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At a recent premiere screening of our upcoming film My Lai, a Vietnam veteran in the audience took issue with an opinion expressed by one of the investigators for the Congressional commission that looked into to the mass killing of civilians at My Lai, and its subsequent cover-up by the US military. In the film, the investigator expresses disgust that when President Richard Nixon pardoned Lt. William Calley, who was the first participant to be brought to trial and convicted of a crime, the cases against others involved in the incident collapsed. “Calley got away with it,” says the investigator, “and all the other people involved got away with it also.”
That didn’t sit well with the veteran. During a question and answer session following the film, he asked if the investigator had ever served in the military. “No, I haven’t,” the investigator replied. The veteran responded forcefully, with anger in his voice: “If you weren’t there, you can’t know what it was like, and what really happened.”
The exchange made me think about a couple of things. It brought back the passions that have swirled around the Vietnam War for decades, and reminded me how charged, even dangerous, history can be. “It is wiser to think of history not as a pile of dead leaves or a collection of dusty artifacts,” writes historian Margaret MacMillan, “but as a pool, sometimes benign, often sulpherous, that lies under the present, silently shaping our institutions, our ways of thought, our likes and dislikes.” A dark and dangerous pool lurking below the present: what better way to describe My Lai? Not a month goes by, it seems, that we don’t hear about a controversial killing of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan, our present-day wars.
And then there was the Vietnam veteran’s central charge, that you can only really understand something if you experienced it firsthand. That view, of course, is perhaps embodied best in the line we all have said: You had to be there. It’s a common view, especially among those who have put their lives on the line during wartime. It’s understandable. But is it true?
The issue goes back a long way—all the way back to one of the first, and certainly one of the greatest, historians. Some 2,500 years ago, Thucydides wrote an epic account of the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that nearly destroyed the great empire of Athens. He knew his subject firsthand, having served as an Athenian general until his dismissal following a failed military campaign. Thucydides built upon his own experience of the war by tirelessly interviewing others who took part in the fighting, and by assiduously reading numerous battle reports. It shows. His account of the war is rich in detail, and rings true.
But like everyone else, Thucydides had limitations. He couldn’t be everywhere at once and couldn’t always track down an informant for a battle or an important speech. Even when he heard a speech himself, he couldn’t remember the words exactly. So he filled in the blanks himself. “My method has been,” he openly admitted, “to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” The debate about Thucydides method, and its claim for historical truth, has lasted for centuries.
As has his remarkable work. One reason it has, in my opinion, is that Thucydides went beyond the limitations of first-person testimony. He didn’t take part in a central event of the Peloponnesian War, the campaign in Sicily against Sparta that ended disastrously for Athens. But he described the ill-fated operation masterfully, combining evocative details of the fighting with a remarkable insight into human nature. In the end, it isn’t the placement of ships or the deployment of troops that stays with you in reading about the Sicilian campaign. It’s something far more universal: the role of human overconfidence and overreach, so perfectly expressed in a haunting Greek word, hubris. One of the streams that flows through the pool of time is certainly named Hubris.
To form a true picture of the past, we need more than eyewitness accounts. We need someone to sift through all the reports and statements and facts and statistics. We need someone to take this and combine it with an understanding of human nature, of political and economic forces, of cultural traditions and unforeseen events. We need both witnesses and storytellers, participants and historians. One provides texture and experience, the other scope and meaning. Together, they make history.
Mark Samels is executive producer of American Experience.
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