What We Have To Do

"Rooster, it is sufficient that you know that I will do what I have to do," said "Lucky" Ned Pepper in that wonderful movie True Grit. He was referring to his earlier threat to kill a girl he had captured if John Wayne’s character didn’t ride over the next ridge so he could get away.

We might paraphrase that line to help us better appreciate our own history. There seem to be two schools of thought on teaching American history. One school wants to tell our children that all of their ancestors were angels; the other wants to tell them that all of their ancestors were devils.

It should be sufficient that our children know that their ancestors did what they believed they had to do. That is all any fair-minded person can ask of another. We humans are not omniscient, omnipotent or clairvoyant.

Today, just as our ancestors were in their day, we are confronted with situations, and we all decide that we must do what we think we have to do. Someone in the future with the knowledge that comes only with hindsight might judge us harshly. So be it. There is no escaping the fact that we can act only on the basis of our perceptions of reality at this time.

Some people, for example, dismiss George Washington as a slave owner. He did own slaves, but he was also one of the most remarkable men ever to walk on this planet. Had one of all the bullets fired at him found his heart, we would not be living in the United States as it is today. He was, as one historian called him, an indispensable man, something few humans in history can ever claim to be.

History, because it’s life, is never simplistic. One English wit observed that not even God can change history, although historians do it all the time. That’s a fair warning that no matter what history book you read, you can count on it being subjective. That’s because it is impossible for human beings to be otherwise. Historians are also subject to fads and fashions.

A historian is like a reporter. If he’s writing about a time in which all of the participants have died, he has to rely on records — letters, diaries, public documents and books published during and about the period he’s interested in. There will be such a sea of material that he will have no choice but to edit — to choose what to include, what to exclude. And those will be subjective judgments.

With those caveats, we should all follow Robert E. Lee’s advice to his children and read history and biographies so that we will know the world, as best we can, as it is. History is nothing more than a record of what people have done and said. It is not a force or anything living. Such statements as "history is on our side" are foolish.

But history can help put our own lives in context. Life is a never-ending story. We drop out of the womb in the middle of the action, play our part and exit. Someone — one of the Romans, I believe — said that if you don’t know history, you remain forever a child. It’s good to know what happened before we got here.

Three good histories to start with are Modern Times, by Paul Johnson; Tragedy and Hope, by Carroll Quigley; and The Oxford History of the American People, by Samuel Eliot Morison. Read those three or, heck, any one of them, and you’ll know more history than the average college graduate these days.

After you have gotten the overall picture, then you can zero in on whatever interests you — the American Revolution, the War Between the States, the 20th-century wars. There are some wonderful books on all of these subjects.

An interesting point to keep in mind when reading history is that events didn’t have to happen the way they did. They happened a certain way because of specific decisions and circumstances. A different set of decisions and circumstances would have produced a different outcome.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.