Monday, November 18, 2013

Heroes, Villains, and History

Don Troiani's Parker's Revenge
Dear Reader,

The above painting shows British soldiers early in the American War for Independence. When you look at the above men, what do you see? Heroes or Villains?

Who were the, "Heroes" of the Kabinettskriege era? And above all, what does reducing things into the terms of, "right and wrong," achieve in our understanding of the past?

William Potter, an American historian who works for Vision Forum, released an audiobook, entitled, Bayonets! Heroes, Villains and Character Lessons from the American War for Independence. You can find this book here. In this book, Potter attempts to draw spiritual lessons from the American War of Independence. In Potter's view,  the British are the evil villains of the American Revolution, while the Christian Americans were on the side of right. Potter gives excellent and insightful details about the American War of Independence, but I continue to wonder whether his conceptual lens offers any positive results.

While the book is obviously targeted for children, there is no reason why we should portray history, particularly such vital history as the founding of the American nation, in simple, moralistic terms. If the American War of Independence is a simple moral tale, why did so many Americans own slaves? American Slavery shocked and appalled both Hessian and French writers during the revolution.

And what about the idea that the Americans were Christians, and the British were godless? After all, weren't the Americans rebelling against a government, which the Bible instructs Christians to respect? The British soldiers were just as devout as the Americans, as is extremely evident in their letters. The Hessian Subsidientruppen who fought for the British were just as pious, and they often felt disgusted by what they saw as an American lack of religion.

What about the European Seven Years' War? Are there heroes in this context? Why is it we are so eager to say that God and right was on the side of the Americans, but do not have a quick answer for who was right in the contest between Austrian and Prussian?

If we simply want to view the Americans as right, is there truly a need to view the war in terms of heroes and villains? Individual humans are not good or evil. Their actions display both good and evil. They are complex, and it is a disservice to history to portray the past in the simple terms of a morality play.

For our international readers, I have a question: Does this effort to portray the past as a simple battle between good and evil occur in your countries? If so, what form does it take?

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns


  1. Good and evil? No. The correctness and freedom of North European Protestant mercantilist economy as opposed to the centralising, controlling Colbertism of Louis XIV (what extravagant waste) or the Bishop-burning Inquisitional Catholicism of the Spanish and of the Tudor Queen Mary. No, nothing about good and evil or right and wrong. We were told at Primary School, what a good job the British Empire had done in bringing freedom and justice and democracy to the rest of the world, including the USA (and look at the thanks we got).

    1. Thanks for the comment Pierre! It's true. We didn't thank you very much, did we? Let me extend the thanks to you personally, on behalf of all of the Americans. Especially those who were shooting at you guys between 1775 and 1783.

  2. Before we try to assign the label of hero or villain to a historical actor, we first have to agree on what a "hero" is, and whether any person past or present could live up to that title. When we indoctrinate our schoolchildren to believe that any man is worthy of worship we are deluding them, and doing a grave disservice to the reality of that individual's life. The men who fought on both sides of the War of Independence were flawed and complex human beings, no more good or bad than any man today.

    On the other hand, is it possible to find fault with the brave sacrifice of Cosmosobaka Laika, who laid down her life in the pursuit of scientific advancement and for the glory of her country? I think not, my friend. I think not.

    1. mysecretidentity-Cosmosobaka Laika is truly a hero for all time. A stray on the streets of Moscow, chosen to lead the Tovarishch-Sobaki into the Cosmos. None of the men, or women, of the American War of Independence can quite live up to this shining example.