Summary: Historical fiction often blurs into real history. Too many historical facts are fabrications. We must learn to better distinguish between the two, and gather useful lessons from each.
An inspiring snapshot of history. Unfortunately, reality is more complex.
Bad information drives out the good
“Bad money drives out good.”
— Gresham’s Law, discovered in 1860 by Henry Dunning Macleod. It’s equally true of information.
History and historical fiction are both useful but need to be distinguished. Unfortunately, we often confuse the two genres. Often journalists – and sometimes even scholars – are unclear if they want to write an unbiased description of the dry facts or a work of fanciful fiction.
This is not a new phenomenon. Ancient historians, such as Plutarch (Greek Lives, Roman Lives), were often liberal with the facts. Instead, they focused on presenting a narrative with moral lessons for their readers. Other writers, like Julius Caesar writing about his military exploits (The Gallic War), sometimes put characters of questionable realism into their memoirs to act as a voice presenting an important point in the narrative. This is not a moral failure. Most writers of the ancient world saw themselves as tellers of stories, teaching lessons that people can apply to their own lives, cities, and civilizations.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes [Greeks], others by the barbarians [Persians] – not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.
— Opening sentence of The Histories, the great history by Herodotus of the Persian Wars (Wikipedia).
Looking back, today we can see that these stories were propaganda of the cultures that created them, and were often inaccurate – or made up altogether.
Case Study: Character Assassination of a General
A famous example of a fictional narrative overwhelming history is Maharbal, a Numidian commander who served the legendary Hannibal, who led the Carthaginian army in a brutally destructive campaign against Rome in the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s stunning campaign reached its high point with his crushing defeat of the entire Roman field army at the Battle of Cannae on 2 August 216 BC.
In the aftermath of the battle, there was a famous exchange between Hannibal and Maharbal. The Numidian aggressively questioned Hannibal’s plans for exploiting the victory and defeating Rome for good. Dissatisfied with Hannibal’s unwillingness to take risks to decisively end the war, Maharbal chastised him with a line that became famous: “You, Hannibal, know how to gain a victory; you do not know how to use it.”
This line sells a narrative: Hannibal wast was overly cautious and as a result lost the war. But there is little evidence that Maharbal said this. Worse, the narrative is overly simplistic. Hannibal was indeed hesitant to directly attack Rome as Maharbal suggested, but he had compelling reasons. Carthage refused to send not only reinforcements but even supplies. Hannibal believed it was a better strategy to isolate Rome from the peoples it had subjugated. This caused rebellions in Macedonia, Sicily and even within Italy itself. But not enough, while his army dwindled due to lack of support. Then Hannibal was forced to abandon the expedition completely when Scipio Africanus launched a direct attack against Carthage in 204 BC.
Hannibal made sensible strategic decisions, and there is a compelling argument that his defeat was due to factors beyond his control. But Romans and future Western historians they influenced found it more appealing to depict Hannibal as inferior to the heroic Roman generals and their brave legionaries.
The Hegemonic Narratives of History
Hegemonic: ruling or dominant in a political or social context.
History is written by the victors. Hannibal’s ultimate defeat is presented in popular culture as a moral lesson about a commander hesitating when he should have been bold. Such entertaining narratives drowns out the actual facts of history.
Manufacturing conversations and even people, to sell a narrative continues in our time. There is one key difference, however. The classical historians presented themselves as storytellers. There was a self-awareness that they were being a little liberal with the truth, and few pretended otherwise.
Little has changed in the essentials of publishing a work of history over the past two millennia. Readers still love real events told an exciting format. But modern media often blur the distinction between truth and fiction
In my own reading for one of my upcoming books, The Silver Cord: A Story of the Night Witches (see the introductory chapter) I encountered a pervasive inability to distinguish truth from fiction. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment is one of the few all-female regiments in history, and the most decorated. While they were always heroes in their home communities, these woman aviators were mostly unknown in the West.
That changed in 1981 when Bruce Myles published Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II. Myles is an excellent author, and his book is filled with colorful descriptions of the young women and their day-to-day lives, from the terror of battle to funny anecdotes of sleeping, eating and coexisting in a tightly packed military dugout.
As excellently written as it is, Night Witches has little resemblance to the people and events it is allegedly about. His looseness with the facts begins with the title. Myles shares stories of these women, including some remarkably accomplished pilots and the only women flying aces (Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak). But only the 588th Night Bombers were “Night Witches.” Myles presumably decided to use it as a blanket term for all the women’s regiments. One can only guess why he did this. Maybe because Night Witches is such a catchy term.
It gets worse from there. The Night Witches were not a “Russian” unit. They were a Soviet unit; some were from Russia, particularly Moscow, but they were a diverse group with members from states across the continent, including Kazakhstan, Crimea, Siberia, and Ukraine. At least one of the pilots was a Tatar. While technically within Russian borders, Tatars are a distinct people with their own language and culture. Again, why did Myles do this? Most likely because “Russian” is more easily recognizable. Maybe he wanted to distance his book from the Cold War anti-Soviet politics of the time.
