What is History?
By Jack Mallory
I've been thinking a lot about folks' expectations that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will reveal The Truth about the Vietnam war in their documentary: some kind of complete, objective, evidence-based, and final history of the war. I don't think it's happening. I don't think it ever happens. Ain't no such thing.
I'm not an historian; not someone who, as a profession, collects historical data and turns it into descriptions of what happened in the past, and why. I have taught history, US history, however, for years.
But I am a professional prehistorian, educated as an archaeologist to collect data on the time before history, and turn it into the same kind of descriptions and explanations of the past. Many of the principles of historical and prehistoric study are the same.
"History" has two meanings. The first meaning—what I'll call History— refers to what happened in the past; all of the events that occurred, and the who's, what's, when's, where's and why's involved. History, in that sense, is unchanging, because it's something that has already happened. You can build or tear down all the Confederate statues you want, it has no effect on History in this sense. The Vietnam war is History. What happened can't be changed.
History in this sense is impossible to "see": it's over, it's not happening any more. Historians don't observe History, the way a chemist can observe a chemical reaction. We can only look for what's left after the events, and try to infer what the events were.
But the second meaning, history referring to the study of the past, or what I'll call Hs (History as a study), is the attempt to know and explain what happened in the past—Hs is the study of History, if that's not too confusing. Hs is like coming into the chemist's lab, trying to figure out what he/she was doing from the chemicals, flasks, burners, etc. that are left behind. (I'm not a chemist, give me a fucking break, here.)
Hs does change, with new historians, new facts about the past, new ideas about how to explain the past and how the past is relevant to the present. What we think about History will change, as will our interpretation of how and why it's relevant to the present.
Even if we only look at Hs being done at a single period in time, we may find a variety of different versions of history. They may vary in the degree of their accuracy in descriptions and explanations of what happened in the past—some may come very close to what REALLY happened and why, others may not. The difficulty, obviously, is figuring out which Hs is most correct.
What happened and why a long time ago can be very difficult to determine — evidence can be sparse, hard to find, hard to interpret. What happened and why recently can also be difficult to determine—because there can be so damned MUCH evidence. This plethora of evidence requires a determination (often subjective) of what's more and less important; this plethora of evidence is often contradictory, again requiring a subjective determination of what is "good" vs. less good or bad evidence.
In my own field, the study of Maya prehistory, nothing about what the Maya actually did thousands of years ago, or the reasons why, can change. But our understanding of Maya prehistory has changed. Archaeologists once studied the Maya (did Maya Hs) with a focus on what they thought were Maya priest kings. Because the most obvious artifacts were the huge stelae depicting individuals with ornate costumes and jewelry, these were the obvious things to study, along with the palaces and temples around them. It was assumed that, to understand the Maya, you collected information on the rich and famous, assuming that understanding them would explain why Maya culture was as it was.
As archaeological techniques improved, and with changes in theories about why cultures take the form they do, the archaeological focus changed to an examination of Maya lower class life, how they made a living, what people ate, what tools they used, how they produced food and tools, the environment they lived in. This information was believed to be as, or more, important than the information about the ruling elite.The assumption was that societies take the form they do because of their organization to produce the necessities of life. Maya Hs changed, and so did our conclusions about Maya History. Thank you, Karl Marx.
Similarly, while the History of the United States can't be changed, Hs has changed repeatedly over the years. I'm not, as a I said, an historian; I won't go into detail here. But it's certainly the case that US Hs once focused on presidents, generals, and leaders of industry. Explanations involved looking at their letters, diaries, speeches, and writings, with the assumption that these things explained why we were the way we were, why we became what we did. The ideas of the rich and famous were the explanatory factors under study. In many cases, we knew very well what members of this segment of society did and said and wrote—our information was correct, although our explanations may not have been.
That, too, has changed. Hs now looks at a much wider range of US History, with different kinds of Hs techniques and assumptions, producing very different descriptions and explanations of what happened in the past.
And I'm not even going into the differences in Hs that depend on audience and medium, because this isn't something I understand well. But the Hs one produces for a text aimed at elementary school students is very different from what goes into a popular book, or TV series, aimed at adults.
The Burns/Novick series is one kind of Hs. It describes the History of the Vietnam war based on the assumption of its authors, the data that they choose to use, their intent and target in writing it. It will not be The Truth about the Vietnam war. It will be one version of the small-t truth; other versions have already been produced, and will come in the years, decades, perhaps centuries to come (see Jonathan Shay's look at what happened during the Trojan War, 2000+ years after it occurred, and what it means to the present).
Big T Truths only come from god, if you believe in god. If that source of revelation doesn't work for you, you're stuck with human beings, writing and re-writing history as Hs again and again. If you desperately want to know what "REALLY" happened in the past and why, and religious texts aren't acceptable descriptions of History, you're going to have to do Hs, and/or read the variety of other people's Hs, and decide for yourself what really happened and why. But, if you do that, keep in mind that your conclusions are your own, not universal truths that everyone should, or worse yet must, accept. And they may or may not closely approximate History.
When people assume that there is a big T Truth to be known, and especially when they believe that they KNOW what the Truth is and demand that I accept it, I take the safety off my Browning, if I can steal a useful line from Nazi history.
Oh, and by the way, I really like the Vietnam documentary. As small t truth, of course.
Jack Mallory is a long-time VVAW member.