The War -- and the war.

October 03, 2007 by susan
Ken Burns war, photo

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.

Posted in


Leftymn (not verified) | October 3, 2007 - 4:30pm

herein my comment re this topic which I sent to someone else today :

"The War" by Ken Burns

I enjoyed it very much, and have commented on how I felt it did not glorify war. It showed the very real costs of war on America particularly.

There were two things now that I was struck with. First, and this is directly related to Iraq...while the USA won the war, it certainly seemed not to be in direct relation to the acumen of its generals. Much like the Union in the Civil War, and the current Iraq war, tactics and strategy and performance of many generals was poor. One need only look at Macarthur's complete inability in the defense of the Philippines, and the many disastrous battles of Italy and France/Germany and of course in the island campaigns in the Pacific. Clearly the USA (like the Union in the civil war) prevailed mainly because of overwhelmingly being able to produce war material and throw numbers at the situation.(much like Russia prevailed by throwing millions of men at the Germans) Obviously there were capable generals, but overall the documentary doesn’t seem to give a lot of kudos to the military leadership. Or perhaps it was just my impression.

Secondly I always questioned and will question the morality of the usage of nuclear weapons in Japan. However it was stated on Okinawa that 100,000 civilians died. Beyond the nationalistic equation of how many Americans would have died defending Japan , I believe an invasion would have likely killed 2 to 4 times as many civilians as the bombs did. I still do not support the usage of the bombs, but I can see how the decisions were made. Perhaps the alternative to an invasion or the bombs would have been a massive blockade of Japan/ essentially , a siege, that would have forced the Island into starvation and privation instead. But how many civilians would have died then? To be honest I find the firebombing of German and Japanese cities, particularly Dresden, to be more heinous than the nuclear attacks on Japan. Although designating levels of moral failure is somewhat meaningless in this case.
Can there ever be forgiveness? As Ray Leopold, one of the vets said about the Holocaust, there could never be an apology for him on this. I think it is almost impossible to consider or justify the carnage in any way.

I have been profoundly changed by my reading of "The Dominion of War" this summer, being a history of the fundamental place of war in American history and our own ability to mythologize the goodness of war in that it brings or promotes freedom and liberty. Iraq is no aberration , that is for sure.



susan | October 3, 2007 - 5:00pm

Thanks for your thoughts Lefty. I'm just trying to process what I saw.


Anonymous (not verified) | October 3, 2007 - 7:42pm

The World Was Dangerous.

The World Is Dangerous.

The World Will Always Be Dangerous.

This Will Not Change


susan | October 3, 2007 - 10:35pm

Wow, no kidding! But one might hope that over eons of time we could figure out what to do about it and how to handle it at least a little better.


perhansa (not verified) | October 4, 2007 - 10:45am

What's that old definition of insanity--doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?

Does 50,000 years or more of aggression, killing, and genocide; religious war, political war, ideological war, revolutionary war, genocidal war, territorial war, war over resources, war over ideas, war over beliefs, invasions, barbarism, ethnic aggression constitute an unmistakable pattern?

I am leaning more and more toward Arthur Koestler's belief that man is a failed and flawed chimera due to the rapid "brain explosion". We are poets, artists, mathematicians, explorers, inventors, story-tellers, lovers, haters, blackards, murderers, bigots, gladiators, mercenaries, missionaries, priests, executioners, warriors, bomb-makers, environmental desecraters, sad, poignant little animals all rolled into one. We cannot and will not overcome our nature any more than an ape or a horse or a bird. It is what it is. Evolution is a fact. In the course of time evolution has created a plethora of chimeras and we are but one. The world is unimaginably old and man stands on the stage but a second or two in the lifetime of gaia.

I expect we'll see more of the same. I've decided it's time to choose how to live with that. We have an inherent ability to self-delude ourselves into thinking otherwise--hope, faith, wishing. How else could humanity survive this long when the same play is enacted generation after generation?

