For the last two weeks, Jim and I have eaten our dinner while watching Ken Burn's The War on PBS. For us that means being scrunched in a corner of the kitchen, balancing plates on our laps while peering into a screen that's about the size of an old Life Magazine turned sideways. And it's no accident that I thought of Life, because the footage of the war is all so reminiscent of the war images I saw in Life and on newsreels when I was growing up.
Then it was blurry grey images, men squinting into the camera, cigarette dangling, like so many James Deans. Born in 1946, I wasn't around for most of the war, but throughout the Fifties we relived it, no savored it, in film and commemorative photo volumes, which included the cartoons of Bill Mauldin and the words of Ernie Pyle, because hey, we won! Read on!
There was a book of black and white war photos, so big it flopped open across my lap like an oversized atlas. My parents kept it tucked away on a high shelf, making me all the more intent on pulling it out. The pictures were grim, but sanitized -- bombed out buildings, cartoon-like airplanes tilted at impossible angles -- and of course throngs of European women cheering and smooching our boys everywhere they went.
There were only a few pictures of death -- bodies half buried in sand on a beach or riddled with flies on a desert. My sister and I pored over those pages until they were as worn and limp as tissue paper.
So along comes Ken Burns to take the same footage and peel back the casing, like someone opening a decorative sarcophagus and delicately peeling the linen from the corpse within. Well, something like that. And just in time, because those who really experienced this horrific war are old, and, according to Burns, 1000 veterans die every day.
But instead of the vainglorious coverage of our youth, we're seeing failures and suffering and wholesale death. Nearly forgotten names like Anzio and Coreggidor rise like vapors from the past and take shape as the bloodbaths they were.
Some hard facts. During the four months of the Anzio Campaign, roughly from January to May, 1944, the Allied Corps suffered over 29,200 combat casualties (4,400 killed, 18,000 wounded, 6,800 taken prisoner or missing) and 37,000 noncombat casualties. (Friendly fire? Mental meltdown?) Of the Allied casualties, 16,200 were Americans (2,800 killed, 11,000 wounded, 2,400 taken prisoner or missing). German combat losses were estimated at 27,500 (5,500 killed, 17,500 wounded, and 4,500 taken prisoner or missing). So roughly 10,000 men died and 56,000 were injured or taken prisoner in under four months in one battle alone. And this week’s segments took us into far more gruesome and soul-deadening battles, where thousands died at a time.
One huge difference between then and now, and there are many, is that as bad as the reporting seems to us today, then it was censored or non-existent. And these poor young soldiers, many not yet 21, were sending home letters assuring their folks that everything was going just swell, even as their feet rotted in their boots and filled with maggots, and their buddies were being blown away around them.
By stripping away the military gloss and focusing on the people in places like Sacramento, Mobile, Waterbury, and yes, Luverne, Minnesota, and how the war changed their lives and their cities, Burns humanizes the anguish and the fear they endured. He also gives voice to the vicious racism that black Americans who enlisted or sought jobs were subjected to, or the rank injustice of locking up Japanese Americans in prison camps, causing them to lose their homes, businesses and farms, yet allowing them to enlist to fight in the front lines. Yes, we know this, but knowing it is far different than hearing it from dignified people who are now old, their voices going shaky as they recall long-buried pain.
And he also points out, through the words of those who fought and those back home who loved them, the sacrifices that were made by everyone, and the amazing productivity and pride that occurs when an entire nation pulls together – even in something as unconscionable as war.
And that's maybe what makes it so compelling and disturbing. You cannot watch this without a dazed awe at the idiocy of war -- as well as a dazed awe by the goodness of so many who get swept up in it. Good “boys” go off and learn to kill, but in the thick of it there is tremendous tenderness and love as well -- in their care for each other, and recorded in their written thoughts. As one veteran, Eugene Sledge, says, “War is brutish, glorious and a terrible waste.”
Tonight was the last segment, complete with V-E day, two atom bombs, V-J day and the heady homecomings. And those who returned make it very clear that though the nation celebrated, they never really recovered.
So the grand question is, why do we do it? Will war always be with us, as most of the veterans seem to believe? Were there alternatives to war after Pearl Harbor, given the Japanese warrior mind-set to never surrender? Were there alternatives to stopping the truly diabolic Hitler? Did I just watch a whole bunch of Burnsian propaganda?
The series left me reeling with questions like these and more. How could it be that after fighting the Germans and the Japanese in these brutal soul-crushing battles with millions and millions of people being killed, many buried in foreign fields like rotting cabbage, that everyone (who could) went home, we helped clean up the mess and resumed business. Economies flourished, including the “enemy’s” and hey, could we borrow a little money?
Should I be comforted by knowing that there is this human capacity to heal? Or creeped out by knowing that there is this human capacity to kill -- and then sweep it all away and start over again, as if it was nothing more than an inevitable eruption of greed for power and primal blood lust?
And what is the lesson here for where we are now in horror of Mess-o-Potamia, and will our current occupant get it? Or misconstrue it? I worry that with his noted impatience with story lines that he fast-forwarded to the end where the atom bombs carry the day, and he finalizes his plan for Iran. Tell me I’m wrong.