Throughout history, there is a phrase that’s been uttered several times.
“History is written by the victors.”
In looking up the coining of the phrase, it appears it may have first been used in France in the 1800s, in the late 1800s in both England and the United States and then rather famously by Winston Churchill in the 1940s.
Or in other words, it appears to be a universal truth. I can say I got a firsthand example of this while I was in college. My senior year, second semester, I had an empty space on my calendar and I went looking for a three-credit class that was both challenging and interesting.
I landed in a 300-level history class on the American Revolution. Having been a fan of most of the fiction and non-fiction written and filmed about the war – including Howard Fast’s “April Morning” – I climbed to the third floor of the oldest building on campus that year, excited to see what I’d learn.
In walks a professor, fully dressed in most certainly a suit and tie – and perhaps even the British professor robes. On loan from England, I had landed the ultimate in a professor of the American Revolution – a teacher who had learned of the event from the “other” side of the war.
For four months that year, I got reminded of the universal truth of war. For every winner, there is a loser – and while the United States had earned its independence, whether we deserved it or not was in the eye of the beholder.
Sometimes, it’s all about a matter of perspective. One of the many truths that has become clear as I’ve grown older is that history is written from the perspective of the United States – and most of the conflicts we have gotten involved in have ended in some degree of victory, with the notable exception of Vietnam.
But since taking the one class in college, I’ve always been curious about the other side of conflicts. When I was a student, I got exposed to Erich Marie Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” A classic piece of historical fiction, it tells about World War I from the German side. Emotionally raw, Remarque’s book reminds us of the horrors of war, no matter which side you are fighting on.
It’s enough to make a person curious about what we don’t learn in a classroom. As an adult, I’ve read books on the after effects of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, gotten a chance to (at least to some extent) understand the depths of both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and their ties to communism.
Getting to delve into the full history of the countries involved in all of these conflicts gives a greater depth of understanding – and a chance to study what we call “the human condition.” Whether facts actually change from one side to the other, I don’t know. There will likely be similar accounts of death totals, soldiers deployed and the like no matter who wrote what I am reading.
But the change of perspective certainly can give a better appreciation for all of those who serve – no matter which side of the line they were on – and civilians afflicted by the horror of war.