Thursday, August 9, 2012

The War (Florentine Films, WNET, PBS, c. 2006, rel. 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The War is a seven-part miniseries on World War II premiered in 2007 and created by Ken Burns and his company, Florentine Films, not only as the latest in his succession of documentary mega-series on various aspects of American life (including Baseball and Jazz as well as the national parks system) but also as the logical follow-up to his star-making production, The Civil War. Burns and his collaborator, Lynn Novick, realized early on that precisely because World War II was truly a worldwide war (unlike World War I, which was called that in retrospect but whose actual fighting was pretty much confined to Europe and the Middle East) and it involved so many different people representing so many different countries fighting on so many different fronts in so many different places, Burns and Novick would have to narrow the focus of their film so it would make some degree of coherent sense. Their solution was first of all to start the film in mid-1941, shortly before the U.S. entered the war (and not to try, except as fleeting moments of backstory, to dramatize what happened in the war between September 1939 and December 1941); and second to pick four American communities, either small towns or mid-sized cities — Sacramento, California; Mobile, Alabama; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Luverne, Minnesota — and tell the story of the war as it impacted these four communities, including interviewing people from those places who fought in the war and survived it. Burns also tried to use some of his trademark devices from The Civil War, including having actors read letters or published articles from the period (a gimmick that’s become an insufferable cliché, especially among documentarians working for PBS) and staging scenes in terrain similar to that in which the soldiers of World War II actually fought but without attempting detailed re-creations of important battles. He also was quite attentive to the musical aspect, commissioning Wynton Marsalis (a major talent whom Burns and a lot of jazz commentators, critics and authorities have mistaken for a genius) to compose a self-consciously “Americana” score for the piece (including a couple of violin solos uncomfortably reminiscent of the “Ashokan Farewell” Burns used so memorably and movingly in The Civil War) which sits oddly next to the authentic big-band records of the period Burns and Novick also used on their soundtrack — not only by major white names of the swing era like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller (because of its origins as a military march, Miller’s record of F. W. Measham’s “American Patrol” works surprisingly well here) but Black ones like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. (Maybe if I didn’t know when the record was made I’d have accepted the sequence in which Basie’s “Taxi War Dance” appeared, but all I could think was that that record came from early 1939, well before the period Burns was depicting.)

The biggest thing The War carries over from The Civil War is Burns’ whole emotional response to the idea of war; he’s determined not to glorify it but he also doesn’t have the righteous anger of the true pacifist either. Instead he depicts war in a sort of nostalgic glow of sadness, matter-of-factly narrating the atrocities on both sides while using sad, reflective music to present the horrors of war as something to be lamented and regretted rather than ended. Ironically, as many documentaries as there’ve been on World War II — from the ones that were made while it was going on to 1950’s TV series like Victory at Sea (I recently got the complete Victory at Sea series on DVD and it will make an interesting companion piece to this one, especially since Richard Rodgers’ music was notoriously loud and bombastic, quite different from the score Burns and Novick got from Marsalis here!) and later ones like the 26-episode BBC-TV series The World at War, which was shown so incessantly in the early days of the History Channel it got that station the nickname, “All Hitler all the time” — the strength of this one was precisely the strength of all its predecessors, namely that World War II took place during the era of film, and in particular lightweight, easy-to-carry 16 mm cameras that made it technologically easy to shoot moving pictures of battles as they were happening. Burns, Novick and narrator Keith David (attempting to capture that same tone of lordly objectivity David McCullough did in The Civil War and some of Burns’ other previous films). The War came most effectively alive when Burns and Novick abandoned the makeshifts they had had to use in dramatizing the Civil War — the long tracking shots over still photos or paintings and the letter-readings to cover the fact that by the time they made the movie everyone who had actually participated in the Civil War had long since died — and let the war tell its own story in the surviving newsreel and documentary footage from both sides. Ironically, the depiction of the Bata’an Death March in The War used scenes from a Japanese propaganda film, and KPBS followed it up with a separate half-hour film on Bata’an that not only identified it as a Japanese propaganda film but gave us some of the original soundtrack and added English subtitles — and it was chilling to read those and learn the Japanese audience was being told the Americans were too fat and well-fed to be an effective fighting force and too cowardly to kill themselves when they had lost the battle (something Japanese expected of their fighting men according to the samurai code of bushido, which taught that if you surrendered you were the lowest of the low and therefore the victors were entitled to humiliate you any way they chose).

This first episode, “A Necessary War,” soft-pedaled some of the more controversial aspects of U.S. policy (including the ongoing allegations that the Roosevelt administration had advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attacks but chose not to stop them because they would serve as a casus belli that would convince isolationist Americans of the need to go to war, and the controversial decision to focus the fight initially on Germany even though it was Japan, not Germany, that had attacked us; indeed, if Hitler hadn’t declared war on the U.S. three days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, it’s unclear whether President Roosevelt could have got the U.S. Congress to declare war on Germany) but did come out unequivocally against the U.S. incarceration of Japanese-Americans in “relocation” camps, not only out of the sheer unfairness of the policy (most of the people detained and forced to give up their property and livelihoods at a week’s notice were U.S.-born Nisei and, like the modern-day children of undocumented immigrants, saw themselves as part of the U.S. and no other country — indeed, one of the most chilling fears among the Nisei was that the U.S. government would actually deport them to Japan!) but the clearly racist motivations behind it, no matter how it was sold to ordinarily liberal people like President Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (who wrote the Court’s 6-3 opinion upholding the internment as constitutional) as a matter of “military necessity.” (The film makes it clear that there were isolated internments of German and Italian nationals in the U.S. as well, but not the sweeping policy that was applied against the Japanese — or had been used for mass round-ups of German-Americans in World War I.) It’s also a chilling film in that it gets into the whole mind-set of combat and how people are trained to kill, and how many of the people interviewed who actually fought said it only took witnessing one enemy atrocity against someone in their unit to eliminate all their moral scruples against killing and make them “gung ho” (a Chinese expression that actually entered the English language during, and as a result of, World War II) about doing to the enemy what the enemy were doing to us. — 8/1/12


