Sunday, August 25, 2013

Don’t Use Television for Historical Research

Image: By Urban (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll have to confess that The History Channel, H2, and National Geographic are three of my favorite TV channels. However, I never use anything I’ve seen there in my writing before checking it out thoroughly in dependable literary sources.

Case in point: Last night I was watching an entertaining program called The Americas Before Columbus on the National Geographic Channel. Most of the content corresponded with facts burned into my brain years ago in elementary school. Then they got to the story of the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto. To quote directly, the narrator said, “De Soto sailed up the Mississippi River to explore the interior…” My jaw dropped.

I learned in elementary school that De Soto started in Florida and travelled across Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and on into Arkansas, where he died of malaria. The passage of his expedition left a trail of devastation that lasted for years as European diseases decimated the native population. After the death of their leader, the Spanish survivors built boats and floated down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, where they were eventually rescued.

How can screenwriters and producers put such egregiously wrong information in what are supposed to be documentaries? I’ll admit that I have no answer to that question, except perhaps, “Everybody does it.” For anyone vaguely familiar with the history of World War II, many of the TV programs on the subject are riddled with inaccuracies. Weapons available late in the war are shown supposedly invading Poland in 1939. Commentary purportedly about one army will overlay film footage of their enemies. Footage of suicide attacks off Okinawa often accompanies text about much earlier battles.  The writers and film editors appear to have no grasp of the history of the war.  I fear that they don’t want to take the trouble to get their facts straight.

“So, what?” you may ask. What bothers me is that many of these programs are used in school history programs. Once people have “learned” information incorrectly, they have to “unlearn” the material before they can understand the real lessons of history. I believe that writers have a responsibility to get their facts straight before calling them history.

A good deal of misinformation about the battles around the Philippines early in the Pacific War has appeared in print and on television. The detractors of General Douglas MacArthur have gone to great lengths to lay on him the responsibility for the loss of most of the U.S. air forces on December 8, 1941. Most imply if not say outright that protective measures were not taken before the Japanese attacks. In my research for my novel, Hold Back the Sun, I discovered that what really happened was far different. First, MacArthur ordered all the B-17s to be relocated to Mindanao, outside the range of Japanese bombers, two weeks before Pearl Harbor. The movement was delayed for reasons never fully explained. On the morning after the Hawaii attack, all U.S. aircraft on Luzon were ordered aloft before dawn to preclude being caught on the ground. The Japanese attack did not come as expected because fog on Formosa prevented them taking off. The American planes landed only when they began to run out of fuel. The planes were parked on the tarmac because the surrounding ground was swampy and would not support their weight. As luck would have it, the enemy aircraft arrived while the B-17s and P-40s were being refueled.

Hold Back the Sun presents the story of the early months of the war in the Western Pacific as accurately as careful research can allow. I believe that every writer of historical fiction owes his/her readers that diligence.

Note: Warren Bell's debut novel, Fall Eagle One, detailing a fictitious but plausible assassination attempt on FDR during World War II, (Semi-Finalist in the Kindle Indie Book Review Best Books of 2012) is available for Kindle or in paperback on His newest novel, Hold Back the Sun, has been released for Kindle in advance of the printed book launch. This new historical-fiction thriller, set in the Pacific, follows the US Asiatic Fleet in their battle with the Japanese in WWII.

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