George Bush and his ilk will be one among legion of men who rose to power and proceeded to levy it against his fellow man for personal gain or ideology. This is not a new drama. Every sinister character needs a supporting cast. Nancy and Harry and Amy and Hillary and Bill and Petraeus are the Shakespearian counter characters in the unfolding play. Tragedy? Comedy? Pathos? Why do we love Shakespeare so? He told the eternal tale.

We did not willingly or knowingly join in it. We were born into the play and guided by events and machinations generations in the making. We cannot blame ourselves nor a handful of ideologues. We cannot find anyone to blame because we are all to blame and no one is to blame. Free will is overhyped.

Self-flaggelation feels good for a while and then it begins to hurt and seem pointless. By all means we should continue to write and speak and protest and howl and wail and carry on each according to his or her part. And we should continue to believe it matters and continue to believe it makes a difference. It may, temporarily.

How else can we go on?

The gods are deaf, dumb, and blind. And it's a brilliant and beautiful fall day. Life is what it is.


leftymn (not verified) | October 4, 2007 - 11:03am

to the Anonymous troll:

Thanks for the Hobbesian analysis. wow, I am dazzled.



Anonymous (not verified) | October 4, 2007 - 12:42pm

Hey, don't mention it young lady.

I like to conserve paragraphs.

Waste not, Want not.


Poet (not verified) | October 6, 2007 - 10:50am

Just back from a week long vacation!

Who really won The War?

There have been 62 years pass since the "end" of WWII and that is enough time to ask ourselves in retrospect: Who really won WWII? We all know that militarily the allies (including the hated but very necessary Godless Soviet Union) prevailed.

The invasion of Poland as well as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and other American military outposts in the Pacific mark the convienient beginnings as do the signings of unconditional surrender documents by Nazi and Japaneese officials mark its endpoints.

Less appreciated is the role that allied actions and inactions played in the encouragement of the military conflict.

Throughout most of 1937 and 38 (after the militarizatiion of the Rhineland, the anschluss of Austria and the crushing of Czechoslovokia the Soviets were trying furiously to ally themselves with Britain and France against the Nazis.

What is now celebrated as the fumbling, bumbling appeasement naievete of Neville Chamberlain was nothing of the sort. The studied indifference of the British and French to Soviet offers of military alliance was predicated on the hope that Hitler and Stallin would bleed each other white in a violent conflagration and then Britain and France could walk in and pick up the pieces.

The Soviet's concern over the Nazi's was well-founded because that "Axis' pact we al learned about in public school history that was signed between Germany and Japan in 1936 was actually titled "The Anit-Comintern Treaty."

It declared in part:

"recognizing that the aim of the Communist International, known as the Comintern, is to disintegrate and subdue existing States by all the means at its command; convinced that the toleration of interference by the Communist International in the internal affairs of the nations not only endangers their internal peace and social well?being, but is also a menace to the peace of the world desirous of co?operating in the defense against Communist sub­versive activities"

Britain and France bet that the Nazi's would attack
Stalin's Soviet Union before it would go after them. They lost. So thoroughly did Adolph Hitler cultivate this illusion that he even initially sought to include Britain as signatory to the pact.

Meanwhile in the Pacific, the United States froze all Japanese assets and embargoed oil shipments to Japan in the name of forcing the Japanese to withdraw their millitary from China and Southeast Asia. Japan could sustain itself for maybe 30 days with no new shipments of petroleum--so what were the Japanese to do?

None of what is written above is intended to justify the agressive designs of the Axis powers, but only to show that the hands of the Allies who oppossed them were just as dirty as their enemies and that allied diplomats could read the anti-comintern treaty as well as its signatories. Both sides agreed that nothing short of war would be tolerable and did what it took to commence such war.

Of couse, history never cooperates completely with those who would manipulate it. Today the primary victor of WWII (that would be the US!) is bogged down in general war throughout the Middle East to secure control of the world's principle oil supply.

