If you've ever visited London or had the opportunity to live there for an extended period of time, you'd know which war Londoners refer to when they mention "The War." Not so in the United States, where you'd get a quizzical look in return should you mention that term to most people. Since World War II, the United States has been involved in so many wars that an average person can perhaps be excused for his or her ignorance.
Unlike 'The Civil War,' Burns' 'The War' is quite different as it looks at World War II not from the perspective of politicians, generals, or scholars but from the ground up. It chronicles the experiences of veterans from four towns in four different regions of the country.
It will also, I am fairly certain, spark a debate around the country about the reasons as to how and why we fight wars.
With our country in the midst of another long war/occupation in Iraq, it is appropriate to ask ourselves these questions: why do countries go to war? And how does war affect the people who fight in them? Or, for that matter, the rest of us?
Why Do We Fight Wars?
Is it in our self-defense or, furthering our ever-changing "vital national interests" or, some other underlying reasons cloaked under the guise of promoting democracy and advancing freedom? Of the numerous books I read in over a decade spent through undergrad and grad school (and since that time) on topics like war and strategy, military history, conflict resolution, and the real reasons countries go to war, one stands out tonight in my mind. The answer lies perhaps in Joseph Schumpeter's (the economist of "creative destruction" fame) classic book on 'Imperialism and Social Classes'
For it is always a question, when one speaks of imperialism, of the assertion of an aggressiveness whose real basis does not lie in the aims followed at the moment but an aggressiveness in itself. And actually history shows us people and classes who desire expansion for the sake of expanding, war for the sake of fighting, domination for the sake of dominating. It values conquest not so much because of the advantages it brings, which are often more than doubtful, as because it is conquest, success, activity. Although expansion as self-purpose always needs concrete objects to activate it and support it, its meaning is not included therein.
If I remember my reading of Schumpeter's book, the argument goes something like this: prior to the concept of 'total war' -- in which all segments of society were invested in fighting and winning a war -- only the military classes actually participated in war. As nationalism grew and the nation-state emerged as an effective unit of political governance, societies progressively became more democratic. When embarking upon a war, democratic leaders had to seek consent from the governed in some form. This, in turn, marginalized the military classes and they, in order to remain relevant, became more outrageous in their demand and call for wars - necessary or not.
Sounds familiar? Almost a hundred years later, Schumpeter's explanation could very well be true for a small group of Neoconservatives hijacking our foreign policy during the Bush Years and sending thousands of young men and women to their early deaths -- many barely out of their teens!
"Theirs Not to Reason Why, Theirs But to Do & Die"
How does war affect us on a personal level? As for myself, I had family members (long since deceased) who served in both World War I and World War II. The emotional and physical scars left by conflict shaped their lives in so many different ways in the years to come. In family stories I heard about World War II, the stereotype was very true: few ever talked about it. Those who did, did so sparingly and quietly reserved their innermost thoughts and memories of dead comrades to themselves. Grand strategies, geo-political objectives, and tactical battle plans, I remember being told as a child, are for politicians and generals. In a Democratic society, soldiers don't make the decision to engage in war; political leaders, some with perverted personal agendas, do.
Lord Tennyson, in one of the most famous poems written about war, recounted the suicidal charge by British soldiers during the Crimean War. This blind loyalty to King or country was also on display in the wonderful BBC film 'All the King's Men' (shown here on PBS a few years ago) about the ill-fated British charge during the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I and one which underlines the predicament of helpless soldiers during times of war: keep your mouth shut and obey orders from your superiors, no matter the consequences
The Charge of the Light Brigade
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
For the average soldier -- as University of Pennsylvania Professor Paul Fussell brilliantly detailed in his book about World War II, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, and one which details the "absurdities, stupidities, and dehumanizing banalities of military behavior" -- the purpose of a war, any war, is the war itself.
In his book (which I highly recommend), Fussell urges us not to believe and accept the sanitized and romanticized versions of war brought to us by Hollywood movies. For example, after the Nazi Occupation of France ended in 1944, the captured Nazi archives were not declassified until 1969. Following that, Professor Robert Paxton of Columbia University wrote an excellent book on Vichy France, deconstructing and demystifying the myth of most French as being part of the Resistance, as Hollywood had been portraying it during and after World War II. Marcel Ophuls' famous documentary 'The Sorrow and the Pity' and his later one on the Butcher of Lyons, Klaus Barbie, once and for all shattered this myth and explained what was really going on in France during the years 1940-44: the overwhelming number of French were collaborators.
