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Narrative? Real Life?

By Robert M. Citino
9/20/2011 • Fire for Effect

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.
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12 Responses to Narrative? Real Life?

  1. Tom Windberg says:

    Well said.

  2. Rob Citino says:

    Good post, Tom. Thanks!

  3. Mike H. says:

    Very true,Rob. Sadly, many (if not most) of us that were the children (or even the children’s children) have heard about “The War” not only from teachers, professors, and other “Historians”, but also from our loved ones who were there, “smelling the stench, hearing and feeling the noise, and seeing the carnage”. Sadly, those details usually only came out after 2 or 3 (or more!!!) stiff drinks…and many of those stories were dismissed as “war stories”. (Q: what’s the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A: a fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time”, and a war story starts with,”Now this is no s##t!!”) We were told many things, and not all of them were the unvarnished truth…especially by our teachers. As a History Nut, I want the real story…and,sadly, the ones that can tell that story are dying in droves every day. I hope you will continue to bring your lessons to this forum for a LONG time to come. Again, thank you

  4. Dave says:

    Too meney people distort/denie what happened, the mass murder of Jews and other undesirables in Naxi Germany in the 1930s and 40s

  5. Mike H. says:

    I asked my Uncle John, An infantry veteran of WWII (9th INF) what he thought of those who said the Holocaust was a hoax, just before he passed. He got what I know (from my own experience with Vietnam) as a “thousand-yard stare”…then told me what he had seen with his own two eyes; and told me that, should I ever encounter these people, to refer them to him and he would “set them straight!” This is what I mean about the True Story, from those who were really there. Please excuse any grammatical mistakes…I have something in my eyes…

  6. Sean Oliver says:

    I respect your work a lot, but this post about so-called postmodernism is not your best.
    Your description of “postmodernism” as an academic philosophy that “refuses to accept reality” and sees history as “meaningless narrative” is a misguided and inaccurate straw-man.

    The postmodernist approach you describe (“no such thing as reality” etc) originated from, and applies to, the narrow world of the creative arts. It’s a theory of art criticism which says:

    “There is no one single criterion, or ‘reality’ by which we can critique all works of art. There is no such thing as “good” vs “bad” art, the distinctions are meaningless. We all experience works of art differently, because art is a subjective experience, and each of our interpertations of art are equally valid.”

    We’re talking about Picasso or Warhol, not Kursk or Midway.

    These ideas about art criticism have never been seriously conflated with history. Art and history are not the same thing, and they cannot be studied and analyzed the same way.

    Instead po-mo historians might say that history has almost always been written by – and focused almost entirely on – the ruling elites. But the truth is that history is a mosaic of many different narratives which when assembled together, create a more complete picture of history.
    This is why it’s necessary to include the stories of ignored and marginalized people. The lives of women, peasants, the poor, the working classes, non-white cultures, and religous minorities all contribute to history’s mosaic.

    As do the narratives of ordinary soldiers.

    One of the ways to hear them is with oral history, which is a very “postmodern” method. It’s especially good for veterans’ and their stories of war.

    Traditional military history never bothered with oral history because warfare was studied primarily from the general’s perspective, and soldiers were treated as mere casualty statistics. All of the “important information” was recorded by HQ and deposited in the archives.
    Traditional history ignored the narratives told by the soldiers who fought at Kursk, and the stories told by the civillians of Lenningrad, because their narratives weren’t as “valuable” as the narrative put forth by the authorities. In fact, those soldiers and civillians had things to say that the Soviet authorities did not want to be heard. Traditional history has always been easily sanitized and manipulated into propaganda. Hearing from all the participants is essential if the truth is to be discovered.

  7. Rob Citino says:

    Thoughtful criticism, Sean, and thanks for that.

    I can’t say I agree with all the points you make. I know a number of oral historians, for example, who do not necessarily consider themselves post-modernists.

    Let us agree to agree on one point you make, however: “Traditional history has always been easily sanitized and manipulated into propaganda. Hearing from all the participants is essential if the truth is to be discovered.”

