Historiography and Popular Culture

On Sunday, HBO debuted their follow-up miniseries to the critically acclaimed series Band of Brothers, The Pacific. Unlike Band of Brothers, the Pacific is based off of two books, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, although a companion book, The Pacific, written by Hugh Ambrose, the son of Stephen Ambrose, author of numerous World War II narratives, including Band of Brothers. I have my reservations about Ambrose and his style of history. When I was working on my final paper for my undergraduate work, I attempted to work in several of the books that included Operation Overlord, to no avail, which proved to be an interesting lesson in the role of historiography in the public’s eye, and huge differences between academic history and popular history.

The Pacific falls well within the popular history realm, which has its own set of limitations and expectations. When Band of Brothers was released, it saw with it a huge explosion of follow-up memoirs, stories and histories that capitalized in the major anniversary of the war, along with the ever growing numbers of World War II veterans who were dying at the time. Suffice to say, there has been an incredible push to hear their stories of the last ‘great war’. Walking into a bookstore over the weekend, I saw that the books about the Pacific Theater of Operations have been given a prominent location, and I have little doubt that there will be a resurgence of interest in the Pacific aspect of the Second World War.

The Pacific theater was the area of World War II where I first became interested in history: first with the Pearl Harbor attack, and soon with a book called Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, about the survivors of the Bataan Death March, as well as a couple of other books, before I moved over to read extensively about the European Theater of Operations. While a number of the books that I read were interesting insights into the Second World War, I’ve found them very difficult to get back into, with a couple of exceptions.

The main issue with a lot of these books is that they are some form of biography or profile of a small number of people and their direct experiences with warfare. While this accomplishes the point of the book, i.e. illustrating a singular experience with the subject’s experiences, it’s not necessarily about warfare itself, it’s about how people react under incredible pressures. This, I think, is the source of the fascination with the Second World War, a conflict so broad that it covers numerous experiences that soldiers were tested in a number of different ways and different situations. However, the most important lessons from the Second World War aren’t necessarily the experiences of individuals: it is the actions and long-term events that led to the conflict that require the most study, elements of warfare that do not reach the public consumption level with big miniseries events and films such as The Pacific and Band of Brothers.

The historiographical level of history is a much broader look into the roots of warfare itself, examining the intersections between technology, leadership and social elements under fire. Soldier stories fill only a singular element in a much larger picture, and productions such as Band of Brothers and the Pacific. One of the dominant problems is that these books are generally taken at more than face value – Band of Brothers, despite its popularity, accounts for just one unit among many in the entire picture of the American and British operations, and largely doesn’t look at much of the bigger picture involved with military operations. A similar book, The First Men In, by Ed Ruggero, is a similar story, about the 82nd Airborne division and their actions during Operation Overlord, and proves to be an exceptional book on airborne operations on a larger scale, while still keeping a number of the personal aspects of the soldiers intact.

What it comes down to, in a lot of ways, is how popularity affects a book or historical study. Certainly, World War II has remained an extremely popular war to study and to read about, given the scale of the conflict, while other conflicts, because of their outcomes and perceptions, are largely unknown to the public eye, such as Korea, Vietnam and numerous smaller conflicts that serve an extremely important role in American foreign policy and history. Much as only reading a bestseller World War II book will not give you a good idea of the larger picture of said conflict, only focusing on the extremely popular elements, people, conflicts and battles will likewise provide a limited view of the bigger picture.

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