Tuesday, September 25 2007

"The War" and The War

I'm trying to catch what I can of Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS.  The series has been in the news a fair amount recently, and it's interesting enough just for that, but it's got something to recommend it beyond that.

The big controversy in the mainstream media is the protests by Hispanic groups angry that there was no special attention paid to Hispanic veterans.  Burns has added some additional footage to address this, but it seems to be regarded as too little, too late.  This is a entertaining side-effect of the way the second world war is studied in American schools, which pretty much defines how most Americans look at the history of the war.  Approximately 95% of the study of the history of the second world war through high school is devoted to five topics:
1.  Hitler's rise to power, attributed to the harsh Treaty of Versailles.
2.  The Holocaust.
3.  The internment of Japanese-American citizens.
4.  The home front and the changing cultural demographics of America, with emphasis on the role of women and the continuing discrimination against minorities.
5.  The morality of the decision to use the atomic bomb.
As "The War" is dedicated to the American experience, numbers one and two are justifiably given brief mention.  The series hasn't progressed enough to get to number five, which, given the secrecy involved, might not be covered much at all.  The remaining two then become a never-ending grudge match to make sure each ethnic group gets its fair share of coverage.  The coverage of the internment of Japanese-Americans has drawn some fire from conservative commentators, and it does have a large role in the story, but I think it can be justified on the grounds that it is a unique blemish on American history, and one that justifies a specific debate.  But American history as taught in school has become by and large a story of ethnic groups and their contributions have been measured as group members.  As such, the debate by particular groups trying to grab their share of the story is only natural.

Given that, the fact that "The War" does manage to cover the war itself is something of a miracle.  It gives short shrift to many of the individual battles, preferring to cover the war from a soldier's perspective of constant war.  As such, the narration is rather general and non-technical, and tends to drift towards personal experiences, augmented by interviews with veterans.  The footage, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially to someone used to history channel documentaries.  The series includes lots of combat footage, including the sometimes bloody aftermath.  It also includes lots of footage from Axis records.  To someone who already knows the military history, the series doesn't say anything new, but what it shows is stuff I've never seen, especially the footage of the ground combat.  As I write this, the series is covering Anzio, and there's good footage of 105mm howitzers, M10 tank destroyers, and a wrecked Panzer IV, probably a IV H (it's got the long 75mm gun).

The news coverage of the series premiere on Sunday in the Washington Post was heavy with political overtones, which led to one fascinating example of cognitive dissonance.  In an article on the series in the Sunday Style & Arts section of the post, Rick Atkinson writes "Perhaps it's too tempting to contrast the meritorious struggle of the 1940s with the dubious conflict today."  There is a valid debate of the effectiveness of the current war in Iraq and the merits of the strategy and tactics and or the war itself.  But describing the motives behind the current war as dubious sounds a bit hollow when just a few sentences before is this:  "Yet a strong case can be made against necessity.  Had the future allied powers intervened to thwart Hitler earlier in his maniacal trajectory, perhaps the calamity could have been avoided."

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 49 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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