    Right on to that.


  8. JimmyP says:

    Honestly , I don’t get the point. I have always said history is an extremely important subject, and not to study it imperils a society, especially a democratic one. But post modernism impinging on Historical Reality? Is this a serious problem. For years we in the USA saw our history through rose colored glasses. This and the myths regarding the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and the Gone With the Wind memes of the pre-Civil war South , conspired to lead to a general decline in belief in the study of history or an extreme revisionism. We went from Heroic Cavalry vs. Brutal-Indians , to Rapist Murderers vs. peaceful-Indians etc. Neither set-up being real. Military History is always important, as is cultural-social history. The best historians can synthesize the two. I remember the enlightened feeling I had when I read Lehman’s “The Promised Land” and realized that the mechanized cotton picker had as much to do with the history of this country in the 50’s as did the end of World War II. Those who love and respect history must always strive for the telling in a truthful manner. Yes, the truth is relative but the telling must be honest.

  9. Bill Nance says:

    Jimmy, the truth is never relative. Something happened. You can approach it from a number of different perspectives, but you can never ignore the actual fact.

    The problem Rob is addressing has less to do with a concern about people introducing new information, or even concern about coming up with new interpretations. His major problem, and mine, is when people “reinterpret” facts to the point that the actual historical truth is unrecognizable.

    The problem you see with much “revisionist” history is that in an attempt to “correct” perceived issues in the historical narrative, it often goes too far, as you very correctly stated. This is a very significant problem, as historians must always start with the truth, the fact, aka, what happened, and work from there. If the facts are unknown, then we research them. When new information becomes available, we assess and analyze it and thereby gain new insight to the question. However, we cannot change the facts (or leave some out), to fit our own personal perspectives.

    And that is where I agree with your ending, wherein historians should always strive for a truthful, full, and accurate telling of events.

  10. Bruce Cohen says:

    Going to hold off on final judgment of this piece until the conclusion, but I find myself in the Sean Oliver camp at present. Moral relativism may be the problem with post-modern attempts to revisit (or distort) the Second World War, but is there really a general existentialist denial of its events fundamentally having occurred (setting aside the risible wingnut faction)?

    And are the moral relativists so far afield from the way you teach your students (or at least taught this one) to critically assess well-held beliefs?

    My sense is that you’re attacking the mythical historian Tzum Tse. He’s usually quoted as “Some say . . .” Maybe I’m just insufficiently familiar with the counter narrative you’re decrying. Like I said, waiting for the rest of the story before I judge the premise.

  11. Derek Weese says:

    Excellent post Dr. C. I am in college to actually earn a degree in history, specializing in something I’ve been reading about since I was seven: military history.
    I do firmly believe in reality, and coming from a military family and having lost relatives in Normandy and the Pacific I can say that it was a REAL event and cultural ‘historians’ generally do nothing but offend those in the military or those related to them with their…well…nonsense. Thanks for the post, in my opinion this one was your best one yet.

  12. Gene Gutowski says:

    WWII happened, and I was a part of it. Born to a ancestrally Jewish family in Poland, I was hunted. My family was murdered.

    As a resourceful adolescent in occupied Poland, I produced Aryan identities and sold them on the black market. While I survived, my mother and grandparents were killed at Belzec.

    I eventually left the dangers of Lwow, leaving my younger brother in the care of my father and uncle. I was captured and taken to a concentration camp. I insisted I had valid work papers proving an ethnic German heritage. Speaking fluent German, Russian, Polish and English, I became a personal translator for an SS officer and was later released. I traveled to Warsaw only to learn that my father was killed, and my uncle and brother, who was only 13, took poison.

    I was alone in the world at age 16.

    In May 1945, after evading the SS, I eventually found myself also outrunning the Russians. I collapsed at the feet of an American soldier, and I was quickly put to work with the Americans in the Counter Intelligence Corp.

    I ended up in NYC where I started my career as a successful film producer. But I will never forget my adolescence.

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