I settled in for the evening and watched the second episode of Ken Burns’ documentary The War, “When Things Get Tough.” Judging from what I’ve read about the series online on the PBS Web site, one of the aims of Burns, his co-producer/co-director Lynn Novick and their writer, Geoffrey Ward, seems to be to attack, or at least subtly critique, the whole notion of American exceptionalism, which as it’s applied to World War II argues basically that we were so totally on the side of good and we brought such overwhelming strength and preparedness to the war effort that our triumph was predestined by God. Well, ’t’wasn’t so, honey, ’t’wasn’t so: this series shows not only that our victory in World War II was not preordained but that we came awfully close to losing: in the first serious test of U.S. arms on the ground — the Army in the North Africa campaign of 1942-43 — we got our asses whupped by Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps, not because our troops were unwilling to fight but they didn’t know how: the U.S. commander in Africa (whom Burns, Novick and Ward discreetly leave unnamed) literally set up his headquarters in a cave, from whence he was totally protected from bombardment — and he had no idea what was going on on the battlefield since he couldn’t see a lick of it. Only when George Patton took over the U.S. Army in Africa did the tide turn and we start to win. The show is also openly dismissive of the myth surrounding Douglas MacArthur, who both in the early 1940’s (when he fled the Philippines for Australia and boasted, “I shall return,” as he was running with his tail between his legs and leaving his men either to die or to surrender to the Japanese, which given the visceral contempt with which the Japanese greeted any soldier who didn’t do the honorable thing and die either on the battlefield or by his own hand afterwards, almost amounted to the same thing) and the early 1950’s (when Harry Truman dismissed him from command in Korea because he wanted to nuke the Chinese) was the subject of one of the most bizarre cults of personality ever seen in the U.S. (only the cult the Republicans have built around Ronald Reagan has rivaled it since) when in reality, at least according to this program, he was a barely competent general whose men in the Philippines derisively called him “Dugout Doug.”

This episode did a better job than the first one of achieving the balance Burns and his collaborators were trying for between the overall story of the war and the individual focus they wanted, thanks largely to its concentration on three people. One was Emma Belle Petcher, who joined an airplane factory in Mobile, Alabama (as one of the many real-life prototypes for the mythical “Rosie the Riveter”) because as a young girl she’d already shown an aptitude for things mechanical (she boasted that rather than spend the time and money waiting for a repairman, she was able to fix the family washing machine herself whenever anything went wrong with it) and she rose through the ranks of the factory to become an inspector, which basically meant checking the work of everyone else to make sure the bolts on each plane were tightened to the max — the sort of detail that could lead to a plane literally falling apart in mid-air if it weren’t done right — and every other aspect of quality control was maintained. Another was Earl Burke of Sacramento, who joined the Army Air Corps after his brother Thomas was killed in a training accident in Puerto Rico and ended up in the bombing unit, forced to fly missions in B-17’s during daylight and without fighter escort, meaning they were sitting ducks for the German fighters and anti-aircraft gunners. Burke said that the official policy was that once you flew 25 bombing missions you would either get discharged or rotated to a non-combat position (though Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 was set in Italy, the same policy applied and one of the crueler aspects of Heller’s book was how the number of missions you had to fly before they finished with you kept going up), but that the average number anyone actually flew was 14 because “once you got that many, usually you were dead.” The extraordinary footage of B-17’s literally limping home to their bases in England with open wounds on their fuselages and/or big bits of their tails and rudders missing and Burke’s comments in the interview tie together brilliantly and really communicate what he and the rest of the people in his crews were going through — to the point where he said he stopped trying to make friends with the others in his unit because he didn’t want to develop that kind of connection with anyone and then lose them the next day.

The third person profiled was Babe Ciarlo of Waterbury, Connecticut, who left an extraordinary series of letters to his family which gave Burns access to the kind of material he’d used so effectively in The Civil War and which dramatized the desperation with which the U.S. marched up the Italian peninsula in their attempt to dislodge Italy from the Axis. The show touches on some of the controversies that surrounded the war effort when it was going on — notably the timing of the Allied invasion of France, which the Russians were demanding because it would have relieved the strain on their front and the Americans were willing to go along with, but the British kept delaying because they didn’t think the Allies were ready — and, at least according to this film, they were right. According to the PDF “Study Guide” for the film on the PBS Web site, the future episodes will deal largely with the overly optimistic predictions that were continually being fed to the American people as to how long the war would last; so much of the propaganda in the last two years was of the “we almost have this thing won” variety that people largely stopped believing it and the U.S. government became worried the public would get war-weary, especially as the war dragged on for two, three and ultimately four years. I couldn’t help but think that a four-year war is nothing compared to the way wars go these days — we were in Viet Nam for about 14 years (depending on how you reckon the start and end dates), we’ve been in Afghanistan for 11 and we were in Iraq for eight (and some U.S. forces are still there!), and it’s become clear that the whole idea of “a world without war,” which people during World War II optimistically hoped for as the whole point of why we were fighting, is a chimera. Not only will there seemingly always be a war somewhere (when Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five he included in his introduction the snide comment he got from someone whom he told he was writing an anti-war book: “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book?,” making the point that war was as inevitable and ineradicable as glaciers — though in the current era of human-caused climate change it’s likely we will cease to have glaciers long before we cease to have wars!) but the U.S. has become so intensely militaristic, so deeply committed to maintaining its empire worldwide, that this country will continually be fighting someone somewhere.

