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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 27, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Bad History; Manchester's Churchill

I have often said how much I love reading history (though I have zero tolerance for taking part in guided tours of historical sites). But I really need to be more specific.

What I love is reading accurate history.

Of course, there is no such thing as accurate history, not in any pure sense. History is relentlessly inaccurate, for reasons that can't be helped:

1. Documents and other evidence are only spottily available. Sometimes we have a wealth of information, but sometimes we have only the vaguest hints.

2. Whatever documents we have are often of questionable reliability. Just because an account was written a long time ago doesn't mean it's accurate. For one thing, a 500-year-old account of a 700-year-old event is not reliable because it is old. Since it was written two hundred years after the event, it is not an eyewitness account. Gossip does not become more reliable with age, and legends famously grow with the retelling.

3. Eyewitnesses and participants have their own agendas, conscious or not. Even contemporary documents can thus be unreliable.

Our view of Richard III, for instance, is colored by the fact that the Tudor usurper Henry VII, who killed and replaced him, had to legitimize his own illegal rule. The easiest way was to demonize his predecessor (rather the way that Obama ascribes godlike powers of destruction to George W. Bush, whose evil influence has continued to overwhelm Obama's heroic efforts throughout nearly four years in office).

The very parenthetical statement I just made is an example of how eyewitnesses color their accounts. My sarcasm was obvious to my contemporaries -- you-- but other polemics might be more subtle, or an ironic frame of reference might be forgotten, making the surviving documents potentially more deceptive.

4. As long as many documents with different points of view survive, a historian may pick and choose among them, giving greater weight to some sources than others, and finding where even the most contradictory accounts agree. But then the historian's own biases will intrude. Just as some "scientists" look only at data that promote a global-warming-alarmist point of view, some historians give weight only to evidence that supports their conscious ideology or their unconscious assumptions.

For instance, when I was researching archaeological works about the Fertile Crescent during the time of the biblical patriarchs for my novels Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel and Leah, I was amused at how these serious scientists felt obliged to remind readers that there was no evidence of the existence of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.

But many of them went even further, declaring that archaeology showed that they definitely did not exist. This is a ludicrous claim, of course -- with few inscriptions surviving from the period in question, there is no way to rule out the existence of any particular person because his name was never carved on a rock somewhere.

In fact, such a claim by an archaeologist requires that he completely ignore one huge piece of evidence -- Genesis itself. There is no doubt that it is an ancient record; and it is obviously a far more reality-based account, at least in the histories after the creation and the flood stories, than a heavily magical and weird story like the Gilgamesh tales from Mesopotamia.

So the insistence on the non-existence of Abraham is not at all about archaeology; it has everything to do with the writer trying to assert his non-connection with any organized religion of today. "I may be writing about the biblical era," the writer is saying, "but I am not writing to defend the Bible. Instead, I disdain it as a historical document." But that disdain is, in itself, a distortion of the record. The Bible exists; it makes whatever assertions it makes; the belief or unbelief of the archaeologist is irrelevant to any scientific discussion, and it cheapens his work, as science, to include such blanket disclaimers.

The book of Genesis, despite the many markers of compilation, editing, translation error, and later interpolations, remains a genuinely ancient, if only semi-historical, document, whose evidence should not be set aside without good reason.

But outright lying for propaganda purposes in ancient as well as modern documents is also common.

There is no reason, for instance, to believe that Richard III killed his nephews, the "princes in the Tower," though he is charged with the crime. Already in control of England, with the legitimacy of his reign fully recognized, he had no reason to kill them.

But Henry VII and his agents had every reason to kill the boys, since if Richard III were not the legitimate king, those boys' claim was still far superior to Henry VII's.

So how does a later historian sort through the evidence? Thomas More, writing a manuscript history, is the likeliest source of the account of Richard III apparently used by Shakespeare for his famous play; but More never finished the account, and may have broken off the effort when it became clear to him -- a famously honest man -- that the charges against Richard III were a pack of lies, and that Henry VII, the father of More's friend and patron Henry VIII, was the only person who needed the princes dead.

