lives of German fighter pilots took a great deal more research than did the lives of American bomber crews. Yes, the conditions under which they lived were very different, but their attitudes towards what they were doing were the same. They became increasingly fatalistic and somewhat bitter because they couldn’t see that what they were doing affected the war.
My bomber pilot arrived in England in late 1942; my fighter pilot started his war over Poland in 1939. They encounter each other only twice during the war. The first time the German wants to destroy the American; the second, he wants to save him. This really happened once. How often it happened is what makes history slippery because few recorded it at the time, and no one wants to talk about it, even eight decades later.
Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a story of aerial combat on fields that left no trace. Like naval warfare, there are no battlefields dedicated to air battles—even more slipperiness.
While their war dragged on, their morale sank, rose, then fell again. This unprecedented warfare mode for unproven goals had a toll that resembled Pickett’s Charge…and worse. Fully 25% of American aircrews became casualties in 1943. By 1945, fewer than 1,000 German fighter pilots survived out of more than 20,000. Ironically, both American and German airmen could have walked away from their frozen abattoir at any time without repercussions. You didn’t see that in Twelve O’clock High, and you don’t see it in most “authoritative” histories.
Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is available at your favorite bookseller for $17.95 in paperbound (a little less if you want an autographed copy) or $9.95 as PDF or E-book.
History is slippery, but with so many versions, it’s hard to know which version is “right.”
What do YOU think? Are there just too many versions of the past to say anything definitive?
Coming Up Next Time…
Where Did "History" Start? No, Not THAT Kind; The Other Kind?
Who Put The Ram In The Rama Lama Ding Dong?
On 16 April in…
1818: The Rush-Bagot Amendment was ratified by the US Congress. This1817 treaty with Great Britain demilitarized the US-Canadian border, creating the longest peaceful border in the world. It was the beginning of the “special relationship” between the two countries, and it enabled the US to expand its economy without a significant military commitment.
1945: The Soviet Red Army reached Berlin, commencing the last offensive in Europe in WWII. The agony was almost over…
And, 16 April is NATIONAL WEAR YOUR PAJAMAS TO WORK DAY. Since it’s Saturday this year, knock yourself out.