At the same time, by depicting just how much World War II was a collective effort that involved virtually the entire population — not only were most of the soldiers draftees but the war really did touch everyone; if you weren’t actually fighting you were likely working in the defense industry, and even if you still tried to maintain the lifestyle you’d had before the war you would be subject to rationing — The War underscores how much the current “all-volunteer” military (in retrospect our fight to end the draft in the 1960’s and 1970’s seems to have been a case of “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”) and the sheer weight of American consumerism has detached the people who actually fight the wars from the people who sit on the sidelines and root for the U.S. much the way they root for one team or the other in the Super Bowl, with just as much emotional involvement and just as little personal investment in the result. America has been compared to ancient Rome by authors like Gore Vidal (who just died a few days ago) and Chalmers Johnson, but one of the comparison points not usually made is that the wars of the Roman Empire, too, were fought by professional soldiers who became a class of their own, isolated both economically and ideologically from the society they were supposedly fighting for, to the point where the Praetorian Guard (essentially the Roman Empire’s version of the Secret Service) ceased merely to guard the Emperor and started picking him, and by the end of the Western Empire the Romans were basically paying German mercenaries to fight the Germans who were trying to conquer Rome. The irony is that, at least within limits (the upper classes have always been able to buy their way out of military service if they wanted to), a draft army is representative of the people in whose name it is fighting, while a “volunteer” army is not — our “volunteer” army is poorer, whiter, more intensely religious and definitely more conservative politically than the American population as a whole, and given that through the history of just about every other nation in the Americas the biggest threat to democracy has come from their professional militaries, the idea of the Right having a virtual monopoly on the use of force in the U.S. is one that should give us progressives pause. — 8/2/12


KPBS showed the third episode of The War, “A Deadly Calling,” relatively late — 10 p.m. to midnight — last night and Charles and I were able to watch it all after our meeting. In some ways it was the best episode of the three so far — it seems odd that the first episode, “A Necessary War,” covered the first full year of America’s involvement in World War II (December 1941-December 1942), but the subsequent episodes all dealt with a much shorter time frame: “When Things Get Tough” covered 11 months (January to December 1943) and “A Deadly Calling” covered only seven (November 1943 to June 1944: it cuts off on the eve of D-Day and what the study guide for the show calls “the long-delayed invasion of France”) and the next three cover only three months each. “A Deadly Calling” covered a surprising amount of ground, both figuratively and literally, starting with about 20 minutes on the racial tensions which resulted from the vast increase in industrial production required by the war effort and the attraction of jobs in shipbuilding and plane-making centers like the ones in Mobile, Alabama (one of the four U.S. communities directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward focused on to give their film specificity in the face of such an enormous subject). The jobs in the shipyards and plane factories attracted workers not only from Mobile and the rest of the South but throughout the country, and many of them were African-American — and not surprisingly the African-Americans from the North who hadn’t encountered the absurd system of racial segregation known as “Jim Crow” (the presence of “white” and “colored” signs on everything from buses to water fountains, shown in photos used in the program, tells us more than any amount of commentary on just how ridiculous this was and how outrageous it was that it lasted as long as it did) and bristled at not being allowed to ride wherever there was room in the bus and drink wherever they pleased. What’s more, the white workers at the Mobile shipyard started a series of riots when the management started promoting Blacks from the menial jobs they’d been permitted up until then and gave them jobs as welders — and the violence lasted for so long that finally the management of the shipyard reached a “compromise” with the white racists on their workforce: Blacks could still be welders, but the entire Black workforce would have to work on a segregated basis within the plant and so some ships got built by Blacks while others were built by whites, and never the races would meet in the yard.

Not surprisingly, the insanity of being asked to volunteer to fight Nazi racism abroad while being subjected to American racism at home appalled many Blacks: membership in the NAACP increased tenfold during the war years and the show gave one minor vignette about the Black historian John Hope Franklin, who had just got out of college and was ready to enlist in the Navy when he was told he would have to serve in segregated units — whereupon he pulled back his application, swore he would never serve in a segregated military, and never did. (Later he would write the pioneering books From Slavery to Freedom and Reconstruction and help start undoing the racist myths of post-Civil War American history that had generated most of the standard histories of Reconstruction and inspired the film The Birth of a Nation.) The show also mentioned the other major example of American racism during World War II — the internment of Japanese-Americans — and how until early 1943 they were considered primarily loyal to Japan and therefore ineligible to serve in the U.S. military, until the War Department changed its policy and decided to recruit a segregated unit (again!) in which all Japanese-Americans — including ones who had been members of the U.S. Army before Pearl Harbor — were assigned, and though the show didn’t make clear that one of the motivations for many of the people who signed up was that it was one way out of the internment camps, they did tell the story of one man who just before he was due to ship out decided to pay a visit to his parents in the camps, was told he couldn’t give them the bottle of whiskey he had bought for them, and noted the irony that he was about to go fight for a country that had put his parents behind barbed wire and had military sentries in guard towers ready to shoot them if they tried to leave. (The show also mentioned that when the Japanese-American soldiers were sent to Mississippi to train, the government worked out an arrangement with the local authorities that they would be “treated as white men” — but many of them instinctively went to the back of the buses and drank from the “colored” fountains because they knew that as Asian-Americans they were fellow people of color.)

Then the show returned to the actual fighting of the war, particularly in Italy, where the Allies, once they’d driven the Axis out of North Africa, decided to mount an invasion to work their way through the country, pick Italy off of the Axis and rout the Germans preparatory to the invasion of occupied France. The operation quickly bogged down at Monte Cassino, a hilltop village with a spectacular monastery which the Germans pledged with the Roman Catholic Church to leave alone — only the U.S., fearful it was being used as an observation post, bombed into rubble, thereby enabling the Germans to turn it into a stronghold without breaking their deal with the church. To relieve the stalemate at Monte Cassino, the Allies — particularly the British (the operation got ordered after Winston Churchill, who may have been an inspirational political leader but sucked as a battlefield commander) — launched an amphibious assault at Anzio Beach which was supposed to land troops behind the German lines, catch them in a pincer movement and cut off the German troops at Cassino from their supplies. Only the general in charge of the attack, John Lucas, initially got his troops on the beach without opposition and then, fearful that he’d be outnumbered, waited nine days before attempting an advance off the beachhead. Of course he got nowhere because in the nine days the Germans had been able to dig in and set up a long-term defense. The parallel between Lucas and the Civil War commander George B. McClellan was instantly apparent, and though Ken Burns and company didn’t mention it it’s hard to believe it didn’t occur to a director whose most famous previous movie was about the Civil War! The Italian campaign turned into one of the bloodiest of the war — a Web page on it at compares Anzio to the World War I disaster at Gallipoli, also a campaign personally ordered by Winston Churchill — and in its sheer pointlessness and waste of human life was all too reminiscent of the bloody trench battles on the Western Front in World War I.