All this is speculation -- it can only be speculation. It is the kind of subject on which honest historians can and do disagree in their conclusions, even as they agree on the lack of evidence that could settle the question.

Sometimes ancient accounts are obviously false on their face. Herodotus has Solon of Athens meeting Croesus of Lydia. It couldn't have happened. One was dead before the other reached adulthood.

Then the debate becomes: Is the story true, and Solon's name was merely applied to the "wise man" of the account? Or do we look at it as a fabrication intended as a fable about hubris or affirming faith in the wisdom of old Greeks?

We are allowed to wonder whether Herodotus believed it, or knew it was impossible and included it for its moral value or storytelling pleasures.

Good historians lay out their sources and show their reasoning to their readers. They declare their conclusions, but leave room for the reader to give a different weight to the items of evidence and reach a contrary conclusion. Despite his inaccuracies, Herodotus, the first historian, set the example, often including three contradictory stories, saying, "The Egyptians say this, the Lydians say that, but I believe the most reliable account is this one."

This technique applies to historians and biographers who are working with original sources. There is a branch of popular history in which the writer never looks at, let alone weighs, the original documents. Such a writer merely glances at the work product of previous historians, picking up whatever facts are needed to make the point the writer wants to make.

This does not mean that such popular histories are valueless. How the Irish Saved Civilization, for instance, was quite interesting and provided a useful overview of medieval Europe. Nearly all of the author's conclusions is open to question, if only because so few documents from the era actually survive, but the conclusions are reasonable and the narrative is interesting and clear.

Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, by Irwin W. Sherman, should have been a useful and fascinating book of popular history, as well. Disease has had a powerful effect on human history.

The barbarians that entered the Roman Empire during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, for instance, encountered large areas of untilled farmland and more than a few unoccupied or seriously underoccupied cities.

Why? Because terrible plagues had depopulated large areas, as people fled disease-ridden cities and then the hinterland that had supplied these cities also suffered sharp drops in population.

While no one cause toppled the Western Roman Empire, it's worth remembering what an important role disease played then. It may have been smallpox that first shattered Roman life; because of global cooling at the time, crops had already been weakened and a series of plagues encountered a population already weakened by hunger and climate.

Diseases matter. They sweep across national borders and undo the plans of great empires.

They also set in motion great social changes. It is worth pointing out that the Renaissance corresponded roughly -- perhaps too roughly for significance -- with the Black Death.

The idea is that the Black Death caused social disruption by creating a labor shortage, which greatly increased the power and freedom of workers. Formerly tied to the land, many now were free to move away from their oppressive lords and enter city life, invigorating urban life.

So Boccaccio's Decameron, set in the plague years, may be a marker of the Renaissance in more ways than one: Not only is it a literary marker of the beginning of the Renaissance, but also its premise -- a group of wealthy young people have fled the city to avoid the plague, and amuse each other by telling stories, ten stories a day for ten days -- links the newly vigorous literature quite explicitly with the plague years.

So I was set to enjoy Sherman's book, to see how he treated each disease and traced the influence of the disease on cultures, governments, and individual lives.

Instead, I ran into serious problems of reliability.

Already disappointed by the sketchiness and erratic nature of the narrative in its discussion of porphyria and hemophilia in the royal families of Europe, I was absolutely disgusted by the treatment of the Irish potato blight.

The writing was even more disorganized and haphazard than in the previous chapter. Mentions of landlord-tenant relationships were scattered across the narrative in nearly random order, and without any attempt at depth.

Sherman couldn't make up his mind whether, at any given moment, he was telling us about how the biology of the disease worked, how the disease affected Irish agriculture, how Ireland was already precariously poised on the brink of famine before the blight ever showed up, and how emigrants from Ireland were treated when they reached England, Canada, or the United States.

The tone of outrage was the one constant, but without nuance or any serious attempt at understanding what people did or did not know.

Then there were absurd inaccuracies. Sherman actually says, without irony, "Only about one-fifth of the migrants survived the trip across the Atlantic because of their poor health, the fact that it took weeks to months to cross, and no food was provided on board ship" (p. 28).

