Monday, September 24, 2007

Military choices

Have been watching Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS. It's interesting, in part because Burns is a good storyteller, in part because WWII is a complex story with multiple moral dimensions. I find it slightly disappointing, though. It isn't much different than tuning in on just about any other documentary about WWII on the History channel or elsewhere. The central device he uses, taking stories from each of four or five American towns, has some usefulness, but just seems random.

The tenor of the series veers back and forth among American jingoism, mild criticism of contemporaneous politicians, appreciation for the soldiers, and occasional descriptions or mentions of atrocities or wrong-doings by the Allies. It doesn't ever really seem to find its footing, and then falls back on all the long familiar narrative trails: the various campaigns and fronts. The first episode seemed as though it wasn't going to be just another military history told from the point of view of soldiers. But this second episode was mostly a lot of History channel footage of things being blown up, planes falling.

The one thing Burns' documentary does do is, without even trying, allow us to compare what Americans did and how we behaved in WWII to what's going on with the Iraq War today. War of necessity vs. war of choice, rationing, Americans financing WWII themselves through bonds, etc.

In the first episode, Burns seemed to be creating a multi-dimensional story of war as pure atrocity--now we're back to WWII as a metaphor for American triumphalism. WWII has become a really dangerous war for all of us today: it's constantly invoked as a reason for fighting any war that comes down at us. It fools us into believing that any war we choose to fight is a just one, simply because America is involved. It makes us believe that any means justify the ends.

Tens of millions of people died, world-wide, for a smorgasboard of Imperialisms. Wouldn't it be more interesting to portray what happened to all of those innocent civilians, or why various populations chose the governments they did--how individual non-combatants created this horrible situation? One of the things that bothers me about this WWII fest and others I've seen is: were all those islands on which the Allies fought the Japanese unpopulated? These places are always depicted as though no one lived on them at all--there were just two groups of soliders fighting each other endlessly. You mean that all of the islands of the South Pacific were vacant? Why did the Allies choose to launch their European fronts in the two most difficult ways: going north through Italy and confronting the Germans on the well-defended cliffs of Normandy? What was the issue with going through the south of France from the Allies newly-established base in North Africa? There must be a reason, but we just get the same tired story over and over again about WWII. This is what they did--no rationales, nothing. And Burns' documentary implies that the Holocaust, which it will get to soon, was taking place "in secret." There were reports coming out of Europe from very early on about what was happening to the Jews--the U.S. just chose to discredit them.

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