I Get A History Lesson

The other day my wife and I took my mother in law to the orthopaedic surgeon.    

A fact of life when you go to see the orthopaedic surgeon is that you spend a lot more time waiting to see him than you spend actually seeing him.  As a veteran of the experience, I had taken along War and Peace, which, at the rate I’m going, will take me as long to read as it took Tolstoy to write.  Or longer.  I had just finished a battle scene and was getting into one of Leo’s lectures, so I took advantage of the excuse to stop reading by helping a young woman who was struggling to seat herself. 

“Thank you,” she said, flexing her heavily bandaged knee.

“No problem,” I said, offering her a year old copy of Women’s Weekly.  “How is your knee?”

“Getting better.  Thank you.”

“What happened?”

“I slipped on dog shit.”

Normally when you ask someone about a medical problem, you expect a fairly generic answer, such as “I fell.”  Or, “I had an accident.”  I wasn’t expecting anything quite so detailed and specific.   Not only that, it was hard not to laugh.

Although she was very forthcoming on the cause of her accident, she wasn’t very interested in follow up so I went back to Russia in 1809.  Leo was waxing rhapsodic about the perspicacity of that old Russian general, Kutuzov by name, and, against my best intentions and efforts, my mind began to wander.

When you read military history, they always talk about strategy and tactics and how the planning and experience of the generals and captains is usually the decisive factor in a battle.  That is why winning generals are so revered.  Because the fate of people and countries–and history itself–hinges on their good judgement and skill. 

I’d just read that the history of Europe had been decided by the wisdom of old Kutuzov.  But my experience that morning got me wondering.  Here I was sitting with a woman whose life had been changed because she stepped in dog shit.  According to Tolstoy’s account of the battle, it must have been very chaotic.  Plus there were a lot of horses and men running around.  No one knew exactly what was going on.

Well if there were horses around, there must have been a lot of horse shit around too.  So what are the chances that these famous battles (and the history of Europe) were not, in fact, determined by the wisdom of the Napoleons and the Kutuzovs of the world?  Rather, what if the minor skirmishes that determined the outcomes of the big battles were determined by things as minor as a guy slipping on horse shit and failing to take the opponent’s flag.  Or tripping on his boot laces.  Or just bumping into a guy who was about to fatally shoot the opposing general?  Think about it.  If battles were half as disorganized as Tolstoy and others portray them to be, they must have been totally out of control from the perspective of the people involved. 

So that’s my theory for the day.  History is not determined by great leadership and planning.  It depends on whether someone has stepped in shit.

You may wonder why this is relevant.  Because it raises the whole question of what and who is important.  In daily life things don’t usually happen at the same pace as they do in battles.  I hope.  But it’s the little things that add up to how the day goes.  Just like little things determine how history turns out.

3 responses to “I Get A History Lesson

  1. very good.

    kind of like the guy who get’s up late and just missed his plane which subsequently crashed

  2. Merima Isakovic

    Thanks Tom. Made me think how all “big and important history makers” have had they funny daily moments too but they kept hiding them all long years…. When I was a little, I thought that “prince and princess never go to the loo… or if they do… is that exceptional too ?”. I giggled thinking: “how they look when they are clumsy or sleepy … do they wake up with their hair up the sky …???”. While I now “know” that they do: I still allow myself many moments when I like to hold to my childhood illusions that… “once upon a time there were …” and sure there will be many exceptional people and exceptional moments that , little or big, have been changing the history. Well: the future too.

  3. So very true. Many events in our lives are really determined by things beyond our control – like slipping in dog shit or missing a plane or train or whatever…. Remember the movie “Sliding Doors”?
    And as you point out perhaps many of our great events in history have only occurred not because of great leadership and insight, but because of some insignificant incident beyond the control of anyone. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could travel back in time and see how history might be different if those accidental incidents had not occured.

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