It cost the life of Babe Ciarlo, whose letters home from the Italian front had been one of the most charming features of the immediately previous episode and were prominently featured in this one as well — he wrote so much about either heading to or just coming back from a “chow line” his parents and brothers probably wondered, “What’s he doing there besides eating?” — and whose death as depicted in the film brought home the whole tragedy of the war and achieved the balance between individualizing the struggle and depicting the scope of the carnage any war film has to pull off in order to be any good. One other aspect of The War deserves note: even more than previous episodes, this one showed just how collective the war was in the U.S., how (at least in part due to conscious effort by public-information offices within the U.S. government) everyone — even children — was made to feel they could be part of the war effort. The film includes movies encouraging people to save bacon fat because it could be used to make glycerine, which in turn was a key component of ammunition and explosives; it also showed scrap-iron drives (Burns and company savored the irony of one town, founded by Civil War veterans, which donated the Civil War-era cannonballs that had sat in the town square as a monument to the Union dead so they could be melted down and used to make munitions for the new war), tire drives and propaganda films urging people to buy only what they absolutely needed and share what they had with others. The contrast to America’s most recent wars — in particular with President George W. Bush’s comment right after 9/11 that the best thing Americans could do to help win the “war on terror” was to “continue shopping” — couldn’t be more stark. World War II was fought in an era that believed in collective effort — as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, in the first half of the 20th century the political movements on both extremes were collectivist (fascism on the Right, socialism and communism on the Left), whereas now the political movements on both extremes are individualistic (libertarianism on the Right, anarchism on the Left) — and the whole emphasis on we’re-all-in-this-together seems in some ways to be the most dated aspect of World War II.

Now, as I wrote yesterday, the U.S. fights wars with a professional armed forces which has about as much of an intimate connection with the American population as the two teams that are playing in the Super Bowl — and Americans root for us to “win” these wars not because we really feel ourselves part of them (only a handful of Americans actually have family members, spouses, lovers or friends in combat, a far cry from the case during World War II!) but simply because we’re rooting for the home team: “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” we chant as we wave our U.S. flags (made in China), and as the increasing computerization of war — particularly the use of drone aircraft — enables “our boys” to fight without ever having to leave the comforts of home and particularly without having to risk their lives, limbs and minds in anything resembling what the previous generations experienced as combat. We’ve gone from designing video games to resemble war, to the armed forces using video games as a way to train people for war, to literally turning war into a video game: America’s modern warriors show up for work as they would for any other job, sit in a chair, grab a controller, sit in front of a video screen, press buttons and therefore kill people thousands of miles away without ever even breaking a sweat, much less marching through snow or mud. War was bad enough when you did have to look in the faces of the people you were killing, and just about every technological advance in war has enabled the countries fighting it to put more and more distance between their own forces and the other side’s — and the more bloodless you make war, and the more remote it is from the civilian population, the easier it is to justify the kind of endless fighting decaying empires like the U.S. have to do to maintain their position in the world. — 8/3/12


I watched the fourth episode of The War, which despite the inspiring, “patriotic” title “Pride of Our Nation” was probably the biggest downer in the show so far. Unlike most depictions of World War II — at least from the point of view of the winners — this series (almost universally credited to Ken Burns even though Lynn Novick gets credit as co-producer and co-director, but “Ken Burns” has become an history-documentary brand name by now) is not getting bigger, louder and more triumphalist as the story moves on and the Allies appear to get the upper hand in the struggle. Instead, Burns, Novick and their writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, seem to be taking a perverse pleasure in undercutting the usual understanding of the war, showing just how hard-fought it was and how long its outcome was in doubt. (This may be a hangover from Burns’ previous documentary, The Civil War, an event whose outcome seems pre-ordained from the standard histories but really wasn’t: as late as August 1864 President Lincoln was fearful that he would lose his re-election bid and the Democratic nominee, General George McClellan, would sue for peace and allow the Confederacy to become independent, and it wasn’t until the smashing victories of Grant and Sherman in October 1864 that both Lincoln’s re-election and the Union’s ultimate triumph on the battlefield were assured.)

This show takes the narrowest time focus of any of the episodes so far — just from June to August 1944 (from D-Day and the U.S. invasion of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific to the more or less successful completion of those campaigns) and the entire theme of the show is how hard-fought the victories were, how tenaciously the Germans and especially the Japanese fought, and how the Allied forces were hampered by their own mistakes, particularly the one in which on the basis of maps and photos they assumed the countryside surrounding Normandy was flat farmland, easy for a motorized armored division to zip through. What they didn’t reckon with was the hedgerows, thick rows of thorny bushes that had literally grown for hundreds of years to separate the various farms of Normandy from each other, which were too thick for tanks to run over or through, or for marching units to cut through, and provided great hiding places for German soldiers to shoot advancing Allied troops while making it impossible for the Allies to see where they were going. (It occurred to me that this part of the war could have been over considerably quicker if anyone on the Allied side had thought to equip bulldozers with armor and drive them through the hedgerows, thereby ripping them out and allowing the rest of the forces to advance — but no one thought of using bulldozers as a military weapon until the Israelis 20 years later.) With less than three months to cover, the show was able to keep its focus on Normandy and Saipan, noting how some of the problems were similar — Saipan didn’t have hedgerows but it did have mountainous terrain which the Japanese used effectively to defend against the U.S. attack (launched, as at Normandy, from ships via amphibious landing craft) — and some were different: the show quoted one U.S. commander on the tenacity of the Japanese by saying that the U.S. forces could surround 50,000 German or Italian troops and they would surrender, but they could surround one Japanese troop and he would insist on fighting to the death. (There’s a certain amount of racist stereotyping here that was part of U.S. propaganda during the war itself — the whole idea that Asians in general and Japanese in particular had less respect for life and a totally different attitude towards death, but the samurai code of bushido was real enough — even though the Japanese themselves had broken it when they launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor: according to the rules of bushido it was O.K. to surprise an enemy but not to leave him totally defenseless. The usual illustration given was that you could break into an enemy’s bedroom and challenge him then and there, but you had at least to give him the chance to reach for his own sword; stabbing him to death without waking him up first was right out.)

