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I think I’m like most kids in high school: I hated history. It was boring, a waste of time, names and dates and other things I was never going to remember, or want to.
When I went to college, of course I had to take another history class, and most of it was, again, rather boring and forgettable. One day, though, they brought in a guest lecturer, and she spent an entire afternoon talking to us about William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States. He followed Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 (defeating William Jennings Bryan), but lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1912 after Roosevelt split the party with his Bull Moose run.
It wasn’t so much what Taft did, but how this professor turned him into a person and made him interesting. And suddenly, I found I enjoyed history, when it was about the people and not about random dates and battles and places. The problem isn’t that history is boring, it’s that how most schools teach it.
That started a long time love of mine that’s rivaled Science Fiction and Fantasy in my reading lists: I love reading history, especially military histories, and to a lesser extent biographies. Much of my reading over the years has been about the great wars: World War I and II, with some focus on submarine and naval warfare as well as how the intelligence services helped (or didn’t) in winning the wars.
I know I’m overdue for the next episode of Occam’s Fireaxe, and I apologize, but I’ve been down the military history rathole again, and enjoying every minute of it. This latest fascination started when I decided to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and I realized there were aspects of that time that were echoing forward into our society today.
If you look at the fight between our modern Republican and Democratic parties, a lot of the conflict ties the fight between the philosophy of using the government to push forward activities for the common good and the philosophy of people who want the government to leave them alone and let them do what they want. This is, at its core, the fight between the strong central government and the states right ideologies. At that time, at its core, the fight between these two groups was about slavery, and that was the huge divide in the country at the time when the debate went on over whether to replace the Articles of Confederation with today’s Constitution. What we tend to forget (or are never told) is just how close we came to having the Constitution voted down.
That core conflict is still with us today. It’s followed us through the decades and was a key component of the conflict that led to the Civil War, and later the Civil Rights movement, and which we see today, where Obama was very much in favor of a strong federal government and programs that supported the weaker and poorer parts of our society, and now Trump, who’s primary goal seems to be to turns back the progress on those issues made during the Obama’s administration.
If you look at how the two parties position themselves, it’s the Democrats taking on a strong central government with strong and progressive social programs (very Franklin Roosevelt-like), while the Republicans are pushing a strong “states right” small government agenda, which is the charter of the “I want to do what I want” group that has echoed down the ages. I’m not going to carry that the next step and claim that the Republicans are supporting the same agenda the pro-slavery types did in the Civil War days, but honestly, given the tendency of supporters of those positions adoption of Confederate iconography and their policies that repress and abuse “those who are not like us” that include not only People of Color but women, muslims, gays and many other groups, it’s honestly tempting because they make it easy.
I’m not intending this to be an editorial on those issues so I’ll leave it there (at least for now); instead what I wanted to do was point out that a lot of what we’re seeing in the current political fight here in the U.S. has hooks in the past and these attitudes and conflicts go back hundreds of years — literally predating our country — and are unresolved despite multiple significant conflicts, including the Civil War that came close to tearing the country apart. To me, this implies two things:
- No matter what we do, we aren’t going to solve them simply or soon, we need to focus on managing the conflict and helping both sides better understand and learn to compromise with each other again.
- To better understand the conflict and how we got to where we are today, we should study the past to see how this core conflict has shaped and guided the country and how the leaders of the past navigated through these problems.
If you haven’t read much history to date and are curious to dig into all of this, the Chernow book is a good one to try. There is a lot of really interesting information about the time around the formation of the country and the adoption of the Constitution in the book, not just about Hamilton himself but about the other key players in that time period including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and others. And a big part of the story leading up to the adoption of the Constitution was the conflict between the Federalists (Hamilton et al) and the States Rights side, led in large part by New York Governor George Clinton and the Southern slave states.
But if you want to start learning about how we became what we are today as a country, here are a few books to get you started. I’ll be adding to this list in the future, but these are the ones I tend to recommend to people who want to move beyond the boredom of high school history.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn is a good way to get started. It turns the classic history class on its head by looking more at the people instead of dates and times and battles. This book covers the time from the initial arrival of Christopher Columbus into President Clinton’s presidency, and it’s a nice way to get started with an overview of our country over time.
A book I recommend you read immediately after it is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which does a nice job of showing how most American History classes are both teaching it wrong (from an interest and engagement way) and how what they’re teaching is often wrong or biased in a way to reinforce how our country wants to view itself. (as an aside, I’m currently reading a book on the Korean War, and it’s a classic example of the kind of thing that gets very little time or conversation in most history classes, because in part it’s a time in our past that makes the country look like babbling incompetent idiots. But that’s a discussion for a later time).
