History is alive.
When I was very young, my grandmother purchased an American Revolution coloring book for me, explaining some of the stories and expanding on the little I’d heard in my classroom. I had ignorantly colored in the impressive full-page image of a British soldier in black and yellow. Red, I was patiently corrected. They were called the “redcoats.” I wanted to know more about this stern and imposing man in the (red) uniform. He seemed very different from Ethan Allen’s men stealing up to Fort Ticonderoga on the following page. It was the facial expression: it personified discipline.
My parents got me some books and I read more about the British regulars and their ordered marches and devastating volleys. I lived near the site of the Battle of Monmouth and once, when I paused to look at a marker in the woods near the Jersey Shore, I read that I was standing in a place where they had marched in one of the attempts to intercept Washington. I looked around me and imagined the rows of coolly detached faces, heard the shouted orders and the heavy thuds of hundreds of feet marching in unison, saw the bright coats and white straps, even the silly hats of the grenadiers. I was with them.
My parents bought my sister and me a set of “Childcraft” book volumes. There were all sorts of topics: craft, projects, fairy tales, build-with-your-dad type things, art. I don’t even remember half of them. Practically the only book I opened more than a few times was the “Stories of Freedom” one, which contained accounts from all over world history about underdogs fighting oppression. I read the whole thing more times than I could count. Miltiades urging the Greeks to daring action at Marathon, the Zulus overwhelming the arrogant Victorian British in Africa, the Japanese samurai holding off the full might of the Mongols (with a little help from the weather) in Kyushu—when the Germans , hair long from swearing off haircuts until they had avenged themselves against their Roman conquerors, leaped upon the three legions of Varus at Teutoburg Forest, I saw the shocked faces of the legionaries unable to deploy properly, felt their fear as the much larger German barbarians overpowered them and made a mockery of their superior weapons and discipline. I heard the wild yells and the clang of large swords on the heavy Roman shields, and felt the rush of unexpected and total triumph. Fifteen years later, reading Tacitus and his account of the Roman revenge expedition under Germanicus, I remembered my Childcraft book as the Legionaries discovered the thousands of bleached bones of their former comrades. I was with them.
It’s been 18 years since the vivid memory I have of being in my high tower single room overlooking the Risley Hall courtyard at Cornell University, the hairs on the back of my neck rising. I was reading William of Tyre’s “History of Deeds Done Overseas,” a magisterial primary source for the Crusades and something close to a miracle was happening in his record of the Siege of Antioch in 1098. The Crusaders, starving, diseased, and beleaguered without hope inside the city they had just taken, were rallying for one last charge—out the gate and into the teeth of the huge army of Turks waiting for them outside. Confident of his massive advantage in numbers and supplies, Kerbogha, the Turk commander, allowed the entire Crusader army to leave the safety of the walls and assemble, so it could be destroyed all at once and the costly siege ended. I could see the disbelief as the waves of Frankish knights, hardened by desperation, rode right over his packed and disorganized troops, shattering their lightly armored masses. The foolishness of Holy War and wearing the equivalent of an oven in the heat of the Middle eastern desert aside, I was caught up in hundreds of galloping hooves, foaming heavy war horses, hoarse and manic war cries of “Deus le vullllllt!!” the lung-shaking bash like a warehouse full of beef sides being hit with sledgehammers. Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, having inexplicably mortgaged his inheritance just to be here on the frontline, was choking on dust, gasping the last breaths of a failed enterprise, and then… victory. I was with him.
For me, history was never JUST a record of mistakes to avoid repeating, although there are plenty of those and we need to be careful what we “learn” from them. History is also certainly not a list of “important” names and dates that we should remember for the purpose of respect and celebration. While there’s something worthy in that idea, it makes the heroes of our past into gods—inhumanly awesome. We forget that history is made by people like us, our talents often balanced by our flaws and just as often outweighed by them. Washington missed home very much, and sometimes while he might have been spending time making great plans or great speeches to his men, he was writing to his wife asking wistfully about how the fireplace repair was coming along. His aristocratic rich man’s contempt for the grimy, barefoot soldiers we often celebrate was something he had to try hard to keep to himself.
Names and dates—1776? DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE! YAY!
No. 1776 sucked. If not for another near-miracle, in which Washington led those same barefoot soldiers on a desperation Christmas Eve surprise attack (featuring a night march through snow and ice in which the trail of the army was obvious from the bloody footprints), 1776 would most likely have been the death of our Revolution—the last bits of us mopped up by Spring 1777. The Declaration of Independence means nothing without those bloody footprints. They were the perfect symbol for a group of nobodies who refused to give up and the general who dug for his best self in refusing to give up on them.
For that’s what history truly is: the power of the human will, for good or bad, grinding out the 1776s, from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time—sometimes leading to dusty death (sorry, Macbeth, you had a good idea with those Norman knights) and sometimes leading to… something much of the world forgets even mattered (Ah, William, you lucky old bastard—I never liked you, but here I am mentioning you twice in one blog post, for after all, without YOUR Norman knights, rallied by you from a similar disordered retreat to the one Macbeth suffered, when you had the brass ones to take your helmet off and ride to the front, daring your men to snatch victory from defeat—there wouldn’t be an English language as we know it!).
History is sweat, yelling, idiocy, great plans, irrational obsessions, ideals, dumb persistence, inexplicable mistakes (how DID that tower door get left open at Constantinople in 1453? Really?), and “to dare, to dare again, and to go on daring!” to quote brilliant French Revolutionary/ruthless whack-job Georges Danton. It is not just the province of cold statues, quiet museums, or old books. It is the story of great and terrible things, rising above the sea of mediocre and meaningless acts with which most of humankind fills their days, imperfectly and often haphazardly made, one moment at a time.
In one of those moments, it belonged to Miltiades; in another, to Crusaders. In some future moment, it could (briefly) belong to you or even me, supremely flawed as we are.. In its innumerable stories, we see how this was (and could be) true.
Hang with me while I tell a few of them.