January 28, 2023

Mask of History

David Brooks asks the question of the week. What drives history?

Historians are criticized for focusing too much on the Great Man, kings and presidents, while the more perceptive like Tom Friedman are searching for the foot soldiers, a Nelson Mandela to emerge. Unfortunately for the Islamic world, they had a transformational leader in Sadat, and followed instead the ayatollahs in Iran. The ayatollahs have more foot soldiers.

History is shaped by the foot soldiers, whether in war, politics, commerce, or the arts. The Henry Fords and Sam Waltons began as lowly, struggling foot soldiers, as did Lincoln and Grant for good; Hitler, Stalin, the ayatollahs, and bin Laden for evil.

Napoleon Hill, in his classic “Think and Grow Rich,” writes of the extraordinary willpower and persistence of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

Hill also writes of a sharecropper’s child wanting to collect the fifty cents owed to her mother:

“What do you want?”

“My momma says to send her fifty cents.”

“I’ll not do it. Now you run home.”

“Yes sir.” (But she did not budge)

Then in a shrill voice, the child said:


The child got her fifty cents, and in her own little battle, set the course of history on to the Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings.

In John Keegan’s “The Mask of Command,” he writes of Grant’s emerging from obscurity with this description of a battle: “He, oppressed by the knowledge that the Union could afford to take ‘no backward step’ in its struggle with Southern rebellion, banished all thought of retreat and rode like a fury from blind spot to blind spot, keeping his men in place.”

That night, Sherman found Grant, a “cigar clenched between his teeth.”

“Well, Grant. We’ve had the devil’s own today, haven’t we.”

“Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

These are the kind of people who change the course of history.



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