×

History may be written by the guys who win, but often it’s the Hollywood version of wars that sticks in the collective memory — and sometimes gets stuck in folks’ craw.

If you took Paramount’s “Wake Island” for gospel in 1942, you would have thought those poor Marines had been victorious and come home safe, sound and decorated. As it turned out, they were actually left to fend for themselves on that Pacific atoll, with many dying, and many ending up in Japanese prison camps.

Or, now that we live in an era when our enemies have to be as sympathetically portrayed as we are, consider Disney’s “Pearl Harbor.” Watching that movie wouldn’t provide a clue as to the atrocities Japan committed in China in the 1930s and which fueled its aggression against the U.S.

But rather than be dismissive or outraged by how Tinseltown handles things, it’s worth noting that in our increasingly relativistic world, these inevitably partial and sometimes exaggerated versions of reality may be as close to truth as we are likely to get.

They’re certainly closer, in many cases, than the official versions of things.

Governments, including our own, feel empowered to rewrite what took place or to shape our view of things by fiat, bullying or even a single turn of phrase. Think “terrorist” rather than “freedom fighter,” “insurgency” rather than “civil war.”

Several examples suggest how fungible the truth of things can be.

Take “Hotel Rwanda,” which dramatized the attempts of one ordinary man, a hotel manager, to save countless thousands of Tutsis from massacre by the rival Hutus in that country.

Paul Rusesabagina has become something of a minor celeb in the States, complete with a book tour and appearances on college campuses. Back home, however, he is persona non grata.

The Wall St. Journal reported last week that the Rwandan government had denounced him as an imposter who had profiteered from the genocide.

Even the president of Rwanda, a Hutu named Paul Kagame, impugned his countryman as “a film star with no place on the list of our national heroes” — betraying at best petty jealousy, at worst fear that his own regime could come in for criticism or be toppled.

Forget reconciliation in that country: The denunciation of Rusesabagina suggests a systematic attempt to take control of the genocide story and tweak it for the benefit of those in power.

In Spain, too, there’s an effort by the government to revisit that country’s civil war of the late 1930s and place the blame for it squarely and officially on Generalisimo Francisco Franco. There’s even a bill in parliament called, ominously enough, “the law of historical memory” and calls by president Jose Luis Zapatero to expunge all street names and statues of the caudillo.

The thing is, bad things do happen, and to hide them from view — or deny that they at one time may have seemed good to some (Franco ruled Spain for 40 years) — can often be counterproductive.

Unlike the Rwandan example, the effort in Spain smacks of going too far in the direction most folks were already leaning. Thanks in part to the books of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell and the movies of directors like Carlos Saura and Pedro Almodovar, the world’s sympathies have for decades been with the antifranchistas.

Trying to stage-manage the past is apparently doing nothing more than exacerbating old wounds. After all, folks do die in civil wars, on both sides, and memories of that fade only very slowly, and should probably not be messed with.

Which brings me to the “civil war” in Iraq.

NBC’s recent decision to redefine the conflict there rather than continue to refer to it as an “insurgency” is a step in the direction of verisimilitude. (Calling the decision “brave” seems ludicrous, given the mainstream media’s largely unquestioning support of the Iraq war through its initial phases. Better, instead, to call it a make-good.)

What will be important for future generations will be to see if any faction can be said to emerge “victorious” from this debacle. Who, in other words, will get to write the definitive history of what happened?

I’m betting there will be competing versions of how it all went down for decades to come.

Historians will have a hard time, but Hollywood should have a field day, mixing and matching good and bad guys in countless, interchangeable combinations.