What is History: An Essay, Part I

History is an educated guess on a wing and a prayer.  Mere shadows of the past come to life in history but can shadows be trusted?  Our views of history can be revised, mis-understood or completely wrong.  History can be pigeon-holed and molded to fit an ideology, point of view, or interpretation.  History can drive a nation forward in a singular goal or it can be stripped of all semblance of reality by censors trying to hold back the unfettered truth.  History nearly seems unattainable because of the minefield of bias and ulterior motives it must constantly escape.  Using sound methodology and shrewd judgment, modern historians valiantly attempt to piece together the past in a reliable way only to realize again that history is not static. History remains a half written sheet of paper constantly in the state of revision teetering on a ledge waiting for the latest research, interpretation or trend to whisk it in a new direction.

The elusiveness of history can be the result of many factors.  Often time facts become distorted by individuals wanting to espouse something other than historical preservation.  This makes the truth difficult to pin down.  For example, Robert Williams explains how a photograph taken of a dead civil war soldier at the battle of Gettysburg may not be as it appears. Historians have argued that the soldier died elsewhere and was dragged to this dramatic setting between the famous outcroppings of rocks called ‘Devil’s Den’ on the Gettysburg battlefield (68).   In a possible attempt to make a more interesting picture, the photographer puts in doubt the soldier’s role in the battle, and it possibly compromises the veracity of certain aspects of the battle.  Others have written history riddled with speculation which may help strengthen our understanding of an event’s background but may not bring us closer to understanding the truth (Williams 126).  Others still have written purely fictitious accounts of events which have no basis in reality.  It can be a dizzying prospect for an amateur to wade through the historical claims espoused by various individuals.

Ideological fervor can also lead to a history that supports one point of view or overarching objective at the risk of compromising the truth.  The movement of historical interpretation called metahistory sought to define history in terms of one “all-encompassing meaning” (Williams 20).  In the 20th century, this led to much ideologically driven fervor using history to support one point of view which furthered a particular goal or political agenda such as the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich or the Marxist view of class struggle (Williams 23).   When history is driven by ideology, it typically judges harshly the opposing point of view while lauding its own.  This can make the truth of history difficult to discover.  Trinh Cong Son was a famous revolutionary song writer of the Vietnamese communists.  He wrote anti-war songs that were popular in both North and South Vietnam.  However, he eventually was arrested and sent to a reeducation camp because he incorrectly spoke of the war with America as a “civil war” (Lamb 109). North Vietnam communist ideology viewed the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese struggle to be free against the American imperialists.  It was a continuation of the colonial struggle to expel the foreigner – something the Vietnamese did many times in their history when attacked by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and now the Americans.   They would not accept a history of war that described as Vietnamese brother against brother.  That is why when Saigon fell to the communists on that fateful April day in 1975, Colonel Bui Tin, speaking to the south Vietnamese general he assumed power from said, “Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten” (Karnow 684).  All Vietnamese who sided with the Americans were merely puppets in the view of the Viet Cong.  History driven by ideology can have a short selective memory which can distort facts and make the truth more elusive.

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