Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Howard

Statues of limitations

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Over half a century ago, the British historian Michael Howard published an influential essay titled “The Use and Abuse of Military History.” It opens with a consideration of the ends to which historical studies—particularly on the military side—can legitimately be turned, with a particular emphasis on “myth-making,” which Howard defines with deliberate precision:

When I use the phrase “myth-making,” I mean the creation of the image of the past, through careful selection and interpretation, in order to create or sustain certain emotions or beliefs. Historians have been expected to do this almost since history began to be written at all, in order to encourage patriotic or religious feeling, or to create support for a dynasty or for a political regime. They usually have done so with no sense of professional dishonesty, and much splendid work they have produced in the process…In totalitarian regimes it is difficult and sometimes impossible to write any other kind of history. Even in mature democracies, subject to very careful qualifications, the “myth,” this selective and heroic view of the past, has its uses…Like Plato I believe that the myth does have a useful social function. I do not consider it to be an “abuse” of military history at all, but something quite different, to be judged by different standards. It is “nursery history,” and I use the phrase without any disparaging implications. Breaking children in properly to the facts of life is a highly skilled affair, as most of you know; and the realities of war are among the most disagreeable facts of life that we are ever called upon to face.

It seems obvious that the equestrian statue of a soldier in a park can hardly be anything else than “nursery history.” Historical myths tend to divide the world into heroes and villains, but there isn’t even a villain here, just a hero on horseback fighting on behalf of a cause that necessarily must remain undefined. There’s no room for nuance or complexity. A great work of public art like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial encourages reflection, but the vast majority of such statues weren’t erected for their aesthetic merits. You could even make a good case that this kind of statue gains meaning from only two moments in its existence: when it goes up and when it comes down. (As this excellent infographic created by the Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us, the timing of the dedication of Confederate monuments supplies a piece of information in itself. These symbols went up to send messages to very specific communities at particular times, and in many cases, I have a hunch that they were commissioned mostly as an excuse to hold a ceremony. They were installed with great fanfare and then promptly faded into the background, unseen by most of the people in the park who pass them every day—although they’re arguably more visible to members of certain groups who were around to receive that message in the first place.) The real irony of the current debate over Confederate statues is that by taking them down, or even by raising the question of whether we should do so, we’ve made them visible to a huge swath of the population by whom they had ceased to be seen. Far from erasing history, as the most historically incurious president of modern times has argued, the discussion has made it alive again, even if it means blowing up the nursery myths on which these statues were founded.

The real question is whether this kind of history has any value for adults. Howard argues convincingly that under certain circumstances, it does, citing its use within the military itself:

The regimental historian, for instance, has, consciously or unconsciously, to sustain the view that his regiment has usually been flawlessly brave and efficient, especially during its recent past. Without any sense of ill-doing he will emphasize the glorious episodes in its history and pass with a light hand over its murkier passages, knowing full well that his work is to serve a practical purpose in sustaining regimental morale in the future…The young soldier in action for the first time may find it impossible to bridge the gap between war as it has been painted and war as it really is—between the way in which he, his peers, his officers, and his subordinates should behave, and the way in which they actually do. He may be dangerously unprepared for cowardice and muddle and horror when he actually encounters them, unprepared even for the cumulative attrition of dirt and fatigue. But nevertheless the “myth” can and often does sustain him, even when he knows, with half his mind, that it is untrue.

There’s a big difference between serving as a soldier and living in a civil society, but there’s a grain of truth in the notion that nursery history can console and motivate us when we’re faced with the contrast between our lives as we want them to be and how they actually are. White nationalism exists in large part as an outlet for the frustrations of men and women who feel angry, helpless, and ignored, just as more innocuous attempts to sentimentalize history arise from a fear of the future. But what separates a romantic notion of the Confederacy from other nursery myths is that it isn’t predicated on the demonization of a foreign enemy in the past, but on the marginalization of human beings who live in the same towns in which these statues stand.

And if we content ourselves with nothing but nursery history, we limit ourselves. Myths have a way of closing off thought, telling us that we’re just fine the way we are simply because of the circumstances in which we happen to have been born. A more unsparing look at history enables the “hard preliminary thinking” that prepares us for action when the time comes, which is one of the reasons that Howard gives for studying the subject at all. (He notes that many officers spend so much energy on administrative issues in peacetime that they’re left unprepared for war itself, which leads him to the lovely line: “The advantage enjoyed by sailors in this respect is a very marked one; for nobody commanding a vessel at sea, whether battleship or dingy, is ever wholly at peace.”) Howard argues that one function of the historian is to puncture these myths for the good of the nation: “Inevitably the honest historian discovers, and must expose, things which are not compatible with the national myth; but to allow him to do so is necessary, not simply to conform to the values which the war was fought to defend, but to preserve military efficiency for the future.” Even in civilian life, the point still holds. Nursery history has its place, but as we put away childish things, we have to be prepared to give up our illusions about the past. And sometimes, as Howard acknowledges, it hurts, which doesn’t make it any less necessary:

The process of disillusionment is necessarily a disagreeable one and often extremely painful. For many of us, the “myth” has become so much a part of our world that it is anguish to be deprived of it…Such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society; and a good definition of the difference between a Western liberal society and a totalitarian one—whether it be Communist, Fascist, or Catholic authoritarian—is that in the former the government treats its citizens as responsible adults and in the latter it cannot.

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2017 at 9:21 am

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