News & Opinion » O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan

If history is always written by victors... then what is the point?

by

comment
I don't know when I got tired of paying attention to the particulars of history.

It could have been when I was 7 and could never remember exactly when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, or what it was in 1776 that I was supposed to get all excited about. It could have been during the Nixon administration, when pundits regaled us nightly with tales of the crooked presidents of yesteryear, from Warren G. Harding to Ulysses S. Grant, so that Nixon didn't look so bad.

He still looked bad.

George W. Bush is still in office, so history has yet to have its way with him. I imagine when it does, Nixon will look like Saint Augustine. Or maybe not Saint Augustine, but maybe just another narcissistic megalomaniac who fucked things up for more people than for whom he made things better.

Of course, it could have been in college when "history" tanked for me, with all those tests I couldn't pass, even though I studied really hard. It just seemed that all the treaties and doctrines, and the dates and the battles of every war, conflagration and police action blurred one into the other, and in the end had nothing to do with any greater truth whatsoever. History is always written by the victors, and I have forever yearned to know what the teenager riddled with bullets, hanging on the wire surrounding the trenches in Ypres, thought about the efficacy of World War I. What did the mother who watched her baby get burned alive, and who subsequently went stark-raving mad, think about the strategic importance of Okinawa? Would she have gotten her college essay question right, or would she simply have vomited all over the exam booklet?

So with my conviction that the history I was reading was invariably skewed, I took on Hegel.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a 19th-century German philosopher who thought you could discern broad patterns in the human past. He liked the idea of history as dialectic, powered by some sort of driving force, although what that driving force was, I could never figure out. He saw human events as a series of clashes called theses and antithesis that were somehow ... ah, going to go somewhere. From this thinking comes the notion that "those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it." This is a lovely idea, which makes educated liberals cream their shorts, because it implies that if we do understand history, we need not repeat it. This thought makes us want to fund public education and make children turn off their television sets and read books instead.

Of course, if the books are mostly crap, full of the dates of treaties and doctrines and battles against rag-tag bands of Mexicans at the Alamo or beleaguered cornpones at the battle of Bull Run, and about the glories of warfare and the righteousness of whatever fill-in-the-blank cause, then the kids might as well turn the TV back on. One load of crap is as good as another.

So cuing from Hegel, who was helpful, I have concluded that there is a driving force behind human history, although it's not anything even implying an evolution from the bad to the better. The driving force behind most of what I've come to know as "history" is fear manipulated by individual narcissistic megalomaniacs. The outstanding feature of narcissism is that to narcissists, other people simply aren't real, but pawns provided to further their own ends. Megalomania implies an insatiable need for power.

You do the math. No normally moral person could ever intentionally put into motion the wheels that end in warfare.

I've got this picture in my head: the kid tangled in the wire, shot full of holes and hanging there, surrounded by a bleak and muddy battlefield littered with corpses. He's got a writing pad in one hand and a pen in the other, only it's hard to write; he's sort of strung up like a scarecrow, so one hand can't reach the other. But he stretches and strains until one arm comes free and goes to work on the first-ever history book written by the losers.

Chapter One: The Battle of Ypres was the worst fucking idea even conceived by human kind. What kind of lunatics could have come up with such a thing?

Chapter Two: Please, somebody, get me down off this goddamn wire.

Add a comment