History = War

What counts as history? And why is the answer for so many people one war or another?

As someone who writes about history, I often hear from people how much they love history (and to clarify, it’s almost always an adult, usually male, aged 50+), especially the Civil War or World War II. Those are important and fascinating events in history, but I often wonder why that’s the only history that people seem to know and care about–why it’s the only history that seems to matter.

In part, I blame The History Channel. Or as I like to call it, the channel of never-ending war. It’s battles and technologies of war (how guns work and who invented the cannon) or stories of great generals and war heroes. Reading a review of a new history book in the New York Times this weekend, the reviewer hit on what I think is one of the main problems with the way history is depicted on TV:

This may be realism, but it is History Channel realism, where the rawest facts of combat on the ground become the only facts that really count. Entertaining anecdotes abound, but there are more descriptions of mangled bodies than information or insights about strategy.

That’s it exactly. The spectacle overshadows the actual context and motivations behind it. I get it, I really do. I know that battles are exciting and that draws people in. But that’s not what history is ALL about. And I think that’s why I grow weary of hearing about the Civil War or World War II, not because they aren’t pivotal historical events, but that the battle scenes, often the only glimpses we get and often the only ones we seek, become the dominant (and only) story. Ideas are exciting, too. Ideas are what led to the bloodshed yet that piece doesn’t get the same attention even though it is the explanation for it all. 

And much of history has nothing to do with war at all. Most of history, as Bill Bryson said in his new book At Home, consists of people going about their daily lives, cooking, sleeping, and bathing. I realize that on its surface, our domestic lives are no where near as exciting as a pitched battle between heroes and villains. But really, it’s all a matter of presentation. War may have an inherently interesting package so it’s easy to present, though I might argue that the package is often missing the ideas and the critical thought behind it for the sake of explosions, confusing the real importance with the flashy front. 

And maybe why you don’t hear as many young people proclaiming their love of history or why history books aren’t marketed as Mother’s Day gifts as they are for Father’s Day, is because the history of battles and war isn’t as relatable as how people like you and me went about their daily lives to these groups. That’s not the whole reason, but it’s one element that I think plays a significant role. 

I continue to wait for the day that someone tells me they love history and follows it up by saying, “especially the utopian movements in the 19th century.”

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