Colonel Edward Shames. Few people know the name, and, for those who do, it does not always carry the best connotation. Col. Shames (pictured above) served in Easy Company Second Battalion 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division during World War II. In more colloquial terms, the outfit portrayed in HBO’s famous mini-series, Band of Brothers based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same title. In the show, then Lieutenant, Shames’ character is glossed over, barely making an appearance in episode 6 ‘Foy’. For the brief moment he is on screen, he is portrayed as a negative leader, using intimidation and force to lead his people.
Why does this matter? Well, in reality, Col. Shames was an excellent officer whose people looked up to him for his gall and fortitude; so where is the disconnect? When Stephen Ambrose conducted his interviews, and later HBO, Col. Shames refused to stand for either. As such, Ambrose wrote him as the flippant lieutenant portrayed in the film.
Having personally met Col. Shames, I asked what he thought of the min-series and his portrayal. Between sips of his cocktail he responded with a gruff, “The hell if I care. I took care of my people, and we got home.” I talk about Col. Shames not only as a reinforcement of the value of perspective, but also as a segway into the reality and pitfalls of historical revisionism.
The author Michael Kammen published The American Past Politicized: Uses and Misuses of History which first discusses how revisionism in history is not a new, or American phenomenon before going on to highlight how it has affected American history and public perception thereof. Kammen goes all the way back to the American Revolution and highlights John Adams’ explicit feelings towards the histories that had already began to appear immediately following the conflict. Adams professed that he would much rather read a Tory (English) history of the war, than an American as he believed the American accounts had been published for money and entertainment. His viewpoint lends credence to the importance of perspective and how revisionism can completely skew our view of how history has played out.
Kammen continues in his article to discuss how government agencies have influenced the production of history. By dictating the “official” statements that are released about given events, the government can inadvertently control the amount, type, and tone of detail that gets reported as fact. We see an added layer to this with today’s media and their selective reporting bias. All of this ultimately effects the manner in which the present is documented, recorded, and remembered. While revisionism may offer refinement of argument or fact, it can also serve as a faulty foundation for an otherwise credible argument or perspective. As such it is vital to read critically, understand one’s source and present history in as objective a way as possible.
Kammen, Michael. “The American Past Politicized: Uses and Misuses of History.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 617 (2008): 42-57. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/stable/25098012.