30 May 2008

History from below?

Max Hastings' book about the final 13 months of war in the Pacific and Asia consists of 550 pages of text and some endmatter. In all this, he makes a serious effort, as I mentioned in yesterday's entry, to provide a view of history "from below." Not from the point of view of FDR, Churchill, Stillwell, and Chiang Kai-shek, but from that of the rank and file of the contending armies and navies, and that of the civilians unlucky enough to have been living in and around their battlefields.

It is a noble aspiration, but it is largely a failure. Because it is that aspiration that turns much of this book into a dull slog for long stretches -- just one darn thing after another.

Consider chapter 8, about the war in China. Here are some facts:

* a sixteen year old Japanese boy was sent in 1941 by his family from Japan to occupied Manchuria to help manage an uncle's motorcycle-repair business there. Hastings apparently interviewed him -- Souhei Nakamura -- as part of his research for the book, and Nakamura recounted that times were good for the occupiers. All he had to do at the repair shop was "keep an eye on the Chinese doing the real work." (p. 193)

*of course Japanese troops moved south and west from that Manchurian base. The British concession of Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, was a "precarious island of safety amidst the rising Japanese tide." An engineer's son who was growing up in Tianjin, named Xu Yongqjiang, said: "Every morning we watched corpses drifting downriver to the sea." (p. 194).

* The Japanese army in China had a biological warfare unit, Unit 731, based near Harbin, which subjected hundreds of Chinese prisoners to experimentation, invariably fatal. (p. 201).

* Among the Nationalist soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek circa 1944, desertion was common. "Eight hundred recruits once set off from Gansu to join a U.S. Army training programme in Yunnan. Two hundred died en route, and a further three hundred deserted." (p. 208).

That will give you but a slight taste of the relentless "tree after tree" nature of this book, and how easy it is in all of that to lose any grasp of the forest, and then to lose interest and give up reading.

The human mind is designed for learning by narrative, and the narrative in works of history is given its shape by the extraordinary individuals, not by the motorcycle repair shop managers or anonymous numbered deserters.

In political/military history, the shape of the narrative comes from above. Those activities are inherently, distressingly, hierarchical. That is not a good reason to think well of them (quite the contrary) but it does rather constrain how many of the above listed sort of granular facts "from below" a historian can get away with.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.