Fussell served in World War II as an army private and says that there is only one real objective in war: from a grunt's perspective, it is to win it and survive or lose it and possibly be killed. It's really that simple. General George S. Patton put it even more bluntly
No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Ken Burns and 'The War'
This past Thursday night, I watched Ken Burns being interviewed by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's 'Countdown' and Burns said that during the World War II years you could go to any city, town, or community in this country and every family was either engaged directly in, knew someone serving in the military, or had contributed to the war effort. The unifying theme, Burns said, was one of "shared national sacrifice."
In an article today, the Detroit Free Press had this to say about the documentary
History textbooks are for the classroom.
And Ken Burns doesn't do textbooks.
"Our work is an emotional archaeology," says Burns. "It isn't just about dates and facts."
The dates and facts are there. But more importantly, Burns puts flesh and blood, along with the ache and joy of real feelings from real people, into his vivid portraits of our collective American heritage. He likes to call it "bottom up storytelling."
Most of those stories belong to natives of four cities in four regions of the country -- Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif., and little Luverne. Why those towns? Because he and Novick sought diverse communities that most viewers wouldn't have preconceptions about, says Burns.
Still, as the UK's Guardian newspaper pointed out, Burns' film is not without controversy.
Sugar Rationing on the Home Front During World War II
It is often said that victors write the history of wars -- with The Spanish Civil War perhaps being the exception -- and so it is true for World War II. There is a great deal of sentimentality associated with World War II, often referred to as the "Good War." I may not entirely agree with that statement but would point out that it was certainly a necessary war. Replying to his critics at a speech that I saw yesterday on C-SPAN, Burns told the 'National Press Club' that he never claims that the United States was a perfect society in the 1940's. Nor was it his intent to whitewash the inequities and indignities many Americans suffered simply because of their skin color or racial heritage. Far from it. With the internment of Japanese Americans and the cruel reality of segregation denying even basic civil rights to African Americans and other minorities, an amazing thing happened. The same groups of Americans with legitimate grievances against their government and society contributed mightily to the war effort. For a country staggering from the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression, tens of millions were asked to give back again to their country. And they did so magnificently, with little or no trace of bitterness.
Contrast that to our situation today where, Burns said, with a society far more democratic in which there is -- unlike the World War II years -- a "poverty of spirit," with all of us acting as indifferent free agents! Burns found this disengagement appalling in a democratic society. Does that accurately describe our inadequacies as a nation or is it a reflection on the miserably poor political leadership of our country?
It is undeniable, however, that the successful mobilization of men and women, materials, and minds against the forces of Nazism, Fascism, and imperialism by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the early 1940's stands in stark contrast to the appeal made by George W. Bush to "go shopping" following the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001! This pathetic exhortation by Bush prompts a question asked by many of us in recent years: where have all our great leaders gone?
"War is Not the Answer"
"War is hell," a famous Civil War Army general once said. Five decades later, World War I was billed as the "war to end all wars" only to result in 20 million deaths and even more wounded. The 20th century, instead, turned out to be the bloodiest in human history. The United States suffered over 400,000 casualties; other countries, however, experienced horrendous loss of life, accompanied by unprecedented atrocities and property destruction during World War II. All in all, approximately 72 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives from 1939-1945. Following the war, the United Nations was created to prevent another world-wide war and while it has succeeded in doing so, several other regional wars since have resulted in millions of additional casualties. Interestingly, Europe -- a continent whose history was full of bloody warfare prior to 1945 -- seems to have had the most success in the past six decades in curbing, if not, making war altogether obsolete. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that future wars between France and Germany -- two countries who fought three bloody and bitter wars in a period a bit over three generations in the 19th and 20th centuries -- are virtually unthinkable. In that respect, the idea of the European Union has been a smashing success.
For the United States, thankfully, we have not had to be 'Over There' (to quote a popular World War I song) to fight another large-scale war but, still, the killing continues to this day in Iraq and Afghanistan. And even as it does, we should never, ever stop striving for peace. It is essential for the very survival of the human race.
Do Share Your Memories
Who wants to recall the horrors of war once you or family members have been "to hell and back?" Difficult or painful as it may be for many amongst us, give it a try. If you will, use the diary poll to elaborate on your family members' participation in as war combatants, victims, or as civilians during the many wars this (and other countries) have fought over the decades. What do you remember anecdotally from stories your grandparents may have told you? How did their war change them or transform the communities they lived in? Did anyone ever desert or move to countries like Canada to avoid being drafted? If so, did they ever return? Were any of them "conscientious objectors" and, if so, how did family members or neighbors react to it? Did you lose family members or were any injured in conflict? If you did, how'd you cope with their loss or disability?
Happy WW II Veterans Head for the Harbor of Le
Havre, France, the First to be Sent Home