It is seeking to promote "peace","democracy",
and " nation building" throughout the region.
It spurns negotiation, concilliation, and cooperation. It declares its way of life "non-negotiable" and in many other ways (like systematic use of cluster-bombs, white phosphorous, and "shock and awe" tactics) shows it has learned nothing from those it militarily vanquished in WWII.

So when we embrace that which we supposedly abhored, what have we won?



Terry E (not verified) | October 10, 2007 - 8:21pm

This summer I read "Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts" by Clive James.

Slowly, relentlessly, it blew my mind. Since the first reading, I bought and checked out 3 international histories and read them. And read several other books cross-referenced in "Amnesia." And read some philosophy.

The viewpoint of "The War" by necessity focused on the US, so it's easy to miss major events, including nearly all the pre-1941 tragedies visited by Franco/Hitler/Mussolini on their own peoples, then others they regarded as sub-humans.

By ending at V-J day, we miss the post-war catastrophies that follow-on totalitarians led to conflict for another 40 years or more.

So here we are wringing our hands over dozens or scores being killed in 2007, when (as James points out) our fathers remembered when thousands and millions were being killed. Hitler: best guess, 15 million. Stalin: 54 million. Mao: pick a number. Pol Pot: didn't have much to work with, but highest on a percentage basis, wiping out 25% of his own people.

The 20th century was when we learned that totalitarianism of any form begins and ends in the repression and systematic murder of the people it claims to serve. And when intellectuals throughout the century nearly always got it wrong.


susan | October 10, 2007 - 9:21pm

Oh my. And oh yes. This is what struck me about The War. The sheer numbers. And the "dozens of scores" being killed now in Iraq suddenly seemed like a little mishap. Like when three miners are trapped in a mine vs. 2000.
And while I believe totally in doing everything possible to find a solution to extreme differences, what if they are just too extreme? Hitler, Stalin, Osama . . .
Your last graph hit me. Did we really learn that totalitarianism begins and ends in repression and the systematic murder of the people it claims to serve? Seems to me we haven't learned much of anything about repression or totalitarianism. And I'm intrigued by your statement that intellectuals almost alway got it wrong. Care to elaborate? Or define "intellectuals"? I get your drift, but wonder if it's a fair assessment.


Bob Vance (not verified) | October 11, 2007 - 8:05pm

A little over a decade ago we rented a car after a week in Paris and drove out of the city toward Cherbourg where we would catch a ferry to England; through Chartres, over to Mont St. Michel where we spent the night, and then on to another night on the south coast of Brittany near the miles of the standing stones of Carnac. We finished our journey through that part of France with a last minute spontaneous and unplanned jag up to the 'D' Day beaches of Normandy. It was then that I understood the nature of the difference between what is a vacation and what is a pilgrimage, who is a tourist and who becomes a traveler or pilgrim.

The last of the landing beaches we visited was Pont du Hoc. Here, as opposed to the sweeping open stretches of beaches to the south and east, were sheer cliffs over one hundred feet high. On top were the remains of German bunkers and tunnels, still smelling of sulfur and something more pungent and disturbing. We were given explicit instructions not to wander off the paths between the bunkers and earth works: there was, still, evidence of live munitions.

It was made quite apparent that these German positions were eventually overtaken only because of the sheer numbers of men who could be compelled to climb up the cliffs. There was, of course, support from Allied air fighters, but the fact remains, as it did along any of these beaches, that in order to take this particular, very exposed and well protected, German stronghold, the Allies would rely largely on a numbers game: the Germans could only massacre so many men. There must be a tipping point from which it could virtually be guaranteed that enough men would be successful in avoiding death in order to overtake the Germans, torch the battlements, and kill the occupiers and call the position captured. And so it was done.

