Part of this is due to our fixation on the dramatic and the heroic. Indeed, Carlyle’s essay was part of a collection called “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History.” Part of this is due to some issues to which I have previously alluded, about how most folks insist on seeing the world as a product of human action, almost as if we exist on a stage, with no proper attention to be paid to the sets and props. No small amount of the modern mentality is captured by observing the developing human awareness of our own small place/role in the universe, as Copernicus, Darwin, and others have shown.
All this was brought to mind recently, by two books that I happened to read back-to-back (coincidentally): “Mosquito Empires” by John McNeill and “How the War was Won” by Phillips O’Brien. The first I (re-) read for use in one of my classes; the second I picked up because of my general interest in WWII. Both provide revisionist perspective on how we look at history and, in particular, on the nature of war. Both argue, in essence, that, despite Carlyle, it’s not about the heroes and generals and grand battles.
Of course, for most of us in the 20/21C, we absorb more history from movies/TV than we do from scholarly tomes. Our images, whether from 10th grade history classes, famous art works, or films, are of Washington (or Napoleon) on horseback, Patton in a tank, or, even more plebian images, like Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” or any number of “blood-and-guts” combat films from any number of wars over the past several hundred years, ranging from “Spartacus” to “Rambo.” (btw, do NOT rely on the recent Napoleon biopic for close historical accuracy!)
O’Brien, in contrast, argues that WWII was won primarily by air and naval forces, not ground battles. He highlights the impact of logistics and supply chain interruptions. It’s not just that the Allies produced more and better stuff, but that the way we used it (sometimes intentionally, sometimes incidentally) made it harder for the bad guys to fight well. It’s a provocative argument, the O’Brien backs up with scads of statistics and anecdotes (although his argument is not well organized and it’s a bit of a slog to read). Instead of focusing on D-Day, Stalingrad, El Alemein, Iwo Jima, etc., O’Brien shows that cutting Japanese supply lines or bombing German factories actually had a bigger effect on the outcome of the war. Heroism is great, but without bauxite for airframes and effective airplane production, the Axis powers were effectively doomed by 1944.
McNeil’s ground-breaking study focuses on bugs; especially mosquitos. He shows that the inter-imperial battles between the British, French and Spanish in the Caribbean in the 17/18C were determined not by logistics or generalship, but by the impact of Yellow Fever and Malaria which made it relatively easy for the Spanish to defend their positions in Havana, Vera Cruz, and Cartagena. Of course, this is a century or so before germ theory and no one knew that mosquitos were the cause of the deadly waves of illness that beset the attacking forces. The Spanish did know that the “climate” was a critical ally in their defense, but nothing more specific.
The point of these books, taken together, is that much of our understanding of war (and, by implication, the rest of history) has been skewed by our fixation on the “Beau Geste” and guys commanding battles rather than on the context/background, human-created or natural, in which they fought. And it’s not just our understanding of history that needs revision; there were direct “real-world” effects. Blood-stirring tales led to mind-sets that were stuck in traditional modes of war-making, and prevented those in charge from understanding what they were doing and what would actually work to defeat their enemies. We like to think that history (i.e., human events) is driven by visible, intentional decisions and actions; much of the time, we’re wrong.
Psychologists tell us that our world-views and decision-making are skewed by overweighting what is right in front of us—the “I saw it with my own eyes” syndrome—often reinforced by well-embedded cultural perspectives on motives and effects and by adrenaline-filled dramatic events. Neither generals nor historians are immune from these phenomena. It’s often the less-visible and less-dramatic factors that are decisive. O’Brien points out that the quality of the aircraft and the distance the Germans had to fly relative to the British had a decisive effect on the famous “Battle of Britain” of 1940, the valor of the RAF and Churchill’s speech-making notwithstanding. McNeill suggests that the American victory at Yorktown in 1780 was due in large part to the malaria-weakened state of British forces; but for a few-thousand blood-sucking pests, we’d still be singing “God Save the King.”
Building history on a mythos of grandeur isn’t new. For thousands of years, most folks attributed everything to one set of gods or another (some still do). For a while the locus of power was humanized, but we still looked to grandeur/courage/heroes as the prime movers of history. Is it more comforting? More inspiring? George Patton (played by George C. Scott in 1970) was a great war leader and pulled off some amazing feats during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. But Germany was already effectively defeated by then. More credit should go to the guys who developed much more effective sonar in 1943 enabling the destruction of U-Boats attacking Allied shipping in the Atlantic. The strengthened supply line to Britain made possible D-Day and the rest of the European war’s successes. But it’s not such an exciting movie.