Sunday, September 30, 2007

When Things Didn't Seem So Lonely

This baby boomer has no stories to pass on from my elders’ experience of World War II. My father earned an exemption because of his scientific expertise regarding rubber—an extremely important war commodity in desperately short supply. (I used to joke he invented the latex condom.) He actually served by working in U.S. Government labs, finding ways of isolating synthetic rubber compounds from natural ones. His experiences, course, did not make the cut in Ken Burns’ lovely,elegiac epic documentary The War (It would be um a stretch if they did). But the heart of the experience of millions of other American citizens did.

The War is just starting to run its final episodes on American PBS stations as you read this. For those of you that have missed it (namely my international readers), the film tells this epic tale mostly from the viewpoints of American men and women, in and out of uniform, from
four American towns. Not only did Ken Burns not draw witnesses from the big cities of the day ( in old Hollywood WW II movies, half the front line grunts seem to be Brooklynites and are played by either William Bendix, Dane Clark or George Tobias) he also kept the point of view at ground level. There are no interviews with anyone much above the rank of lieutenant, and no noted scholars or experts, beyond front line soldier and author Paul Fussell, author of the provocatively titled Thank God for the Atom Bomb.

This approach is perfectly commendable: The War’s goal is to concentrate on those Americans caught at the bloody crux, those who learn the lessons that, in the words of Fussell, “can be learned nowhere else.” Burns tries to capture the universal human essence of all wars as experienced by those who have had to fight in them from Peloponnesia to Iraq.

But, honestly and reluctantly, I have to say that, at the eight-plus hour mark, I’m feeling a certain monotony setting in from time-to-time as the film heads into the final years of the conflict.

To make my point, I’ll hearken back to Burn’s masterpiece The Civil War. At eleven hours, that chronicle is not as long as The War will be, but it’s plenty long enough. What saved it from ever becoming boring was its attempt to capture all points of view, civilian and soldier, from the sufferings of slaves up the line to Abraham Lincoln himself. Every different point of view opened another window and brought another shift in tone on this great and terrible historic episode. The parade of experts brought shifts in perspective, so the film never seemed to fall into a rut.

But The War presents only its one general point of view. The why and how about the decisions that were made—both brilliant and stupid—are treated in a fly-over fashion. Most of the time is given to the front line soldiers (much of the footage hasn’t been seen since the war itself), while the rest is spent with those who worked and waited in agony at the home front. Each sequence is beautiful and moving, but when shown all together for eight hours, I find myself wishing for a different take on things.

I keep wanting to know more about the arguments among FDR, Churchill and Josef Stalin about the timing of the Normandy invasion. What were the tortuous twists and turns of Roosevelt and Churchill’s decision to ally the West with Stalin, who beats out his former ally Hitler himself as the most evil and bloodthirsty tyrant of all, based on the numbers. What were the feelings of Generals Eisenhower and Bradley as they sent their troops off to fight and die? I don’t believe all political and military commanders to be machine-tooled sociopaths: their decisions involved their emotions and they deserve explication, too. (Ken Burns appeared on The Daily Show the other night and explained his approach; he seemed to be clearly aware of these concerns.)

One more thing: Burns was criticized for failing to present the point of view of those Mexican-Americans who served in great numbers. He responded by adding a few Mexican-American veterans, but these are soldiers who lived outside of the documentary’s target geographical area and the sequences feel just that: added on. Why couldn’t they find at least a few living Hispanic veterans from Sacramento, California, one of the four featured towns.

Still, The War is tremendous and worth everyone’s while, even with its dull stretches. I’ve written in an earlier posting (July 1, 2007) about nostalgia’s perils and this documentary, showing the raw face of war, clearly portrays the pitfalls of sticking candy-colored glasses on the face of the past. But as I said earlier, what makes nostalgia still valuable is how the past can enhance and make meaningful the present (and I don’t anticipate any future nostalgia for our current era.)

During The Daily Show interview, Ken Burns stated that The War doesn’t have a political bone in its body. But, watching it, it’s impossible not to think about politics and what we’re going through now. Because The War does evoke the honest kind of nostalgia about something that America had then and doesn’t have now: the overall sense of purpose and sacrifice that most people had, a sense shared even by most of those who were otherwise ill-treated by American society (Meaning African- and Japanese Americans). From this perspective, people didn’t seem as lonely, alienated, and atomized as they do now. People had to turn to each other, rely on each other, and they did.

That sense of shared purpose and sacrifice seems far far away now. Of course, no one wishes for something like World War II to ever happen again (except for the usual crowd of sentimental reactionary infants and suicidal nihilists), and no matter how rough things seem now, it hasn’t happened yet.

But should things get that bad—say if Jihadists achieve their dream of taking over another government and whipping together a mass army while our current leadership blunders on in its astonishing belief that turning everyone into a foe (including your own citizens!) is the road to security (“Ohhhhh stop worrying! Moldova’s with us!”)—we won’t be ready at all.

Instead of FDR, Churchill and the alliances that they both struggled and strove to forge around the globe, we have . . . I’m afraid clever metaphors fail me, (though I’d be happy to expend endless pages comparing FDR et al with our current crop of bumbling bullies). Uncle Sam definitely does not seem to want us at all: “Shut Up and Shop” is the battle cry these days.

And it’s not all the Cheney Administration’s fault (though they are a joy to blame, aren’t they?): the lack of a draft and our exploding population, which has risen hand-in-hand with our exploding technology, have allowed us to raise unique barriers between ourselves and the reality of what’s going. Thanks to the white noise of modern media, maybe we can’t avoid news of Iraq, but we can create a world where we can believe any damn crackpot notion we want about it . . . at least until it’s someone we know that comes home in a flag-draped coffin . . . or someone who is “disappeared” because they don’t look right and their funny name winds up on some paranoid’s arbitrary list.

This, finally, may be the true real-world value of Ken Burns’ The War: History never makes a perfect model for the future, but, at its best—and sure as hell, this film is an example--in its rhymes and echoes, it can point us in directions we should be going, as individuals, as a nation and, as a world.

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