Charles arrived during the middle of the show and seemed more moved by it than by the other previous episodes; I could tell that when the narrator, Keith David, mentioned that the Japanese civilians on Saipan had been so successfully propagandized to hate and fear the Americans — they were told by the Japanese military that if the Americans captured them they would kill and eat them — that at least 1,000 of them committed suicide by hurling themselves off the cliffs at the northernmost point of the island. The show only touched on the importance of the Marshalls in general and Saipan in particular to the war effort: the Army Air Corps had been pushing the Navy and Marines to make the Marshalls a bigger priority than they had originally planned because they could serve as a starting point for incendiary bombing raids on the Japanese mainland: they were within the range of the B-29 Superfortress plane to fly to Japan, drop bombs on a major city, and return safely (assuming that Japanese fighter planes or anti-aircraft guns didn’t shoot them down first, and since the U.S. commander, General Curtis LeMay, insisted that the B-29 pilots fly with virtually no guns on the planes to make more room for bombs, that was a major risk). The show ended with the U.S. forces supreme on Saipan, while in the European theatre, they had got out of the beaches at Normandy and taken a series of French towns, though they’d reduced them to rubble first, and at least they had assuaged the fear of the U.S. ground commander, General Mark Clark, that they’d get bogged down in a war of attrition the way the British and French had during World War I.

 The War overall has its flaws, including a dour musical score by Wynton Marsalis (though some of the themes are taken from songs of the period — there’s a particularly doleful piano solo on the song “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” and another on “You’ll Never Know,” both of which I could have done without) whose relentless sadness fits Ken Burns’ overall vision of war (he seems less repelled by the destructiveness and cruelty of war than by its sheer pointlessness) but also sits oddly next to the chipper, optimistic mood of the actual records of the period Burns and Novick also used on their soundtrack (though most of the historical records used on this show were pre-war, largely because not that many wartime recordings of big-band swing and the popular vocalists of the time exist: between 1942 and 1944 the American Federation of Musicians called a strike against the record companies over the way records were being used in restaurants and bars to replace live musicians, so the only recordings that survive from that period are broadcasts and V-Discs, special records made only to be heard by servicemembers which the AFM allowed union musicians to make as a contribution to the war effort). The music also contributes to an overall sense of mopiness about the program, which sometimes gives one the idea that Burns’ doleful vision of war has led him to shape his depiction of the actual events consciously to avoid either anything that suggests war is heroic or anything that supports the militant pacifists’ idea that war is not only a downer but a disaster that destroys human endeavor and wastes human life. I suppose Burns, Novick and Ward deserve credit for avoiding both the traditional war clichés and the traditional anti-war clichés, but quite frankly I’d like a little more anger and a lot less sadness. Also, judging from the entries in the PBS study guide for the series about its next (and final) three episodes, much of it seems to deal with how for the last year and a half of the war, the American people were assured that it was just about over and it would only be a few weeks longer until their boys would be coming home … and over and over again, the sheer tenacity of the enemy dashed those expectations. — 8/6/12


I watched the fifth episode of Ken Burns’ (and Lynn Novick’s) documentary The War, called “FUBAR” after a set of initials the U.S. servicemembers coined during the war to indicate their disgust with conditions when they were going especially badly: “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition” (though of course PBS had to blip the F-word when it appeared and the phrase is frequently bowdlerized as “Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition,” just as the better-known SNAFU originally meant Situation Normal, All Fucked Up and got “fouled” up by the censors). Like many of the previous episodes, “FUBAR” blows a hole in the myth that, especially once Allied forces landed in France, victory for the Allies was inevitable. It’s a show that demonstrates how close the Germans and Japanese came to, if not an outright victory, at least enough of a stalemate that had both sides not committed to total victory and “unconditional surrender,” might have led to a negotiated piece essentially restoring the status quo ante and leaving the Germans in control of much of Europe and the Japanese ditto for much of the Pacific.

It’s also yet another indication of the idiocy of war, how the mistakes generals make sitting at a table in front of maps end up costing the lives of thousands of soldiers on both sides — notably the campaign through the Hürtgen Forest, a particularly impenetrable pine forest on the border between France and Germany which Allied commanders insisted on marching their men through even though the closely spaced trees (some of them just four feet apart!) not only gave the Germans excellent cover for both their artillery and their snipers, but themselves turned into weapons: some U.S. soldiers recalled that they’d be hit and couldn’t tell whether what had hit them was shrapnel or bits of trees the shelling had blasted into smithereens. (What made the Hürtgen Forest battle so incomprehensible was there was no earthly reason why the Allies couldn’t have simply gone around instead of through it.) There was also another story of the 442nd/100th Regimental Combat Team, composed of Japanese-Americans whose families were still in America’s concentration camps (as one post-war book about them called them), the “internment centers” to which they had been sent right after Pearl Harbor, who became among the most tenacious fighters in the war even though John H. Dahlquist, the (white) general in command of them, didn’t know what to do with them and wasted them in pointless charges, withdrawals and then re-charges sending them to take territory they’d already taken and then, on his orders, withdrawn from. (Years after the war Dahlquist appeared at a reunion event and asked one of his sub-commanders, Lt. Col. Gordon Singles, to let bygones be bygones and shake his hand; Singles saluted the general as military protocol required but, still appalled at how Dahlquist’s stupid and contradictory orders had wasted the lives of so many good men, refused to shake his hand.) When Dahlquist asked the troops of the 442nd to stand together, and he only saw 26 men out of two units when he’d expected to see 400, his assistant, Col. Miller, explained that that was all the men those units had left. Three hundred of the men of the 442nd had died in an attempt to rescue about 220 survivors of the so-called “Lost Battalion,” a group of white troops from Texas who had become trapped behind enemy lines.

