‘We can judge our progress on our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good’ – part II

Following on from my blog earlier in the week discussing why it is that myths continue to feature so prominently in the general public’s understanding of the Great War, I wanted to add a few more thoughts:

4. The dead overshadow the living

I may appear pretty cold and analytical on this one, but bear with me. Let us look objectively at other events to draw a parallel… consider the news after a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Headlines aren’t filled with the number of people who survived – we aren’t told ‘300 survive’ we are told ’15 have been killed’ etc. The news revolves around the loss and when you consider this, it is most natural because death is the major change and impact of the event. Human beings have of course been dying forever (I feel I may have lifted that sentence from a Terry Pratchett book but can’t be sure) but unexpected death, death of the young in particular, death that appears unjust – well that is something that we find harder and harder to deal with as our societies ‘progress’ and untimely deaths becomes less common. Put simply – death overshadows life. Until we as individuals come close to death, we take living for granted because it is just what we do. We may hear stories from the survivors after events. Tales of heroism, accounts of how the incident unfolded. But really, this is to allow those of us who weren’t there to understand what happened, to try and paint a picture in order to process the shock of… the death. In doing this, the living automatically become the voice of the dead. This is not dissimilar to what happened after the war. In the 20’s when memoirs began to be published, as we read the words of the survivors we heard the voices of the dead. For a nation of grieving families, desperate to understand and to find reason as to why their loved ones perished we were given accounts by the men who survived. The authors in many ways simply became narrators, they faded into the background because they survived. This is evident in the issues faced then (and now) by many ex-servicemen returning from conflict and readjusting to civilian life. Life goes on, no matter what and as the survivors of the Great War returned they left the war behind to once again become part of that life and in doing so, receded from public consciousness. The dead however, remained, immortalised in the War, the books, the monuments and memories. Perhaps this has a hand in why now there is much more focus on the ‘11%’ rather than stories of the survivors. Does human nature and how we react and respond to death play a part in perpetuating the myth that ‘most soldiers who fought were killed’. Is this simply a symptom of the power that death has to overwhelm?

5. We could do better at making the History of War relatable

I saw a few posts on Twitter regarding ‘duff history’ and how we in the history community could do more to combat this. My view on it, is that there are many people speaking up for the truth, passionate about ensuring myths of the Great War aren’t perpetuated and working hard to try and correct these misconceptions. But unfortunately, as you step back from the military history community and look at the historians who are visible to the general pubic.. well, we see the same faces over and over again. Some good, but some less so and frankly, there is much work to be done on diversity and making military history more exciting and more relatable to wider audiences. It is all well and good for us debate in our little world about these issues, we will do so until the cows come home! But unless a concerted effort is made to bring these issues out to the general public then what is the point? Of course we want history to be accurate, to achieve this it may be that we need to lose some detail and frame the key facts, the key myths and mistakes, in an easy to understand and ‘media friendly’ way. Think of the history of the Great War as a large painting. Historians want that painting to be in the photorealist style. For it to mirror the truth and events as they happened. Looking at this painting of the Great War now, its more likely to be an impressionist piece, perhaps even abstract in areas but it’s no good us working on repainting one tiny section with photorealistic detail because when you step back you’ll barely see it. It is far better I believe, for us to begin to shift the entire painting gently towards realism and this may mean we need to lose some of the granular detail that we love, to make things easier to digest for broadcasters and the public.

Ultimately, changing people’s perceptions, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned is challenging. It isn’t easy for people to let go of the things they’ve believed all their lives and we shouldn’t expect it to be. I believe that historians both amateur and professional need to get more creative, more modern in our approaches and thinking if we truly want to see these myths debunked. Perhaps we need to focus less on debating the ‘whats’ and look more at the ‘whys’ in order to see a real change.

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