What is History?

(Originally posted January 16, 2015)

Source: http://pulpflakes.blogspot.com/2012/11/CommanderEllsbergpart3.html

Choose a quotation… that best represents your definition of history and then choose one with which you disagree.

“I was a little concerned over the opinion of of all the experts who had rated it impossible. I was, a matter of fact, somewhat irritated by seeing myself denominated an ‘American expert’ in the Admiralty inquiry. For I didn’t consider myself an ‘expert’ in anything and besides I had a low opinion of ‘experts’ anyway. ‘Experts’ are people who know so much about how things have been done in the past that they are usually blind to how things can be done in the future.” Edward Ellsberg

“If you do not like the past, change it.” William L. Burton.

While I found several of the offered quotes about the topic of history interesting, the words by Ellsberg are more fitting for my views of what history is presently, and more importantly, where current trends might lead.

I, personally, do not wish to ever become an “expert” in any one field of interest. Cable TV and the internet seem to be teeming with “experts” whose opinions and research are only driven by marketing for general consumption and/or personal glorification. It is one thing to say that one understands the events on December 7, 1941 because of a program they saw on the History channel or their devoted viewing of movies such as “Pearl Harbor” or “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, but it is very much a different perspective when one understands motives and results of the slow economic strangulation of Japan in the years leading up to the attack.

Instead, I would like to be a conduit for the stories in their entirety. In doing so, I feel that a certain separation of ego would be beneficial in proper interpretation of historical events, after all – the story to be told isn’t necessarily about the person telling it. At the same time, however, the manner of presentation does influence interest. From experience, all of the books in a library cannot match the words of someone who has experienced the events first hand or even simply walking on or in historically significant land, vessels, or buildings. To me, the idea of an “expert” when it comes to history would be an impossibility in that they experienced the events from all possible perspectives before, during, and after they transpired. Therefore, my definition of history is simply a manner of relating significant events of the past to future audiences.

All of this coincides with the Burton quote which I despise for pretty much the above reasons. This goes exactly counter to the responsibilities a historian is charged with. One cannot go and change the factual events or outcomes of the past out of ego, convenience, carelessness, or political ideology. Of course, it has been done plenty of times before, and it will more than likely be done in the future, but fragments of the truth tend to surface over time. Much like shrapnel from a shell, these little pieces of fact become deadly to the same entities which influenced the alterations of the past in the first place.

We do not question the thesis that people make history. Nevertheless, what is the role of outstanding personalities in human activity?

Validation, inspiration, and motivation.

For example, with CDR Ellsberg, his assignment to Massawa was due to the critical need for a secure deep-water port to be available to Allied naval forces operating in the Mediterranean Sea. He had previously proved his value in several highly-visible salvage operations, and while he had already resigned his commission prior to 7 December, 1941, his return to service enabled all of his hard-learned experience (validated) to be focused on the clearing of the port.

The port of Massawa was filled with intentionally sunken ships, and the shipyard facilities were wrecked. The surrendering Italian forces had sought to render the port useless to Allied forces, and the tone of the British level of confidence is pretty much conveyed in the initial quote I offered as well as the overall effectiveness of the Italians in making a mess of things. The support given to Ellsberg was criminal in the fact that there wasn’t much at all. A handful of men, scavenged equipment, and a couple of support ships were his assets, but the inspiration of how he communicated and led this motley collection to clear the entire port in nine months is his contribution to history.

Motivation is a bit more subtle. Unless one has a penchant for old marine salvage tales, Ellsberg’s name will very rarely come up. The interesting part of my words here in this forum, is that there quite possibly is someone reading this and opening up another tab on their browser to verify my position. Perhaps, after a little bit of reading, one or two might even look into further reading, and when the story of how he made a damaged cruiser fit into a floating drydock several sizes too small, or essentially developed the art of the “Jedi mind-trick” over 40 years before anyone knew what it was… then the “motivation” has come full circle.

A bit longer than I originally intended, but I got a bit carried away… I hope this suffices for an answer.


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