Each of the seven episodes of this Ken Burns documentary begins with these words:
The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.
How are you going to tackle something with the scope and breadth, sacrifices and bravery and sheer horror of World War Two? It dwarfs Burns’ other great topic, the Civil War. Fifty million people died, the great majority of them civilians. All the major countries of the world were involved, except those in South America. Fighting ranged from the Aleutians to New Zealand, from Pearl Harbor to Stalingrad, from Norway to Burma. How do you deal with that?
One way is to try to tell the whole political, strategic, and tactical story … but it’s been done, many times. Time-Life brought out a terrific, massively illustrated 39-volume series of books. The BBC’s brilliant 26-hour “The World at War,” narrated by Laurence Olivier, covered just about everything there was to cover, brilliantly, and unlike most American projects, moved American participation off to the side, where it belonged, and told me much I hadn’t known about Britain’s war, and most of all, the Soviet war.
I am no historian, but I am a history buff, and I know quite a lot about WWII. I expected no surprises concerning the major events, and I got none. I knew that when a unit was sent from Italy to the Ardennes Forest for a little rest and relaxation, they found anything but R&R. I knew that when the marines landed at Okinawa and met no resistance, they were wrong to think this one was going to be easier than Iwo Jima and Tarawa. I knew that when the cruiser Indianapolis was sent to San Francisco in the early summer of 1945 for refitting (and to take on the Little Boy atomic bomb for delivery to Tinian, something few of them knew), that the war was not over for these poor sailors, who soon would find themselves sunk, and swimming with sharks for five days.
What Ken Burns has done here is to make the war deeply personal. And, without apology, almost strictly American. He wants to show us what it was like to be an American at that time. It is fitting that he should do so. Let a Brit make such a series about the British experience, and a Russian about the ghastly Eastern Front. Let a German make such series about what it was like for the average German, and ditto a Japanese. (I had to stop myself from writing “Jap,” as all the papers did in those days. I am still steamed at what those murdering fucks did, and how little their leaders suffered for it.) I’d watch any of those series eagerly.
This series concentrates on four American towns: Sacramento, California; Mobile, Alabama; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. (Well, actually, Luverne, Minnesota, but it might as well be Lake Wobegon.) West, South, East, and Heartland. It concentrates on a few dozen men and women who are amazingly articulate about their experiences. Men from all four towns died at Okinawa, and on Omaha Beach. The soldiers speak frankly, some for the very first time, about how totally terrified they were, all the time. This is no John Wayne propaganda machine.
As usual in a Ken Burns project, it is stunningly beautiful to look at. Even the scenes of combat take on a stark beauty. Only the images of the dead—and there are many, and they are quite gruesome—fail to enchant, which is as it should be. Burns has chosen carefully from the millions of images available, and has mostly avoided the stock shots that any history buff has seen a thousand times. He has unearthed a lot of stuff that may not have been seen since 1945, including a really amazing amount of color film that looks very, very good, considering its age. Most WWII films are almost totally black and white; I had no idea there were so many combat photographers shooting Kodachrome back then. And by the way, kudos to the combat photographer, who put his life on the line as sure as did the combat soldier, so the folks at home could understand, in some small way, just what their boys were going through.
Some critics complained that little or nothing was said about things like the war in Burma, the resistance in France and Holland, the Battle of Britain, and most of all, the epic suffering and determination of the Russian people. I had no problem with it. The idea here was not to tell the story of the whole war—which is impossible—but of some of the people who fought in it. Some of their stories will move you to tears. Some of them will probably move you to rage. Listen to the man who walked into one of the death camps, or the 12-year-old girl from Sacramento who was interned by barbarous Japanese in Manila. If you don’t weep, there’s something wrong with you.
The bad is shown along with the good. “Colored” troops were sometimes attacked by their fellow soldiers. Black shipyard workers in Mobile and other “American” towns were set upon by white workers, beaten, even lynched. Returning black soldiers who fought for their country were once more herded to the back of the bus by sub-humans who stayed at home.
American citizens were thrown into concentration camps by none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt … and then drafted to fight in Europe. And these nisei Japanese were eager to fight, to prove themselves. I must say, I wouldn’t have been that patriotic. If my government had thrown my family into concentration camps and then asked me to fight, I’d have told them to go take a flying fuck, served my prison term, and then devoted my life to the destruction of America in any way I could. Sorry, that’s just how I feel. Maybe that makes those nisei better people than me; I don’t know. My hat is off to them.
But I do know that the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, all nisei, was the most decorated outfit in the history of the US Army for two reasons: One, they were incredibly brave and had something to prove; and, two, their commanding general hated Japs, and threw them into the worst situations he could find. For which he is currently burning in Hell, right alongside Tojo and Hirohito and Hitler.
The 442nd was the most decorated outfit in spite of the fact that people like Daniel Inouye were given the Distinguished Service Cross for deeds that would have earned white Audie Murphy five Medals of Honor. (President Clinton acknowledged that by upgrading his medal 55 years later. Good on ya, Bill.) A few years ago it was my privilege to shake the hand of a veteran of the 442nd, at their war memorial in the remains of Little Tokyo. I thanked him for his service. It was the least I could do.
I get a weird sense of déjà vu when watching things about The War. I feel a part of it, somehow, though I wasn’t born until two years after it was over. I know the stories, I know the music, I know the photographs, though I’m not in them. I think it’s a kinship I feel, and sort of a longing. I’m not foolish enough to wish that I’d been there so I could fight, but don’t you sometimes wish you could be part of something so large, so determined, so dedicated? I suppose there are places to find such causes, but I have been unable to identify with any of them. With The War, you had no choice. There it was, impossible to ignore; now, what are you going to about it? Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation,” and I have no problem with that. What they did was, they stood up, they did what had to be done, terrible as it was. It marked them all. They are dying now at the rate of 1000 per day, and pretty much all of them remember The War in good and bad ways as the most significant event of their lives.
My generation … did we stand up? Well, some of us stood up against our own war, which we saw (and I still see) as a gigantic mistake, not something that had to be fought. But it was a puny thing compared to what our parents were asked to do, and did. As for later generations … they have never had to face a challenge of any kind. Nothing. Would they stand up? I don’t know.
I don’t anticipate that there will ever be another war like World War Two. The world has been lousy with wars since then, but they have all been confined (from our point of view) to some foreign shithole. Our soldiers have done what was asked of them, bravely (and in most cases, I believe, in sheer futility), but they are a tiny fraction of us. We on the home front have had to sacrifice absolutely nothing since 1945. We won’t be asked to sacrifice anything if another world war comes along, either. We won’t have any choice. It will be over in hours, and the world will be nothing like it was before. There will be no home to return to. Other than that, we seem doomed to fight these smaller conflicts. Do you realize that the war in Afghanistan has already gone on twice as long as American participation in World War Two? And there is no end in sight.
My grandparents went to war to end war. Didn’t work. My parents went to war to stop a great evil, and, I think, also with the thought that they could end war. Didn’t work. Within five years we were at war again. My generation intended to put an end to war. Didn’t happen. Now we seem doomed to perpetual war, like in the book 1984. And in spite of smart bombs and other high-tech weapons, it’s still as bloody awful as it ever was, and it’s still the civilians on the battle fronts who suffer most.