Share This Article

Whose History?

Among the hoariest aphorisms about military history is this one: “History is written by the victors.” Sources attribute the remark variously to Niccolò Machiavelli, Winston Churchill and others, though no compelling evidence credits any one author. As is the case with many such lines, it does contain a germ of truth. Accordingly, historians often deploy it as a cautionary note to alert readers to the kinds of bias that show up in celebratory accounts that victors pen about their great successes in battles and wars. Many such accounts, in fact, move beyond mere bias into the realm of hagiography and even outright propaganda.

Perhaps the statement was more nearly true and useful in what we call ancient times, when military victories often ended in the utter destruction of the tribe or city-state or country that lost a war—when, effectively, no one survived who could describe events from the point of view of the vanquished. It may also have been true at times when the means of communication were few, specialized and prohibitively expensive. Those times were usually marked by strong differences in motivation, with the victors wishing—for reasons of self-aggrandizement—to disseminate their own triumphalist narrative. Among audiences for historical accounts, well into the modern era, there has usually been a higher level of interest in answering the obvious question about victorious leaders: What made Julius Caesar, Gustavus II Adolphus, Napoléon Bonaparte, et al., so great? Then there is the flip-side question: Why should anyone care about the losers’ versions of events?

Actually, in the modern era, many brilliant works of military history have shown why we should care. Certainly it has become more feasible—technologically, socially and economically—to examine the losers’ versions of events. Access to archives, records, news accounts, memoirs and secondary sources in traditional publishing, visual media and, now, electronic media is comparatively easy, fast and inexpensive. The result, for historians and readers of history alike, is simply better history: more sources of information, a broader range of experience and interpretation, better balance and more culturally nuanced accounts—if only because battles and wars are always at least two-sided affairs, and history that relies on facts from both sides has obvious advantages over history interpreted and written solely from the victors’ point of view.