Sunday, September 23, 2007

PBS: Ken Burns: The War


Tonight, Sunday Sept. 23, 2007, PBS aired the first 2-1/2 hours of the 15 hour film “The War” by Ken Burns. The first segment was previewed at the Lincoln Theater in the Cardoza area of Washington DC Sept. 20. This week the film runs through Wed. Sept. 26 and it should cover the first ten hours. The first part was called "A Necessary War."

The film will traces the effect of World War II on four towns: Mobile, AL; Luverne, MN; Waterbury, CN; Sacramento, CA. It starts out with an account of how a temperamental young man got into a brawl in a Mobile bar in 1941 and joined the Marines the next day to volunteer for Pacific duty, having no idea that combat would come in a few months.

In those days, people got their news from radio and Movietone newsreels at the local movie theaters. Movietone was the “TV” of its day, and it was actually pretty effective in keeping up with war. After Pearl Harbor, it did not take long for average people to figure out that the War would affect them all personally and require personal sacrifice, a concept that Burns says people today really don’t grasp, even after 9/11.

Men would get “greetings” letters in the mail – that is draft notices, from “the President and your neighbors,” a way of expressing collective duty that seems offensive today. Men generally passed the physical, and soon the Army took illiterate men. The “moral” question was “Do you like girls?” and in those days no one had a modern concept of gays or of the idea that gays could serve openly in the military – when journalists like Randy Shilts (Conduct Unbecoming) would show that they did, all the time, during the War.

The roundup of the Nisei – native Japanese, including American citizens, into domestic internment camps, was covered. They were classified 4C – resident enemy aliens – for the draft.

Another bit of history concerns the U-boat or submarine attacks on shipping close to the East Coast in early 1942. It was months before cities would be willing to institute blackouts. The nighttime light helped German submarines locate merchant ships, and oil would wash up on the East Coast and Gulf Coast beaches.

The early war with Japan, including Japan, the Bataan March, and Guadacanal, are covered. Guadacanal was secured with an unusual “Los Angeles Raiders” unit in which team members made decisions as a group, rather than just by taking orders through the chain of command in a usual military manner.

The film has a lot of live footage, mostly black and white, both domestic and combat. Earlier Ken Burns films of older historical periods tended to have a lot of drawings.

Part 2 was called "When Things Get Tough." It starts with a discussion of a Waterbury family where a nineteen year old single son is drafted, but an older married son is not. I thought that everyone went, but maybe not always. (There were "Kennedy fathers" deferments in the Vietnam era until about 1965; JFK had proposed exempting "married men" from the draft, an idea whose social significance did not resonate yet). The North African campaign is covered, while one prisoner's life in Japan is traced. Home front rationing was discussed. "If the soldier's don't have it, then you shouldn't have it." The government was not afraid to "moralize" this way to the civilians at home.

Over the war, about 25% of the medical discharges from the war front were related to psychiatric stress, potentially a "moral" issue.

Part 3 was called "A Deadly Calling" and it covers the Allied taking of Rome and Italy. On the home front, the sacrifices continue, as people are asked to postpone buying what they can do without and children collect scrap metal in drives. Society becomes very collective and the greater good becomes a compelling moral value. In Mobile, not nearly as much housing is built for African American workers as white workers. Japanese Nisei are finally allowed to "volunteer" for a segregated unit with infantry combat only, and take training in Mississippi, where the governor guarantees that they will be treated as "white." A family in Waterbury agonizes over the loss of its son in Italy just before his 21st birthday. Communication was by Western Union telegram, the email of the day, and it was often quite inadequate.

In 1943, the War Department authorized a graphic technicolor newsreel "With the Marines at Tarawa" showing footage of Marine casualties in the Pacific, and that brought the horror of war to the home front, in the movie theaters.

Part 4 (2-1/2 hours) is called "Pride of our Nation" and covers the turnaround in the War in 1944, most of all with D Day ("The Longest Day"). A soldier wrote to his sister and told her to look after her parents and that it was likely he would not make it back. The Americans did badly on Omaha Beach (near Bayeux, where, ironically, the William the Conqueror Museum is located -- I visited it in 1999) during the first several hours on June 6, 1944 (partly because the early paratroopers, gliders and shellings of the pillboxes missed their targets) but persistence (and improvised shelling my the neighbor) had turned things around by mid afternoon.

In the Philippines, civilian prisoners as well as soldiers are treated very badly. But the Holocaust was hardly known yet.

Episode 5 (September 30) "FUBAR" (an expletive) covers the progress in Europe after D-Day (the "Market Garden" campaign) and the Pacific, with the waste of 1200 men on an island that no longer mattered, and the Allied bombing of the Jap positions in the Philippines, where American POW's were placed in harms way. The interviews continue to be graphic, as one account of an airman most of whose skin came off while he was still alive. Yet some young men in those days really wanted the chance to go into combat. An interesting tidbit is that Americans first walked into German territory on September 11, 1944.

Episode 6 (October 1) "Ghost Front" starts in late 1944 with Allied "rest" in the Ardennes. Hitler began preparing one desperate counterattack, drafting men up to age 60 even from captured countries. On December 16, the Germans attacked, pushing back a "bulge" in to Belgium. In about six weeks, the Allies took all the territory back (some areas changed hands several times) and the Germans were fatally weakened.

In the Pacific, the Philippines were liberated. The film covers Iwo Jima (the subject of two Spielberg / Clint Eastwood Dreamworks films in 2006) relatively briefly. In the Pacific, especially, the Marines were learning to accept racial integration of units and of providing medical and personal services. In Europe, Japanese Americans, formerly Nisei, fought as units.

Episdoe 7 (Octoer 2) "A World Without War" starts when President Roosevelt warns Americans that, while victory in Europe is near, a fight with Japan could take years. The Americans take Okinawa, first without resistance, but then losing more men than in any battle in the war. In Europe, the Russians begin finding the concentration camps, and the film contains graphic original footage of the victims of the Holocaust. One of the soldiers says that it shocked him to learn that the War, in Nazi view, had been a "crusade" motivated by ideology. Some of the Holocaust victims actually died after being fed too much suddenly (a fact that I recall being told in high school). The film shifts quickly to a brief account of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered without knowing that we had no more atomic bombs. The film ends with the return of a few of the GI's home. One of the GI's, Eugene Sledge. would, after a difficult adaptation, become a teacher and write a book, "With the Old Breed."

I believe that I recognize music of Shostakovich (the 8th and/or 11th symphonies) and Britten in the background score. Maybe some visitor can identify the music in a comment.

It's good to note here that on Sept. 9, 2001 (two days before 9/11) HBO and Dreamworks premiered Band of Brothers, dir. by Dave Frankel and Tom Hanks, based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, tracing three brothers from the Overlord operation through victory in Japan.

A couple of important films about the Nisei were "Come See the Paradise" (1990, dir, Alan Parker, 20th Century Fox), a film that seems largely forgotten, and "Snow Falling on Cedars", dir. Scott Hicks, Universal; also Robert Pirosh, "Go For Broke!" (1951, MGM).

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