Monday, September 24, 2007

The War

After viewing only one episode, it may be premature to judge "The War," Ken Burns' long-awaited documentary on the American experience during World War II. The first installment (which aired last night on PBS) was both illuminating and disappointing; for any serious student of the war, Burns' documentary will offer little in the way of new information. But the personal accounts and anecdotes--the hallmark of any Burns production--were largely compelling, providing enough reason to tune in for tonight's second (and subsequent) episodes.

Whatever its flaws, Ken Burns deserves enormous credit for simply tackling the project. Compressing the terrible panorama of the war into a 15-hour television documentary is no mean feat; Mr. Burns and his production team have been working on the project for the last six years, interviewing scores of Americans who fought in World War II, and those who served on the home front. Ultimately, the recollections of 40 men and women became the centerpiece of the documentary, providing the individual experiences that offer intimate context and perspective on the greatest conflict in human history.

And that may be the most important aspect of the production. As Burns noted in last night's introduction, "The War" may represent one of the final attempts to record the thoughts and memories of The Greatest Generation. Collectively, they fought and won the war, but the enormity of their effort--and sacrifice--was largely ignored for decades. It remains ironic that the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials in Washington were completed ahead of their World War II counterpart. That memorial finally opened in 2004, 59 years after the surrender of Germany and Japan, and long after the passing of millions of Americans who secured that final victory.

So, it's appropriate that "The War" is a collection of individual stories, and on that level, it works quite well. While the accomplishments of the World War II generation are extraordinary, they were achieved by ordinary Americans, many from small towns or rural areas who had little thought of the wider world before December 7, 1941. Most of the film's 40 "witnesses" were drawn from four communities--Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota and Sacramento, California--representing four regions of an isolationist America.

Among the survivors who've appeared (so far), two stories proved instantly memorable. In early 1941, Glenn Frazier was a 17-year-old Alabama farm boy, who lived near Mobile. Spurned by a girl friend, Frazier rode his motorcycle through a juke joint that refused him service, "destroying bottles and furniture." Humiliated, scared and unable to face his parents, Frazier enlisted in the Army the next day, volunteering for service in the Far East, believing that the war would remain confined to Europe.

When the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Frazier found himself in brutal combat on Luzon and the Bataan peninsula; after seeing a close friend blown apart in an enemy air attack, Frazier laconically recalls that "he had no trouble killing Japs." In fact, Frazier felt deficient in his duties if he didn't kill at least one Japanese soldier a day, as the enemy advanced against beleaguered U.S. forces. By the end of the first episode, Frazier had already survived the Bataan Death March and was being held in a Japanese POW camp where other, unspeakable horrors awaited.

Another Alabamian, Sidney Phillips, first experienced combat as a Marine on Guadalcanal in late 1942. In last night's opening installment, Phillips remembered Navy supply ships sailing away just days after the invasion, after a Japanese attack shredded the U.S. screening force. Alone on the island, Phillips and his fellow Marines engaged in brutal, hand-to-hand combat against Japanese troops that tried to force them from the island. If not for a cache of "captured" enemy rice, the Marines would have starved to death before the Navy returned. The memories of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Frazier were riveting, capturing both the desperate victory of Guadalcanal, and the disaster that preceded it in the Philippines.

But, in his effort to capture the broad strokes of our war experience, Mr. Burns makes some rather odd choices. The Battle of Midway--the decisive naval engagement of World War II in the Pacific--is summarized in barely two minutes, while the internment of Japanese-Americans is remembered at length. Obviously, the internment was a tragedy--and unjustified--but Burns makes no effort to balance images of Japanese-Americans heading for the camps against the security concerns that prompted FDR's decision. And, without the American triumph at Midway, the outcome of the Pacific War (for all concerned) would have been very different, indeed.

So far, the tendency to "capsulize" key events in favor of other narratives (including the internment controversy) isn't enough to keep us from watching "The War." But it would be unfortunate if Mr. Burns' film ultimately succumbs to the dictates of political correctness. After devoting much time to the internment controversy, we wonder how he will treat the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


In fairness, one of the most memorable scenes in the first episode vividly captured the war's brutality--and provided a powerful reminder to those who anguish over our "excessive" casualties in Iraq. Against a backdrop of headstones, Mr. Burns reminded viewers that 35,000 Americans died in the first year of World War II. For the math-impaired, that's almost seven times the number who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past four years.


jms said...

Obviously, the internment was a tragedy--and unjustified

It's not at all obvious that the japanese internment was a tragedy and unjustified, when you consider the extent and nature of the anti-japanese propaganda being distributed by both the government and private industry throughout the war. From movies to posters to newspapers, the American public were taught to hate the Japanese, and to accept the man-to-man genocide planned for the entire Japanese people once the invasion of Japan began.

Had we not had a general Japanese-American internment during World War II, I think that it is very likely that we would have seen waves of violence against Japanese-Americans in response to the anti-Japanese propaganda being put out en masse by both government and private industry.

For example:

(government propaganda)

(corporate propaganda)

Had we not had internment camps, we would have had lynchings and riots in their place, which would have torn the social fabric much more deeply.

halojones-fan said...

jms: So we put them in jail for their own good, eh? That's an...understandable view, I suppose we might say.

OP: It may well be that there wasn't a WWII memorial because WWII didn't need one--everyone who was alive in the 1940s had their life touched, in some way, by the war. They didn't need a memorial, because they were the memorial.

Steve said...

There's also one other trifling little detail about the Japanese-American internment camps that is overlooked; many of the interred Japanese-Americans had to sell their homes and businesses at less than competitive prices to white Americans, who, in some cases, were the competitors of those Japanese-America business people.

Whadda ya think happened? That they were just merely "relocated" and all their homes and businesses managed to manage themselves in their absence?

Let's not sugarcoat or rationalize this injustice because it would be very easy to now say; hey, all those Muslims in our country, let's round them up too - for their own good, of course - and divy up their spoils at auction prices. It's the only fair and humane thing to do.

jamminedward said...

Not only would Japanese Americans have been at serious risk, I have read a few reports of Japanese American involvement in espionage prior to the internment, which would have been nearly impossible to control in any other way. The idea of allowing Japanese American soldiers to serve in Europe was one moderating solution that worked remarkably well. The Japanese American soldiers who served valiantly in Europe deserve and have gotten high honor. Every U.S. citizen endured hardship during WWII, some more than others, but all bore part of the burden. It is unfortunate that Japanese Americans were singled out and interned for the war, yet it is essentially to remember that doing so was probably necessary for the reasons mentioned above and that so many Japanese Americans have demonstrated great strength of character in getting through and beyond such difficulty. Rather than become bitter perennial dependents, they seem to have barely let internment interfere with their progress as Americans. I hope in future, we will think of the unfortunate episode of internment with a greater sense of context and honor for everyone involved.