The sad tales of military incompetence continue as the show shifts to the Pacific Theatre and the assault on the island of Peleliu, which the U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, had originally decided was of potential strategic importance because it had a small airfield which could have been used by either side. Then he changed his mind and decided Peleliu was of no importance at all — probably because its airfield wasn’t big enough to launch military planes — but never countermanded the order he’d given to take it. The result was a particularly bloody battle which, according to the Web site, “had the highest casualty rate of any amphibious invasion in terms of men and materiel in the entire war in the Pacific.” The article on, written by Jeremy Gypton, identifies the real villains in the Peleliu story as Douglas MacArthur — who comes off quite badly in The War as a vainglorious idiot who was “sold” to the American people in wartime propaganda as a great and sagacious leader; and William Rupertus, the actual Marine field commander, who kept his Marines in the fight when an Army division was ready and able to relieve them. It also didn’t help that the Japanese had improved their tactics, abandoning the suicidal “banzai charges” they’d used earlier in the war for a more guerrilla-style defense called fukakku.

Like previous episodes of The War, Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s case against war is based less on its destructiveness (though they do a good job of dramatizing that) than its futility: as I’ve noted before, the tone of the piece is more elegiac and sad than either glorifying war or taking the sort of angry-pacifist (if that isn’t an oxymoron!) tone of outrage a lot of anti-war literature and art has assumed. Clips that were previously seen in sources ranging from the newsreels made during the war to previous documentaries like the series Victory at Sea accompanied by thundering music aimed at making them sound momentous take on a quite different affect backed by the doleful strains of Wynton Marsalis’ original score for The War, which frequently relies on a single musician (piano, violin or saxophone) with minimal backing, playing a dirge-like theme (sometimes a song of the period, more often one of Marsalis’ own mopey originals); here, as in The Civil War (which I’ve only seen in bits and pieces), Ken Burns’ attitude towards war seems to consist of one long sigh of anguish. The finale of this episode — at least as originally conceived — is a reading of a stunning letter from fighter pilot Quentin Aanenson of Luverne, Minnesota to the woman he was planning to marry if he survived, giving details of how horrible his life had been and how anguished he was at fighting, though in the end he never mailed the letter because he realized that that level of honesty would have been too much of a downer for his girlfriend. Later there’s an added segment on Johnny Mountain Crow, a Native American who served in France and managed to fulfill all four of the requirements of his Crow tribe (who, shame on them, allied themselves with the U.S. in General Custer’s campaign against their traditional tribal enemies, the Lakota and the Cheyenne; his great-grandfather was actually a scout for Custer at the Little Big Horn): he must touch an enemy soldier, take an enemy’s weapon, lead a successful charge and steal an enemy’s horse — though it wasn’t until he got home and told his war stories that one of the tribal elders realized he’d met all the four conditions for being named a Crow battle chief, so they gave him the ceremony for that honor and he boasted that he was the last official battle chief of the Crow tribe. This segment, plus one on Latino servicemembers stuck at the end of episode one, was put there because Latino and Native groups complained that the original cut of The War ignored their communities’ contributions to the U.S. war effort — I mentioned that to Charles and he said, “They’re probably the only people in history who ever said they wished a Ken Burns film were longer!” — 8/7/12


Charles and I watched the sixth and next-to-last episode of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The War, “The Ghost Front” (a title explained in the program because the lines of battle got so confusing given the heavily forested terrain much of the later war was fought on — rainforest in the South Pacific and dense pine forest in Europe — quite a few of the people actually fighting the war couldn’t be sure where the lines were), which wrapped up the story of Sascha Weinzhemer of Sacramento, who was nine years old when she was interned by the Japanese in the Philippines when they conquered them. She was kept in a series of prison camps along with her parents and her brother, who was three when this started, with progressively shorter food rations until by the time the Americans finally liberated the Philippines in early 1945 her mom weighed just 75 pounds. Meanwhile, her grandfather back in Sacramento had died, and family members in the U.S. were sure he’d died of a broken heart because in late 1941 the Weinzheimer parents had wanted to come home before Pearl Harbor and the grandfather had talked them into staying on the ground that there wasn’t likely to be a war and especially one that would affect them on the Philippines. This is one of the bitterest and cruelest stories in the matrix of plotlines that forms the series, and it’s also a testament to Ken Burns’ attitude towards war as neither virtuous nor evil, but just sad (which makes me wonder what a Burns documentary about the history of pacifism might be like — he’d seem to be the sort of director who could effectively dramatize both the hopes and idealism of the various pacifist movements and their utter futility). The War pays some tribute to the virtues war’s defenders have seen in it — that it builds comradeship among the members of the armed force and (at least in certain circumstances) brings together the entire nation that fights it — but mostly Burns’ (and Novick’s, and their writer Geoffrey C. Ward’s) attitude towards war is that it’s one of humanity’s biggest self-imposed downers. Their attitude towards the sheer destructiveness of war, both in lives and in property, is less anger than sadness — and, taking what is basically an enlisted man’s view of war, they’re also less than convinced of the sagacity of the people who run wars. At the beginning of episode 5, called “FUBAR” (a slang term coined during the war that stood for “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition”), they quoted General George S. Patton’s comment that plans of battle last only up until the first shot is fired, and after that battles are chaotic and they’re won or lost largely by luck and which side makes the fewest mistakes.

