Today is the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. I am currently reading a novel that is immersing me in the intrigues, the mistakes, and the surprise attack that brought about the War in the Pacific. And it’s making me nervous about our own day.
I want to tell you about it, but first, some reflections on learning about history. . . .
History today is either forgotten or reviled. Many younger people especially know hardly anything about what happened in the past, and the little they do know is conditioned by those determined to discredit their heritage.
Purging history from the public square by removing statues and destroying monuments is supposed to protest slavery, anti-Indian atrocities, and other shameful parts of our past. But removing reminders of that past, in the long run, erases our national memory and can only create the impression that such bad things never happened. In so doing, they also erase the national memory of the good things that our forebears have left us.
So how can we learn history so that we can benefit from it? Reading history books is an obvious answer. But some historical scholarship is highly specialized, intentionally controversial and thus biased in one way or another, or–the biggest problem for me–highly abstract, looking down on historical events from a great height with a view to advancing a thesis or generalizing ideas. All of that is legitimate scholarship, but what I want in a history is description of concrete events, enabling me to enter into the past with the help of my imagination–that is, my ability to visualize and empathize–so that I can vicariously experience what happened way back then.
So I like to read narrative history; that is, history as story–as true story–rather than history as a social science. See, for example, the work of David Hackett Fischer, with his recreations of Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington Crossing the Delaware. Or David McCollough writing about the American Revolution, the Pioneers, and colossal feats of engineering, such as the digging of the Panama canal and the invention of the airplane . I’m also a big fan of Stephen Ambrose, with his account of the Lewis & Clarke expedition, the building of the transcontinental railway, and his many World War II books such as D-Day and Band of Brothers. I also recommend David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, an absolutely compelling account of the series of murders on the Osage reservation back in the 1920s in Oklahoma close to where I live now, a book that reads like the best murder mystery.
Another genre that I like, literature professor that I was, is the historical novel. Not romances set in different historical periods but attempts to write about historical events in a manner faithful to the facts using the techniques of fiction writing; that is, the elements of fiction (characters, setting, plot, conflict, point of view, and theme) and the narrative modes (dialogue, action, description, exposition, and thoughts). The result, when done right, is a work of fiction that is an imaginative re-creation of a historical event.
A good example is the work of Michael Shaara, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Killer Angels, Meticulously researched and drawing on letters, journals, and memoirs of the time, Shaara gives a blow by blow account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of the commanders and common soldiers on both sides. The result is a stunning and absorbing work of art, with complex characters and vivid action, possibly one of the greatest novels about warfare ever written.
After Michael Shaara died, his son, Jeff Shaara, took up the genre, using his father’s approach first to write more books about Civil War battles and then to write novels about our nation’s other wars (so far, the Revolution, the Mexican War, World War I, World War II, Korea). He is not the literary artist that his father was, but these are still good reads and effective historical recreations. To be sure, they are fictions, not histories, and they are no substitute for historical scholarship. But fiction has a special power to draw us in and to have an impact on us.
Last year, Shaara the younger published To Wake the Giant about the lead up to World War II, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. He tells it primarily from the point of view of three characters: Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull; the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto; and an ordinary sailor Tommy Biggs, who has joined the Navy to escape the effects of the Depression on his rural community and finds himself stationed on the battleship the U.S.S. Arizona.
Unlike Shaara’s other books, the focus is not just on the battlefield but on the political and diplomatic context of what happened. We see Secretary of State Hull discussing the rise of Japan with FDR, who is preoccupied with Hitler’s threat to Great Britain, trying to balance Churchill’s pleas for help with the isolationism of lawmakers and much of the American public. Meanwhile, Yamamoto emerges as a pragmatic tactician, who tries to hold back the radical militarists and knows that Japan cannot, in the long run, win a war with the United States. Mistakes, miscalculations, and naive complacency afflict both sides. But finally Japan pulls the trigger.
This isn’t a review. I haven’t finished the book yet. But on this Pearl Harbor Day, the novel has me reflecting on how government incompetence, the unintended consequences of seemingly unrelated decisions, efforts at appeasement, and preoccupation with other concerns often precipitate war. And that, historically, the outbreak of war often comes as a surprise.
Today China is ascending, growing its military forces and technology to an alarming degree, threatening American allies, and practically promising to invade Taiwan. Meanwhile, the United States is weakened, demoralized, and poorly led. The conditions are not the same as in 1941, but they are too close for comfort. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but ignorance of history makes repetition more likely.