Wednesday, October 30, 2013

History and Historical Suffering

A Village burned by Napalm in Vietnam
Dear Reader,

The past is serious business. For the majority of human existence, suffering has dominated human experience. People have done awful things to each other throughout history. This has happened, more often then not, during time of war.

There are times when being a historian is all fun and games. This past weekend, I had the chance to go the 18th century market fair at Locust Grove, and meet with professor Daniel Krebs. (I reviewed Dr. Krebs book here.) However, as much as I might try to make it fun, the past remains a dark and dangerous place, full of suffering and death. We make hobbies out of the lives of the dead.

However much we might try to present it as fun, or enjoyable in wargames, or reenactments, it remains a serious business. That is one of the reasons why I respect serious wargamers and reenactors, such as Dean West, and Doug Roush, who are committed to portraying the past accurately to the public, and encourage that the public learn the wider context of the events, not just the micro-history of the unit they study.

On the right, you can see a soldier being forced to "run the gauntlet"-a task which often killed the victim. 
As a historian, especially as military historian, I am faced with human suffering every time I open a book. Baroness von Riedesel, one of the diarists of the American War of Independence, recorded the death of General Fraser after the Battle of Bemis Heights. Her account is as follows:

"Toward three o'clock in the afternoon, instead of my dinner guests arriving as expected, poor General Fraser, who was to have been one of them, was brought to me on a stretcher, mortally wounded. The table, which had already been set for dinner, was removed, and a bed for the General was put in its place. The noise of the firing grew constantly louder. The thought that perhaps my husband would also be brought home wounded was terrifying, and worried me incessantly. The General said to the doctor, "Don't conceal anything from me! Must I die?" The bullet had gone through his abdomen... and through {his intestines.} I often heard him exclaim, between moans, "Oh fatal ambition! Poor General Burgoyne! Poor Mrs. Fraser."

The people of the past lived just as we do. They had hopes, dreams, loves, and friendships. And they died. Often in horrible pain, long before they would have died of natural causes.

There are times when I cannot read source material, because the pain contained in it is too great.

Bodies from the gas attack in Syria, on August 21st
My way of looking at the world was forever changed by the gas attacks this summer in Syria. This attack sent me into a depression. It changed the way I view humanity, God, and the world we live in.

In my mind, there are three ways of dealing with suffering you see around you in the present, but does not directly you:

1. You can choose to feel sympathy, but do nothing, and return to your way of life.

2. You can choose to believe that God is working through the suffering, and will give final justice.

3. You can resolve to take action, and work to address the suffering around you, which you can directly influence. (e.g. I cannot end the war in Syria. I can give the homeless man on my street $5.)

I cannot speak for the my readers, but I plan to take the third course of action. God helps those who help themselves, and help each other.

"We think to much, and feel to little.
More than machinery, we need humanity.
More than cleverness, we need kindness."

"-The Great Dictator"

Some thinking music:

Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

Alex Burns 

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