 The War is the sort of program that endorses former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s oft-quoted — and oft-ridiculed — lines about the difference between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” and time after time The War has depicted battles that could have gone a lot differently — and a lot closer to the ideas of the people at the maps planning them — if only they’d known a little more, thought a little more, read the surveillance photographs more carefully. As I’ve pointed out about previous episodes, The War has also made it clear that the triumph of the U.S. and its allies was hardly preordained; as late as the end of 1944 with the Battle of the Bulge (dramatized in this episode) the Germans could still have made a breakthrough and quite possibly have won a negotiated peace, despite the fact that by then they’d used up most of their men of prime military age and were signing up teenagers and middle-aged men in what the Nazi propagandists called the Volksstürm (translated here as “People’s Battalion,” which doesn’t really capture the resonance to the Germans of the word “Volk,” which literally means “folk” and to the Nazis was a cornerstone of their racist ideology: when they said “Volk” they meant specifically the German people and their belief that they were racially superior) to fill out the lines and have any chance at all. The War covers the Battle of the Bulge (which took place in yet another one of those damnable forests and was launched when it was because the Germans were aware that by then the Allies had air superiority, so they picked foggy days to attack because that would neutralize the Allies’ air power — and the tide of the battle literally turned when the fog passed and the Allies got a sunny day during which they could strafe the German troops from the air and, even more importantly, airlift supplies to their own encircled troops), the battles in the Philippines over Leyte and Luzon (which, according to the Wikipedia page on it, was “the largest campaign of the Pacific war, involving more troops than the United States had used in North Africa, Italy, or southern France” — indeed, according to Wikipedia, there were still scattered pockets of Japanese resistance on the Philippines even after the official Japanese surrender and “major Japanese officials, including members of the Imperial Family, visited in person to convince the soldiers that they must surrender by order of the Emperor”) and the battle on Iwo Jima.

Charles noted that he hadn’t realized until he saw this show that Iwo Jima was a virtually featureless island — just a chunk of volcanic rock that had pushed its way above the Pacific Ocean (the name means “sulfur island”) — and though the battle was an amphibious campaign it was launched, as were so many campaigns during World War II, due to the priorities of the air war: the Japanese were maintaining an airfield on Iwo Jima and using it to harass the U.S. on the Marshall and Marianas Islands, and to shoot down B-29 bomber planes on their way to launch napalm attacks against the Japanese mainland. The American commanders wanted not only to take that airfield away from the Japanese but be able to use it themselves. Iwo Jima was a particularly tough battle because the Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, decided not to attempt a counter-attack when the U.S. forces landed but to dig in inside the mountains, creating an elaborate network of tunnels through which the Japanese soldiers could move unseen and fire from pillboxes mounted at points in the tunnels, so the Americans might think they’d eliminated the threat from one pillbox by killing the soldier who’d been using it, only to find that the Japanese had sent in a replacement. The U.S. got the upper hand by using grenades and flamethrowers against the pillboxes and also deploying the Sherman tank, which was so difficult to disable that it drew the Japanese out of the tunnels and forced them to attack in the open. The “Ghost Front” episode of The War ends, like so many shows in the series, on an elegiac note even though by early 1945 it was pretty clear, at least in retrospect, that the Allies were going to win the war: people who lived in the home front recalled how they had heard so many times that the war was just about over that they’d stopped believing in the premature “victory proclamations.” — 8/8/12


Charles and I watched the seventh and last part of The War, “A World Without War,” which was an ironic title (it came from a newspaper editorial of the time wondering how the U.S. servicemembers would cope with the peacetime world once the war finally ended and they returned home) given that the U.S. has been in an almost permanent state of war ever since — the so-called “Cold War” with the Soviet Union that lasted until the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991 as well as the fighting wars in Korea, Viet Nam, the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s and everywhere else the lords of the American Empire felt they needed to send enforcers, including the two wars in Iraq (1990-1991 and 2003 pretty much to date) and the war in Afghanistan that started after September 11, 2001 and is still continuing, having surpassed the American Revolution as the longest-lasting armed conflict in which the U.S. has been involved. I’ve long been struck by a statement early on in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address — “For a half century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical — and then there came a day of fire” — because he seemed to be saying that war is the natural state of humanity in general and the United States in particular, and times of peace are simply “years of sabbatical” in between the wars — and the amount of time the U.S. has spent at war since its last formally declared war ended in 1945 is an indication of how George Orwell’s prediction in 1984 (written just three years after World War II ended) that war would become perpetual and, by becoming perpetual, would change its meaning:

War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact. The very word “war,” therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist. The peculiar pressure that it exerted on human beings between the Neolithic Age and the early twentieth century has disappeared and been replaced by something quite different. The effect would be much the same if the three superstates, instead of fighting one another, should agree to live in perpetual peace, each inviolate within its own boundaries. For in that case each would still be a self-contained universe, freed forever from the sobering influence of external danger. A peace that was truly permanent would be the same as a permanent war. This — although the vast majority of Party members understand it only in a shallower sense — is the inner meaning of the party slogan: war is peace.

Of course, the war in Orwell’s 1984, like the ones ever since World War II, have been fought almost entirely in what has variously been called the “Third World,” the “periphery” and the “global South.” World War II was the last time advanced capitalist nations actually fought against each other, and the whole push towards “globalization” is an expensive bet by the world’s ruling class that advanced capitalist nations (including China, a capitalist nation with a nominally Communist government) will never again fight wars against each other. It was an expensive bet the ruling classes of the world made just before World War I, when there was a lot of modern-sounding propaganda that the economies of the world were so interconnected none of the advanced countries would dare start a war against each other, and though they lost it that time it seems likely from today’s point of view that the advanced capitalisms will continue to live at peace with each other and the international ruling classes will continue to collude at a greed-driven agenda that destroys workers’ rights and the environment until either economics or nature stops them — since it doesn’t seem likely that any human agency can successfully challenge today’s ruling classes and, as Chris Hedges put it before his dormant optimism was (like a lot of people’s) briefly roused by the Occupy movement, “The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that, a fantasy.”