This was most sobering to me, that somewhere the math had been done, to decide how many tens of thousands of lives would be needed and how many more beyond that number must be herded up over those cliffs to make the cliffs ours. To take the cliffs from the ‘enemy’. And that these fortifications and bulwarks of a terrifying time stood in line with the other points of pilgrimage along our route, a thousand-year-old castle on a tide-surrounded island, prehistoric rows of standing stones that go on for miles with still unknown stories, a Cathedral with two incongruous spires that very nearly define the full accomplishment of the centuries their construction holds in parentheses... a stretch of beach where the memory of the greatest carnage that can be imagined is now decorated in rows and rows of graves, monuments of spires of stone, and the foul-smelling ruins of a would-be empire that depended upon an unholy alliance between its military, its industry, its government, and its uses of unprovoked acts of terror and war for resources and strategic supremacy; torture, surveillance, deportation, secrets, mass imprisonment and the bizarre bastardization and forced ignorance of every foremost science, in almost every scientific field known, in order to reinforce their pseudo-spiritual claims of superiority.

We called it Fascism then, and it is what we felt was worth sending city-sized numbers of men to their deaths for.

We finished our travels in France by stopping in Bayeaux, a city saved for some reason from the ravages of the Allied bombers as they took control of Normandy’s coastal areas. There, a long piece of cloth has been preserved because of the story that is told on it. I looked closely at the thin colored lines of the stick figure drawings on this “tapestry”. The Bayeaux tapestry, this tapestry, tells the story of William the Conqueror’s crossing of the English Channel to attack and tame the equally war prone post-Roman rulers of England.

Apparently my ancestors were among those who crossed the channel with The Conqueror. This was moving as well to me: all this back and forth crossing over oceans and Channels and mountains with the intent to kill or be killed for little islands and strips of beach and land and whatever riches they were imagined to hold. And here I was, back, full circle. Looking.

And, while considering all the wars that have propelled me and my forebears along on this circle that I somehow completed as I stood there, I stood there, looking back out to the west, and I wondered: who is the enemy now? Which mathematician of warfare will decide how many it will take to put down the next viral outbreak of absurd but murderous societally enflamed and enforced delusions of grandeur? Who will live and who will die? And how long will the earth itself tolerate such grossly maladaptive and self-destructive mayhem?


susan | October 12, 2007 - 11:49pm

Who is the enemy now? Which mathematician of warfare will decide how many it will take to put down the next viral outbreak of absurd but murderous societally enflamed and enforced delusions of grandeur? Who will live and who will die? And how long will the earth itself tolerate such grossly maladaptive and self-destructive mayhem?

Hey Bob, nice long evocative comment. You walked around the terrain that I only viewed courtesy of Ken Burns. And you ask the questions I ask. But what do we do when there is a murderous viral outbreak, whether that outbreak is us, (the good Germans, ie, who now seem so much more familar. "C'mon kids, we're off to the mall . . .") or against us? And your final question really got me to thinking. How long will the earth tolerate such mayhem as war? It is self-destructive, no doubt, but maybe it's not so maladaptive. Smack me, but humans, and primarily men I'm sorry to say -- I know, Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher were no pacificists -- seem to prefer a state of war. They go looking for it. We've all seen the National Geographic stories where men who've never been tainted by the military industrial complex don their war paint and go marauding, throw rocks and spears at a neighboring tribe, then go home, no hard feelings. Is this urge just in us? Is that what we're adapted to doing? Eat or be eaten, dog eat dog and all that? Maybe those who loll around eating and making love are the maladapters. I'm not liking this picture, but . . . what else explains calculating the number of men needed to die while scaling a cliff?


Anonymous (not verified) | November 13, 2007 - 3:16pm

Im in Iraq right now and just read these lofty comments about WWII and Iraq and I dont think you people grasp much of what you speak of about then or now.We exist independent of food chains to balance out our numbers,throw in "Free Will" and all its implications and you've got a fine mess.It all comes down to very black and white decisions unless you'd rather wallow in grey while those who would crush you have already decided.Oh and whats with the use of blackard as an insult?Go easy thats my last name!