History in the making

J. Herbert Altschull

January 14, 1991|By J. Herbert Altschull

THE NEXT WAR, I heard on National Public Radio the other day, will be the first to be studied on the scene by Army historians. According to the report, the men and women of the Army's 104th Military Historians Detachment are in place in Saudi Arabia, ready to go.

Somehow, I couldn't get that thought out of my mind, and when I went to bed that night, I had a bizarre dream.

I was climbing over sand dunes in the desert. I was dressed like Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia," watching the jet contrails in the sky and listening to the blast of artillery shells in the distance.

The column of tanks that was rumbling by ground to a sudden halt. A little Jeep had screamed into the middle of the line of tanks. The driver was tooting his horn, he and his passengers gesticulating wildly.

They all jumped out. They were in uniform, but they weren't carrying weapons. Instead, they were armed with video cameras, floodlights and lap-top computers.

The driver of the first tank poked his head out the window. "Hey," he yelled, "get that #**$$ Jeep out of here. We're on our way to hit Saddam Hussein, and you're providing him with aid and comfort."

"It won't be a minute," said the soldier, pointing his video camera at the tank driver and pressing the record button. "We're military historians, and we want you to tell us how you feel as you head into battle."

"Scared. What the $ do you think? Now get that pile of junk out of there!"

"Can you go into a little more detail? We're doing this for the next seminar at the National War College, and they'll want to know more about the morale of the troops on the way to battle."

The soldier with the lap-top computer was typing away furiously. The soldier with the floodlights directed them at the tank.

Another head appeared at the tank window.

"Hey," it called out, "tell my girlfriend I'm proud to be fighting for our country."

"What's your name?"

I couldn't hear too clearly with all the noise from the jets, but I thought he said John Wayne.

Now, a second Jeep, flying a flag with two stars, came skidding in. This one came from up forward. An angry-looking general stepped down and accosted the soldier who was pointing the video camera. He got even angrier when the soldier didn't salute. He seemed about to sputter, like one of those British officers I had seen in old movies about India.

The soldier with the lap-top came to the rescue. He put the computer down in the sand and saluted. "Sir," he said, "we are military historians, and our duty is to record the events of this war as it is happening so that we won't have to wait for scholars 200 years later to tell us what it was all about."

"It's a real breakthrough," said the soldier with the floodlights.

"Breakthrough, shmakethrough!" the general roared. "I'll have you all court-martialed. You're not soldiers. You're a bunch of journalists, and journalists aren't allowed here. Besides, you're holding up the war."

"This is great!" exclaimed the soldier with the video camera. "This is the way it really happens!"

The general gritted his teeth grimly, pulled out his sidearm, and started after the soldier.

I don't know how the dream ended, because that's when I woke up. And asked myself what had got into the Army. It used to have combat correspondents, not military historians. It used to be content with recording events, not providing instant history.

How can you write history as it is happening? How can you verify what you believe you see and hear? We all make mistakes on the spur of the moment. We all have feelings of the moment that are merely transitory. It takes time to think about what we see and hear and to understand our real feelings.

Then, I thought, that's what is really missing: time. And time is what history is all about. History is supposed to teach us lessons, if we pay attention. In time, maybe we will decide to find ways to deal with conflicts without having to wage war.

Then the military historians can make docudramas. They may not be accurate, but they take fewer lives.

J. Herbert Altschull, a historian and journalist, teaches in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

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