These two books will give you a good, general overview of the United States from its early formative days into the current era, and help you start to see how the reality of our history is not the same as the one we are given in history class.
Getting Started with Military History
Since I’m a big fan of military history, let me suggest you explore this as well. If you haven’t really read into the history of wars with the United States very much, here are a couple of good books to get you started.
To me, the best place to get started are the great wars: World War I and World War II. They are both much larger conflicts than just the United States, and they are both conflicts that had a major influence on the country before, during and after the fight itself.
There are many, many books on both wars but the ones I like as the introduction to both are the general histories by Martin Gilbert. These are fairly long and slow reads, but with a lot of interesting detail backed by a lot of exhaustive research, and I find them accessible to readers new to reading history and not too academic. Choose a war depending on which you find more interesting and dig in. If you like these books, then reading deeper into history and military history might be something you’ll enjoy; if not, then you probably want to spend your reading time in other areas.
The First World War: A Complete History and the Second World War: A Complete History are from British author and historian Martin Gilbert, who was Winston Churchill’s official biographer. Each book goes into detail about the actions and impacts of the two great wars on a global basis, from the politics and attitudes that caused and influenced the conflicts down into the details of key battles. The human impact of the conflicts is carefully explored, and there is a lot of detail pulled from memoirs and interviews of veterans at all levels of the conflict, not just the major leaders. They are carefully researched, detailed but not academic, which is why I think they make good entries into reading military history. And, of course, they are about two of the major global conflicts of the last hundred years.
One of the things that gets lost in a lot of historical writings is the people. If you were to go back in time to read something like Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, the first significant writing about the mythical King of England, you’ll find that battles are often described in terms of which nobles and knights were killed or injured — and oh, by the way, 10,000 soldiers died, too. The soldiers on the line too often become a number and the humanity that is destroyed in these battles gets lost. One thing I like about the Gilbert books is he avoids this without falling into the opposite camp of being an anti-war activist. He explains it as it is, and lets us make our own opinions from that.
This problem of dehumanizing the casualties of war is a huge aspect of the First World War, and one that gets lost in simplistic discussions of it. The war was completely avoidable, except that there were people in power on both sides effectively bored by peace and seeing opportunities for quick gains against what they saw as weakness on the other side. In fact, none of that happened and it quickly bogged down into a static, grinding trench warfare that took millions of lives.
Even that was avoidable if the leadership had been willing, but on both sides, stubborn leaders with no value for the lives of those serving under them simply dug in. This was especially true on the British side where the strategy was little more than “the attack on that hill failed the last five times, so this time we’ll succeed because we’ll exhort the men to try even harder!”.
Because of this, I find reading about World War I quite depressing, because so much of the carnage was unnecessary and caused by leaders who didn’t value their troops, and not by the enemy. It’s also often glossed over by American stories of this war that the U.S. entered very late, puttered around building it’s forces for a long time after agreeing to join the war, and suffered much less significant losses than the european countries — and yet American literature often likes to suggest it was American that won the war, when if you read a book like Gilbert’s, you’ll see reality is a lot more nuanced.
And that, to me, is the joy of reading into history and military history. Cramming United States history into 13 lectures is almost by definition deciding what to leave out and skimming over the rest. That’s one reason so many history courses are, well, boring. Choosing to dig into parts of that history a book at a time gives you the detail and brings out the complexity and nuance of those times and their conflicts in ways that brings it all to light and makes it live for you.
In future articles I’m going to write about some of the other books I’ve read and have enjoyed, both going back into the past and the books I’ve been reading the last few months. The latter has been primarily filling in gaps, finally reading up on the Civil War (I had been so turned off in school I’ve avoided it until now) as well as the Vietnam and currently, the Korean conflict. If all you know about the Korean War is what you saw on M★A★S★H, there’s a lot you don’t know (but it’s not wrong, even if some of the details were lifted from Vietnam and World War II: Remember Five O’Click Charlie from the series? It’s actually based on real life activity from World War II on Guadalcanal, and the reason the Japanese did it was because it prevented the troops from getting good night’s sleep and so left them tired and not thinking as clearly.
Those are the sorts of things you’ll never find out about in that class, but which come to life to you when you dig into history books on your own. And that’s why I think that if you haven’t yet, you ought to give it a try.
If you think you hate history, my suggestion is this: you may just hate high school history classes. Grab one of these books and try it out. It may open up a new world of interesting things to you, and you may learn something of the world we live in today.
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