OK, all you postmodernists, you intellectuals who think that there is no such thing as reality, that it is all about the narrative, that each participant in a historical event has a separate and equally valuable experience that is as inviolable as any other. How progressive you are, refusing to “privilege” any one account over another, for fear of allowing one dominant social discourse to emerge! After all, the dominant party then quashes the stories put forth by marginalized groups, those outside the norm and thus those without power. What is “truth,” after all, but the account of the dominant elites, and thus yet another way of keeping the people down? Downtrodden voices are by definition true, no matter what they happen to be saying.
Yeah, I can talk that postmodernist jive. And why not? I’ve been reading it my entire adult life.
But as much as I appreciate the insights offered by postmodernist thought, I also have to admit that I have a fundamental problem with this approach. “Nothing is true”? “All accounts are equal”? All history is merely a form of “discourse” that adds up to nothing?
Count me out.
And here is why. I have spent my entire life studying the greatest (actually, the worst) war in human history. Tens of millions of people died in the course of the fighting. Some were pulverized by high explosive, others burned in fire, and at the end, some were even vaporized in microseconds by a brand-new process of nuclear fission. The whole thing was horrible, and if there’s one thing we’re all sure of, it is this: World War II happened. It wasn’t just someone’s narrative, and it isn’t open to question.
Oh sure, we can argue over the origins of the war and the why and the how (which is history’s real purview), but just try and tell a military historian that the battle of Midway or Stalingrad or Normandy or Berlin were mere “narratives.” Let’s go back in a time machine and tour the Prokhorovka battlefield in July 1943. Let us smell the smoke and dodge the secondary explosions and try to avoid stepping on the human remains. Then step up and tell someone that Kursk is nothing but a “narrative.
Sure. Do that. Then stand back and prepare to defend yourself.
My friend and distinguished scholar John Lynn said it best in his 2003 book Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. “Extreme proponents of cultural history might dispute the very existence of reality, since all is perception to them,” he wrote. “In the realm of military history, such airy discussions tend to become foolish. Thousands of dead and wounded as a result of battle is the kind of hard fact that defies intellectual games.”
Let me just join in here with a “Right on, Dr. Lynn!” Sure, it is possible to intellectualize almost anything. But most military historians feel that there are clear limits to how far they can go without breaking faith with their subject. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, “S–t happened,” and that is true no matter how clever we want to be with our analysis.
To prove my point, come back next week. I’ll take you to Leningrad, to some truly horrific events, and to the martyrdom of a great city in wartime.