The New Narrative
When the Night Witches achieved international fame, in large part due to Myles’ book, their story immediately began to clash with a hegemonic narrative of the modern world: feminism. It’s a clash that seems strange at first glance. Why would brave female flyers be contradictory to feminism? Particularly in the last several decades when there’s been growing pressure to include more women in Western militaries. Ultimately, the feminist narrative isn’t about women fighting. It’s about why they fight.
As stated earlier, bad information drives out the good. Myles succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination; the Night Witches have been featured or referenced in history books, novels, movies, and television many times since then. Unfortunately, many, perhaps most, of these works rely on Myles’ book, and those works’ creators assume Myles is a reliable source, when even a cursory glance at the text shows it isn’t. Myles’ imaginary account was a best seller and remains popular to the present day. More accurate accounts, including, ironically, the published works of the Night Witches themselves are drowned out. Though some of these accounts were eventually translated into English, most are out of print, and none came close to the distribution that Myles enjoyed.
This brings us to the most important question: Why? It’s the narrative. The hegemonic narrative of Western Civilization today is feminism. The primary enemy of feminism is the patriarchy. Myles depicted the Soviet military bureaucracy as sexist and discriminatory toward women. This message only grew in later books. Articles and documentaries published by the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and other major outlets often depict the Night Witches’ own country as their primary adversary. This fits the “G.I. Jane” narrative of a determined female soldier overcoming bigotry of her own male team members. Her goal is recognition for her achievements.
In reality, there’s really no significant evidence of sexism in the Soviet war machine of the time. None of the female aviators of the Great Patriotic War expressed any feeling of mistreatment publicly, and their private diaries and letters that have been released don’t either. They volunteered for the front to fight the Nazis, and that’s what they did.
Their male counterparts don’t appear to have felt any hostility toward the women’s air regiments either. Quite the opposite, men heaped praise on them for leaving the safety of home to fight.
General Konstantin Vershinin commanded the 4th Air Army, with five newly-awarded Heroes of the Soviet Union from the Night Bomber Regiment in 1944. Vershinin was skeptical when the Night Witches first arrived, but quickly became one of their biggest supporters. Even during periods they fell outside his command, he sent advice and encouragement.
Night Witches did face sexism, but not from the Soviets. The Germans did not appreciate being bombed by women.
“My co-pilot and I had agreed we’d never land on enemy territory. We decided better to crash the plane than be taken prisoner. A lot of us took that decision. You wouldn’t want to be a Night Witch in captivity. We’d have been doomed to torture.”
— Klavdia Deryabina, interviewed in 2001 by the LAT.
Nor did Russia’s allies share the enthusiasm for women in combat. The unit’s regimental commander sent one of her most highly decorated pilots, Maria Smirnova, to an anti-fascism conference in 1944. The Western news media couldn’t believe that a woman was capable of flying in combat.
We have more information at our fingertips than ever before. But half of it is wrong, and we often don’t know which half. This problem isn’t insurmountable. Healthy skepticism is a good practice. When reading, watching, or otherwise digesting any form of media, compare it to the framework of what you know of that culture and time period. If a statement contradicts your pre-established beliefs, then one of the two is wrong. After that, it’s a matter of finding out which.
About the author
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps.
- Pain and misery build discipline! Or so we’re told.
- The Atheist Conservative shows why secular conservatism continues to be an irrelevant and impotent force in American politics.
- Alita, the Battle Angel, fights her feminist critics.
- Plato and Diogenes warn us about hubris – Here is a fun short story, historical fiction about one of the clashes between two of the larger-than-life people of the ancient world.
- A fun tour of Harley Quinn’s Gotham.
- Joker & Harley, a partnership made in hell.
- Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus, a story about our future.
- Birth of a Man of Steel …for the Soviet Union.
For More Information
Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
- About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
- Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs.
- News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
- Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world.
- Martin van Creveld looks at the experience of women in the Israel Defense Forces.
- Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure.
Books about the Night Witches
These are just a few of the history books about that unit. There are several works, like this post, of historical fiction about them.
The first big-selling English-language book about the Night Witches is Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II by Bruce Myles (1990).
Ian highly recommends A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle (1994).
Ian also recommends The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (English 2017 of a 1985 original in Russia) – a profound book about Soviet women in WWII by oral historian Svetlana Alexievich.
Night Witches: A History of the All Female 588th Night Bomber Regiment by Fergus Mason (2014).
The Soviet Night Witches: Brave Women Bomber Pilots of World War II by Pamela Jain Dell (2017).
“Tonight We Fly!” The Soviet Night Witches of WWII by Claudia Hagen (2017).
Night Witches at War: The Soviet Women Pilots of World War II by Bruce Berglund (2019).