I tried to ignore the word "migrants" -- few people really understand the difference between "migrant," "emigrant," and "immigrant," and it doesn't necessarily mean the author is careless.

(To whom it may concern: A "migrant" is a person who regularly moves between one place and another, or among many places, usually in a regular pattern that crosses borders; "immigrant" is someone coming into a country from outside; "emigrant" is someone leaving a country.

(Thus the Irish were "emigrants" when you think of them leaving their homeland to escape the famine and poverty, but they same people became "immigrants" when they entered the United States or Canada in large numbers. What they definitely were not was "migrants.")

What matters here is the ludicrous statement that only one-fifth of the Irish emigrants survived the voyage. Even slave ships did better than that. Other, more reliable sources have the opposite proportion: One-fifth died, with higher losses among children.

Those numbers are dreadful enough. But if the death rate had been eighty-percent, nobody would have boarded the ships. There is a limit to human desperation -- survival rates were better than that in Ireland itself.

The chapter is also damaged by sweeping generalizations that link unlinkable causes. Widespread prejudice in England against the Irish may have kept some from feeling any responsibility to deal with starvation in Ireland -- which had already been a problem before the potato famine -- but it is absurd to link it to Malthusian ideas. The anti-Irish prejudice and Malthusian theories were generally held by groups whose membership did not overlap.

Moreover, the failure of the English to provide relief was primarily a problem of culture. Governments were not seen as having a responsibility to give aid -- or, rather, that responsibility was only gradually coming to be recognized.

Also, there were well-known effects of government aid that have since been largely forgotten: Government aid can destroy markets. During a time of famine, food prices soar -- it's a way of allocating scarce resources to those who are willing to pay more for it.

The trouble is that this gives a preference to the rich, and the consequences to the poor can be fatal. However, when governments, or charities, intervene to relieve hunger, they can inadvertently destroy the market for locally grown food. By giving away or seriously underpricing food, they can make it uneconomical for farmers to bring food to market or grow it in the first place.

Also, with the price so low it becomes uneconomical to transport food over long distances. When the aid stops, old channels of food distribution may be gone.

To provide aid without destroying markets requires a delicate balance -- one beyond the reach of sophisticated systems available today, and certainly beyond the reach of the English government then.

Add to this the fact that aid channels simply did not exist and had to be set up on the fly, and you get a famine that persisted even after the decision to help had been made.

The high moral dudgeon of the book, therefore, seemed to me to be misapplied. This was the history-book equivalent of yellow-journalism, in which villains are picked without any attempt to explain or understand motives of the miscreants.

Add to this the sort of shotgun -- nay, machine-gun -- method of choosing villains, and the result was inaccurate and absurdly judgmental "yellow history."

There are other absurdities that seemed to result from the author's ignorance. There is reference to the attempt to send corn to the starving Irish. In England, though, "corn" means "edible grain," and what we Americans call "corn" is generally called "maize." Thus in England the "corn laws" referred to wheat and rye, which can be made into bread.

But maize cannot be made into bread using the same methods. So the Irish, who would have had no trouble baking with the grain they called "corn" would indeed be baffled by the grain we call corn. What was missing was any notion that Sherman understood the difference.

I realized that this book was irredeemably ignorant and/or imprecise with this series of statements: "The churches offered little hope since the Church of Ireland was entitled to collect taxes from tenants regardless of their religion. Indeed, the Catholic Church increased its ownership of property in Ireland during the famine. The Church was vehemently on the side of the absentee English landlords ..." (P. 26).

This statement is stupid in so many ways. The author seems to think that the Church of Ireland was the Catholic Church. But it was not -- it was the Irish version of the protestant Anglican Church, imposed on the Catholic majority by England.

So it is hard to believe that the Catholic Church, which was powerless in Ireland during this era, could have increased its property holdings; only the Church of Ireland was in a position to do so. Certainly the Catholic Church was not "vehemently on the side of the absentee English landlords" -- Catholics and the Catholic Church hated the English landlords.

If a writer is so ignorant of history that he thinks the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church are the same organization -- which Sherman clearly seems to say -- then how can any other statements he makes be relied upon?