Anyway, getting back to Ken Burns’ (and Lynn Novick’s and Geoffrey C. Ward’s) The War, the finale was pretty much the same as the rest, maintaining an overall elegiac tone (though Wynton Marsalis’ dirge-like music, however odd it seemed through much of the earlier portions of the film, was absolutely right for the scenes of the Nazi death camps being liberated) and focusing perhaps more than it should have on the individual stories Burns and company had picked as representative of the U.S.’s experience at war. In the later episodes narrator Keith David had started with sentences like, “Americans were getting weary because they had been at war for over three years already” — to which, given more recent experiences, one wants to shrug one’s shoulders in disbelief and say, “Only three years?” World War II stands out from other wars (especially subsequent ones) less for its duration than for its intensity: the conflict occurred on a monumental scale and the sheer numbers of lives lost, property and infrastructure destroyed, and the like dwarfs anything the human race had seen before or has seen since. For me, the series as a whole maintained a good balance between the enormity of the events being depicted and the need to focus on individuals to gauge their impacts — though when Glenn Frazier, who had been captured and kept a prisoner of war by the Japanese since they took the Philippines in 1942, had thrown his dog tags into a mass grave, sure he was going to die and wanting his family to have closure, only his dog tags were recovered so his family were told he had died even though he hadn’t, talked about how he finally reunited with his family only to be told that the girl whom he’d been in love with before the war and who had been part of the hope that sustained him throughout his ordeal was about to marry someone else the next day because she thought he was dead, too, Charles thought they had overdone the focus on this one person’s story (while I, conditioned by a million movies, wondered why he hadn’t done a Graduate-style appearance at her wedding and carried her off: that’s how a Hollywood screenwriter would have ended this story!). This episode of The War was at least a bit lighter in tone — at least when they weren’t showing footage of the death camps (and it’s a measure of the magnitude of the horror of the Holocaust that these images, though they’ve become all too familiar, still haven’t lost their power to shock!) or the Japanese atrocities on Okinawa (which Burns and Novick left unscored) — because, despite all the false alarms that had left the American public wary of proclamations that victory was just around the corner, victor really was just around the corner.

The film also definitely came down on the side justifying the use of atomic bombs against the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the ground that it spared the U.S., Japan and the rest of the world the mass slaughter that would have resulted if the U.S. had had to invade the Japanese mainland — there was even Japanese footage showing soldiers preparing for a to-the-death defense of the Japanese homeland and women practicing with sharpened bamboo stakes to be part of the resistance — with one of the women who’d been interviewed throughout proclaiming that as far as she was concerned, there was no question that the use of the A-bombs had been totally justified in getting Japan to surrender. There are arguments and counter-arguments on both sides — yes, if the U.S. and its allies had had to mount an invasion of Japan there would have been the kind of fierce to-the-death resistance seen at Okinawa and some of the previous battles; no, maybe Japan could have been persuaded to surrender because at least some people in the Japanese government would have been willing to end the war as long as we permitted them to retain the Emperor (which eventually we did, ultimately regarding Japan as an important bulwark against Communism once Mao’s revolutionaries won in China — just as we ultimately regarded West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a reversal which Art Hoppe wrote an hilarious column about in the 1960’s, in which Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep in the 1940’s, gets up in the 1960’s, and can’t wrap his consciousness around Germany and Japan now being our friends and Russia and China our enemies); but it’s not at all clear that even if the Emperor had been willing to surrender without the use of the nukes that he could have carried the Japanese general staff with him — as it was, the to-the-death militarists in the Japanese government actually stole and hid one of the records on which Emperor Hirohito had recorded his acceptance of surrender and it was only because two copies of the record had been made that one of them got to the office of NHK in Tokyo and got played over the air (the first time anyone outside the Japanese imperial court had ever heard the Emperor’s voice — he’d been permitted to make public appearances but only silent ones), thereby signaling Japan’s acknowledgment that they had lost and it was time to end the war.

 The War has its faults — the Burns/Novick/Ward decision to focus the domestic part of the story on just four American communities, none of them a major city (Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Sacramento, California — and the narration’s assertion that the war made Sacramento a major city got a horselaugh from Charles, who used to live in that region), got almost risible at times (“Meanwhile, back in Luverne … ”), and the music was a weird mix of Marsalis’ dirges and a handful of swing records, almost all of them pre-war, and the same records over and over again (Benny Goodman’s “Rose Room” and “On the Alamo” from the 1939-41 small groups with Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton; Duke Ellington’s “There Shall Be No Night”; Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug” and “American Patrol” — incidentally, playing “Little Brown Jug” right after “There Shall Be No Night” underscored Miller’s artistic debt to Ellington and in particular how the so-called “Miller voicing” — using a clarinet to double the saxophones one octave higher — had been invented by Ellington almost a decade before Miller started his own band — with a snatch of a post-swing record, the 1945 Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker studio version of “Groovin’ High,” to represent a Black servicemember returning home to Mobile) and some great records that would have served the theme of the film, notably Connie Boswell’s broadcast of Willard Robison’s “Guess I’ll Go Back Home This Summer” and Benny Goodman’s “My Guy’s Come Back” (recorded just a few days after the war ended and musically communicating the exuberance of the occasion — and while the song doesn’t specifically say that the singer’s guy is coming back from the war, it’s almost certain that’s how 1945 audiences read the song!) — though some of the songs, notably “Little Brown Jug” and the Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” were justified because the interviewees recalled hearing those songs at the time (and one man actually remembered that he and his comrades in the invasion forces sang “Little Brown Jug” as they landed, suspiciously without immediate resistance, on the beaches at Okinawa).

Overall, The War is an excellent presentation, though it’s also an indication of how the “Ken Burns movie” has become a brand, a combination of historical footage, interviewees with survivors (or, when the events happened too far back for there to be survivors, readings from their letters and published writings by modern-day actors often affecting sepulchral tones), heart-tugging anecdotes and footage emphasizing the horrors of war and the excitement of any non-war events he’s depicting (baseball games or jam sessions); it was moving and emotionally gripping, and the heartstring-tugging didn’t reach the bathetic level of out-and-out tear-jerking (most of the time, anyway), but watching all seven episodes in sequence is a wearing experience and in some ways a sort of pocket-digest version of actually living through a (relatively) long war, complete with anguished moments as a character we’ve grown to know and like (like Babe Ciarlo, whose exuberant letters powered two of the episodes until he died) gets killed off. — 8/9/12