When I was an undergraduate in college, I took a course that required me to read a diary written by a Napoleonic soldier who had ended up later in life as a German immigrant to Kansas, where his edited diary was eventually found. If one did not know that many German immigrants in the late 19th century moved to Kansas and other states in the Great Plains (most notably North Dakota, where the state capital is Bismarck), it would be quite ridiculous that one of the most historically important texts about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, told from the point of view of one of the soldiers who served as cannon fodder in his doomed army, would be found in a Kansas farmhouse. But that is exactly what happened, and since I have read that book I have maintained a fondness for reading the diaries and memoirs and letters of soldiers at war, which has proven to be a very intriguing aspect of military history that somewhat coincidentally matches a broader trend in the study of war and society.
One of the most important aspects of having texts from common people involved in war is the reminder that we are dealing with individual people who have their own stories and their own perspectives. To be sure, we cannot expect the writings of common soldiers to be as polished as the rhetoric of political and cultural elites, although as someone who enjoys reading such letters I have tended to find that ordinary people without any particular claim to elite status or inside information are still often quite well informed, far more so than many contemporary journalists and talking heads. Contemporary historians like James McPherson have written insightful books which use the letters and other writings of Civil War soldiers on both sides to point out the sophistication of their reasons for serving as foot soldiers in a war where death and harrowing injury were not unreasonable expectations. Knowing the reasons why people fight can help us to better understand the depth of hostility that may exist between different regions or different nations and cultures, and the way in which people respond to the propaganda promoted by governments in order to justify such actions. Obviously, letters from active military personnel can be expected to be censored, but writing after the fact can present opinions that may not have been as safe or as easily accepted at the time.
It is not only in war where it is good to know the point of view of the common person. Most of our knowledge of history tends to come from elite sources. The reasons for this are not hard to understand–for much of human history the average person was illiterate and not very well-educated, and did not travel much beyond his or her hometown or native village under most circumstances. Even if someone had the requisite knowledge and abilities to express themselves, there was little incentive to do so when political and religious authorities viewed such sentiment as potentially threatening to their authority, making it far more safe for the elites themselves to be doing the writing. Even then the lives of ordinary people throughout history have seldom found themselves reaching the point to where they were recorded and remembered in much of the world. If someone’s achievements were not notable enough that elites wrote about them or bards sang stories about them, then such lives were anonymous and largely forgotten. Even in such days as our own where a great many people can, if they want, publish their own existence and their own perspective, with very little cost, few people do so to a great degree when one reflects the massive populations that exist around the world. It is only those records that are made that can survive, and only those that survive which can become part of the historical record by which the past is judged by the future.
How will we be judged by the future? Will the apocalyptic furor over supposed anthropogenic climate change be judged as being akin to the Millerites of the early 1840’s and a certain millennarian strain in American culture? Will our political leaders be viewed in the same light as the leaders of the 1840’s and 1850’s whose brinksmanship led our nation into disaster? Which of our writings will survive into the future? Whose blogs will be viewed as important to read when it comes to understanding the times, and what will future writers and thinkers have to say about the way that newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post ruined their credibility through political grandstanding? That is the difficulty with the future. As we cannot see clearly what will be, it is hard to know what aspects of our present time are particularly notable and important and which are fads that will be mocked and ridiculed? I suppose we will have to wait and see.