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So, HOW DOES history get written?
The secret of writing history
Are we all still here? Good. Looking at the news today, with the Russians rattling sabers and all, I’d have cause to wonder.
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There’s a famous quote that nobody truly has a reliable source for:
Writing is easy. Sit at a typewriter, open a vein, and bleed.
Attributed to both Ernest Hemmingway and Red Smith
That’s what it feels like sometimes. Writing is a very solitary activity, despite all the “collaboration” tools available these days that allow others to turn your work to mush. I wrote Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly with Lee Rochwerger, an old Army buddy who, I hope, won’t mind my talking about our work together. Lee is a dear friend who was the guiding light of the entire project, and it was because of him we wrote the first book, What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45. To everyone who read both, many thanks…and our sympathies.
Why is a rewrite of What, for those of you who don’t know that already.
Lee and I were looking at Guadalcanal 1942-43 for a book, and something was…off…in Japanese behavior. Every time they defeated the Americans at sea around Guadalcanal—and they did it a lot—they didn’t stick around to complete the task of smashing the landings. They shot up the place a couple of times, but there were no counter-landings. It didn’t even look like they tried. It almost looked like they expected the Americans just to give up. That wasn’t right.
How SOME History Is Written
Even though we read about the Pacific war for decades, we weren’t sure what we saw. We researched and came up with a thesis: The Japanese treated war like a kendo match. The losing party had to know when they were defeated and give up. Such expectations had worked, sort of, with the Chinese in 1894 and on the Russians in 1905. Why not now? That seemed to be their attitude.
That was what we started with. That wasn’t what we ended up with.
Ultimately, we concluded that Japan did not believe that the Americans would fight it out and knew they couldn’t last. They always knew that the United States and its allies were so resilient. Japan was in no way ready to fight a war of attrition with the most extensive manufacturing base on Earth. Their odd attitude was based, in part, on a weird fatalism.
So, we started writing—then rewriting and rewriting—based on the assumption that Japan made a grievous error of miscalculation and folly. Why they made this error took us 300-odd pages to explain. From a commercial and marketing standpoint, ours isn’t another “USA triumphant” or “nail-biting turning point” narrative like nearly every other book on the Pacific War, but an explanation of a national and cultural disaster of epic proportions.
We did that by combing obscure narratives that were not centered on the triumphalist or the edge-of-your-seat types of explanations because we wanted to relate what did NOT work for Japan, not what did work for their enemies. All you engineers out there know what failure analysis is. Ours was a historical failure analysis. We think it worked. It would be best if you read Why the Samurai Lost Japan to see for yourself.
In historical writing, the devil IS the details. But someone has to commit words to paper or screen in any writing endeavor, the real work of the endeavor. Regardless of how it’s done, someone has to put the ideas forth and see if they still make sense. If there’s a collaborator, someone else creates some content. Then someone else has to blend the two—more demanding than it looks. Then an editor has to make the whole mess make sense and readable. Then there are the footnotes, and the endnotes, and the citations, and the illustrations, and the appendices, and the index. And the publisher has a few choice words to say…
Eventually, the result should be something that someone hopefully wants to read and might find helpful or at least interesting. And the scribes sit back and rest on the few laurels that the book garners.
Then the marketing types looked at it and said, “huh,” before they take your money and don’t do much. And there were the social media denizens who wrote lengthy critiques of the book without even reading it. And, of course, the reviewers didn’t say anything about the content but argued that the treatment was “inappropriate for the times” or “unfairly biased” against this victim group or the other. And there are the enlightened souls who declared that the title was “wrong” because everyone knows that the samurai were outlawed in 1867…which goes so far to explain all that samurai imagery the Japanese used before 1945 so readily.
But a book isn’t the final product of your labors. Books are business cards that get the writers speaking engagements, teaching jobs, honorary this and that, and the envy of all you know…sometimes. Often as not, they sit on the shelf, forgotten. The publishing industry is unique in that they have to have at least 33% original content every year, and at least 25% of all their books in print—new and backlist—must make a profit. That’s the reality that all writers of anything are up against.
History gets written by people who think they have something to say about something that happened in the past, have the endurance to say it, get past the commercial and social gatekeepers who bar the way, dare to make their work public one way or another, and endure everything terrible told about their work after it gets out. But then there’s this:
News is only the first rough draft of history
In comparison to writing history, writing the news is easy.
That’s how Lee and I wrote Why the Samurai Lost Japan. Some call it history; some don’t. For $0.99, you can find out if you’re into e-books; $25 or so if you’re not, and less if you want autographed copies (just use PayPal or drop me an e-mail with an address).
But it’s just one example of how the process of history-writing works. I would wager that nearly anyone who wrote non-fiction in book form will have a similar tale. Does anyone care to share their labor of love/hate writing? Come on; I know you do.
On 26 March 1875, Syngman Rhee was born in Haeju, Korea. He spent most of his life outside Korea but would die leading the southern part.
On 26 March 1979, the Camp David Accords were signed, Jimmy Carter’s sole foreign policy success.
And the Forth Saturday in March is National Quilting Day. Happy day all you needle-fingered folks out there.
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