I am not opposed to a bit of hagiography, when I find it entertaining and little harm is done. I do not mind movies about Winston Churchill, who by all accounts was a horrible man, because I find his life interesting. Glorification of another horrible man, who was not quite as intelligent as Winston, George Custer, is not as entertaining, because he caused considerable unnecessary suffering (including the death of a relative). I do not hold a grudge but do judge more critically than most.
Normally, I would have given the following headline no more that a cursory glance, as my eyes flew over the day’s news:
" The man who kept the Lakota language alive"
The word Lakota caught my eye. This means nothing to most readers of the Guardian...in fact, most people on this planet. It means something to me, because members of the Lakota tribe killed my great grandfather. Sadly, he probably deserved his fate, because he belonged to the US Army’s Seventh Cavalry, which had a reputation for genocide (suppressed by hagiographers of General George Custer).
This unfortunate tribe had the misfortune of dwelling on lands coveted by people with guns and able to influence the men that passed laws. They stood in the way of "progress" and had to be remove/taught a lesson. My great grandfather, unfortunately, got what he deserved. Revenge wrought in his name only helped the plunderers.
A sight not unlike something my great grandfather might have seen.
Given the stage of human development and the technology that surrounds us each day, I find it difficult to believe that my grandfather was born in Indian Territory at about the time the above photo was taken.
I noticed this headline in the New York Times:
Price of a 50-Year Myth: The false lessons of the Cuban missile crisis led to disastrous policies.
There have been a number of similar headlines lately, due to the anniversary of one more of many fallacies about US Government wonderfulness. Revising history is difficult and usually unnoticed (especially by textbook creators), which explains much of myth longevity.
I have written about Custer's Last Folly, because of my personal connection to that debacle. Last night, I watched a program on Operation Babylift, which took place in 1975. Hundreds of Vietnamese infants were airlifted out of the country, with full political participation and media overkill. These children were placed in adoption in the US and Australia (and perhaps others), with the government claiming that they would be killed by the NVA/Vietcong if the South Vietnamese Government fell (which any fool knew would happen). In reality, this was a smokescreen to lull public opinion into believing the government were the "good guys", which officials involved at the time now admit. Many children have grown up to be disturbed by the separation from birth parents, who they cannot know.
I am certain that the list of government propaganda, lies, and deceptions is long, because too many elected and appointed officials believe that citizens are too stupid to understand the truth or want to hide the crimes they have/are/will commit. If you want to read one enlightening book, try Bright Shining Lie or anything about what the Kennedy's really did.
And, you wonder why I have become a cynic…
History is always more compelling and interesting, if one has a personal connection...
Because the jerk was responsible for my great grandfather’s death, I watched with interest a PBS program on General George Custer. I was pleased to see that it debunked most of the myth, which has persisted since that fateful day.
Unfortunately, there is more hogwash circulating, printed, and recalled than credible facts. Believing common wisdom is easier than question image-makers. Innocents are slaughtered, because of leaders’ poor judgement, egomania, and paranoia. Even well-meaning and loyal compatriots are not spared, when the man they follow is a fool...
Too late in life I learned the meaning of hagiography (a biography idealizing its subject; adulatory writing about another person; writing of the lives of saints). Perhaps, I was intellectually lazy, gullible, or disinterested in looking beyond the words of any biography.
All “great” men and women try to influence how history books and films should remember them. Some are successful; some are victims of over-zealous or self-serving biographers and filmmakers. True facts are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, especially years after an event (thus the tie to saints). Each person experiences an event from his or her perspective, and memories fade immediately after the event. Therefore, most biographies contain a great deal of fiction. This makes coloring a person’s life, either positively or negatively, rather easy and impossible to discredit. Just look at how hard Tony Blair works to polish a tarnished reputation of a lying, cheating politician.
Although there are countless examples of hagiography, three blatant examples immediately come to mind:
Revisionist histories have a done a good job of tarnishing the image of Stalin created by communist writers and filmmakers. Fine examples of non-hagiographic and object writings are those of Simon Sebag Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar) and Edvard Radzinsky (Stalin), who had unprecedented access to Soviet archives. Both are worth reading for anyone interested in a (more truthful) look at the Soviet Union.
I had always swallowed the Hollywood version of General George Custer...until I learned my great grandfather’s biography (Custer's Lost Officer, by Walt Cross), the “facts” surrounding his death at Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Mistake), and the history of US Government treatment of Native Americans (endless source material, written and oral). This is one of the all-time great cases of hagiography.
I fell for the negative view spread throughout the world of Ho Chi Minh. I went to Vietnam believing the story fed to me by the Army and kept that opinion until I became interested in learning the history of US involvement in Vietnam (another vast bibliography). That led me to learn about Uncle Ho, through biographical sketches (both sides) and original source material in English, French, and German (there was a connection between East Germany and North Vietnam). Many US Government officials made many mistakes and misjudgments about Ho starting in 1918, all of which led to unnecessary death and suffering to this day.
This list of hagiographic treatment of famous people is endless. My conclusion is that “Great” men and women are usually not great; they are men and women, whose lives are more interesting and whose achievements are greater than average. The simple facts would be enough to raise them above you or me. Hagiography is a dangerous word, unknown to all but a few. Are you not happy that I have opened your eyes and, perhaps, provided the impetus to look beyond the bells and whistles?
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.