It seems clear to me (though I'm making assumptions here), that this is a thrown-together book. Sherman is no historian. He decided on his title, and then did sketchy research to cobble together an incoherent narrative that actually reduces the reader's reliable knowledge of the past.

This is bad history. But if I had not already known something about Irish history, would I have spotted these problems?

However, any reader would notice the incoherence of the narrative line, the way thoughts jump around and thoughts are not pursued to their conclusions. It is impossible to follow the story lines, and time after time I think that any reader would be baffled by the non sequiturs.

This is actually a good thing -- the book's bad writing and nonexistent thinking will make it so the misinformation will not be effectively transmitted to the reader.

But the best course of action is not to read the book at all. Which is what I will do with the remaining chapters. When I finished quoting from the book while writing this column, I left it on the plane.

How can you guess, before reading a history book, whether it is any good or not?

One way is to look at what you know of the author. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for instance, was so closely tied to the Kennedys and to liberal causes, that he (and his disciples) were ridiculously biased in their judgment of dead presidents. The much-publicized "ratings of presidents by historians" invariably quote the conclusions of this group. How surprising is it, then, that conservatives generally get short shrift, and liberals are extravagantly overpraised?

Other historians, though they have their own political opinions, have earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads. Such a historian was the late William Manchester. I first encountered his work as a teenager, when I read The Arms of Krupp.

His account of the German arms-making family was fascinating to me, and while it was clear that Manchester disapproved of weapons of long-range destruction in general, he was scrupulously fair in his assessment of the Krupps themselves, and even-handed in his portrayal of German culture and politics, even though he was writing at a time when the memory of World Wars I and II was still fresh.

Thus I had no trouble trusting Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. This three-volume work, published over decades, was incomplete when Manchester died. It has now been finished by other hands and will soon be released.

In preparation for the final volume, I downloaded the first two volumes of The Last Lion from Audible.com and am nearly finished with the first one. It is such a pleasure to be in Manchester's capable hands. He shows his work, but never tediously; you always get every view of Churchill.

Yet Manchester also makes his judgments, and he does not "split the difference." Recognizing that he is dealing with a controversial figure, he nevertheless makes clear judgments, distinguishing between politically-motivated attacks, self-serving dismissals, and actual evidence.

Thus, though Manchester's own politics were probably closer to those of the Liberal and, later, the Labor parties in England, he nevertheless dismisses their attacks on Churchill's behavior in World War I, particularly in the battle for Antwerp and the Gallipoli campaign, and also in Churchill's promotion of aviation and sponsorship of the tank against great opposition.

Manchester shows that Churchill's behavior in all these matters was exemplary, often prescient and, despite mistakes here and there, quite correct, while his critics are often exposed as petty, motivated by blind malice or political cowardice.

Yet he does not hesitate to show when Churchill was flat wrong, or when his behavior bordered on the idiotic or politically suicidal. His critics were often stupider men who resented Churchill's superiority; they yearned to believe, and therefore often claimed, that he only prevailed because he outtalked everyone else.

They also charge him with motives identical with their own -- a common, if usually unconscious, practice -- so that Churchillian projects that were clearly in England's best interest, especially when viewed with historical hindsight, were dismissed or attacked as evidence of Churchillian "megalomania" or his desire to control every ministry instead of sticking to his own bureaucratic niche.

It's true that Churchill's interests were wide-ranging and he often strayed out of his territory. But that's what people with their country's true interests at heart will always do -- nations are not well-served when their leaders mind only their own business.

Churchill's "land battleship" -- the tank -- if used when and how he intended, could have ended World War I much earlier, and without the needless slaughter of trench warfare, which he constantly campaigned against. His plan for the Gallipoli campaign is universally agreed to have been excellent and, had it been carried out with mere competence, let alone courage and vigor, would almost certainly have ended World War I after less than two years, saving the lives of millions.

One of the real delights of Manchester's biography of Churchill is not really Manchester's fault. A usual flaw in most biographies is the paucity of information about the famous person's childhood and adolescence. Nobody keeps adequate records of their lives until their adult achievements start to leave a significant paper trail.

But Churchill was a copious letter writer even as a child, and everything was saved. Even during the years when he was a terrible student, nearly everyone around him (except his parents) recognized his genius and the likelihood that he would amount to something in the world. In short, Churchill was, even in failure, memorable.

So Manchester has copious amounts of information -- letters, memoirs, and eyewitness accounts -- about Churchill's childhood.

He is also fortunate that Churchill was himself a journalist and historian of considerable ability, and while Churchill's histories are often colored by his own participation in the events -- why would he not defend his own views and decisions when writing histories about events he helped to shape? -- it is also true that every claim he makes about his own actions, including extraordinary heroism, leadership, and correctness in battle -- is corroborated by independent witnesses, often by people who disliked Churchill personally but could not deny his genius, courage, and determination.

The result is a superb biography of the man I consider to be the greatest human being whose life overlaps my own. America has had no statesman of comparable ability since Abraham Lincoln, and few before him (Alexander Hamilton is the only likely candidate, with George Washington a distant runner-up).

Churchill changed the world, and he changed it for the better. Even though he was blamed for defeats he did not cause and some of his achievements were treated as defeats (his stiffening of the defense of Antwerp arguably saved the British and French from having their flank turned by the German invaders), he can be credited with doing more than any other person to bring victory to the democracies not only in World War II, but in World War I as well. And had his advice been followed and his policies pursued after World War I, there would have been no World War II, and quite possibly no Cold War either.

Of course, he also was wrong or semi-wrong about other things; even geniuses have blind spots, and certain, detailed foreknowledge is not vouchsafed to anyone. Sometimes it seems that the only person in Churchill's life more prescient was his wife, Clementine. She was able to foresee the results of his errors before he committed them; had he listened to her a little more often, he might have suffered fewer of the slings and arrows of outraged anti-Churchillians.

If he had listened to Clementine, there would have been no Black & Tans during Churchill's time as Colonial Secretary dealing with Ireland in the last days of British rule there. Yet Churchill was also the leading member of the government to abandon reprisal and repression and seek whatever political compromise was possible. What was worked out by him and others, Michael Collins died for; but Churchill was also a leading target of IRA assassins, whose murderous path -- matched by murderous opponents in Northern Ireland -- blackened Irish history for a century.

Indeed, Churchill became the lightning rod for every government he was part of, even when, as often happened, he had opposed the very policy for which he then took the lion's share of the blame. It was not his policy that failed in the Dardanelles in World War I, it was the hash that others made of it; and they, fully knowing this, later dared to taunt him openly for the failure of their decisions.

When the Lloyd George government foolishly supported Greek designs on Constantinople, it was Churchill who advocated withdrawing British occupation of the city and working out a political compromise with Kemal Ataturk. Lloyd George refused -- but it was Churchill who was blamed for not being able to leave the Dardanelles alone! He made enough mistakes of his own not to need to bear the blame for other people's.

If he had been prime minister during World War I, then the war would probably have lasted only a couple of years, and Britain would have won it decisively. The Tsar of Russia would not have fallen when and as he did, so that Communism might never have achieved power there; Germany would not have been treated so badly after the war and Hitler probably would never have reached power.

But Churchill was not prime minister of England then. His policies were not followed; the world paid the consequences; then, miraculously, Churchill, as an old man, was still available when England and the world absolutely required him to stop Hitler.

The life of Winston Churchill is well worth studying, and while I've read many good books about him, each one illuminating, in detail, episodes and eras that Manchester's broader account can deal with only lightly, I have found no other account that contradicts Manchester.

He is a trustworthy historian. He is an excellent writer.

And in the audiobook, you will find that the narrator of the first volume, Frederick Davidson, is absolutely superb. His imitation of Churchill's voice is accurate without being annoying; his pronunciation of the occasional long foreign-language quotations is excellent; and throughout, he does a fine job of differentiating voices and bringing them to life.

It is in narrating Manchester's narrative voice, however, that he does his most important work, for Manchester's perfect clarity is undiminished in the reading. This is one book that is greatly improved by listening, and not just because the volumes themselves are so thick and heavy that if you fall asleep reading them in bed, you may be suffocated by morning.


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