24 September 2007

Burns, Burns, Burns

"You know, you look back over our history, and it doesn't take you long to realize that our people have shed more blood for other people's liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world."

-Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson

Watched the first chapter of the new Ken Burns epic "The War" on PBS last night. While it's true that the USA needs another back-slapping hagiography of the Second World War like I need a massive acne breakout, I was interested enough in seeing how Burns would handle it that I tuned in anyway. To say I'm a huge fan of Baseball, despite it's flaws, is an understatement; watching it again several years ago nearly reignited my interest in the game singlehandedly, though, I admit, much of the credit should probably go to the chilling narration of the late, great John Chancellor, whose voice is inseparable from the film itself.

The chief problem with depictions of World War II in American media is the ease at which they slip in to the comfortable narrative of America as the last beacon of defense against the Nazis and Imperial Japan, swooping in to save the day from the other ineffectual, soft-bellied Allies. Burns has elected to remove the international context almost completely, paring down the scope of the film to war stories from four mid-sized American towns. The results, so far, seem mixed. While this has thankfully much of the grandstanding about the great global Crusade of Freedom, the tales of the hardships of war can ring a little hollow. As the film acknowledges in the first few frames, the United States suffered the fewest combat casualties of any of the major powers in the war, and American civilian casualties were negligible, a far cry from every other theater. It's an odd choice to mention this, as it essentially frames the rest of your movie as an overwrought melodrama, but it reinforces the idea that everything becomes so much more special when it happens to America.

But I was presently surprised to see even a token acknowledgment to the comparatively low number of American casualties in the war, as it's likely as close as you can come to the heresy that the comic-book jingoistic narrative of America as World Superhero is greatly overstated, and that America's work to liberate Western Europe did not subsequently buy us endless moral capital to recklessly throw our weight around the globe on a similar pretext. The Allied landings at Normandy in June 1944 were intended to liberate France, all right, but not from the Nazis. The outcome of the European war was already decided by then; the Red Army was already rolling back the Wehrmacht after gumming up its tracks with millions upon millions of dead Russians.

That's another common flaw with American portrayals of the war; the downplaying of the vastness of the Eastern Front which, for all intents and purposes, was the whole war in Europe, or at least big enough to make the rest of it look like flag football by comparison. There are reasons for this, of course, some more obvious than others. The United States was already effectively an enemy of the Soviet Union, and deemphasizing the Soviets' role was the expected result of the Cold War. But acknowledging it also casts a cloud on the popular illusion of the Second World War as the great clear struggle of Good and Evil; the alliance of convenience with a different evil to combat the one you're both fighting makes things much less wonderfully Tolkienesque.

I hope and suspect that this will be one of Burns' strong points. The United States has cloaked its legacy in World War II in the haughty ideas of freedom and fairness, in which it sent African-Americans to fight prejudice abroad while abetting de facto and de jure discrimination at home, and rounded up west coast Japanese-Americans for fear their inherent Japanese-ness gave them the inclination for treason.

If World War II hadn't happened, it would be necessary for the modern neocons, hawks, and imperialists to invent it. Given how frequently they appeal to it, a vital understanding of the war from a global perspective is necessary for the common citizen. Every petty tyrant who's sitting on some of our oil is the next Hitler, and anyone who doubts the wisdom of unilateral military action to remove him would have twiddled their thumbs during the Holocaust. I suppose I shouldn't be too harsh on the Burns film because it doesn't provide this. If the myth of America as benevolent intercessor has survived Vietnam and Iraq, among numerous others, breaking it isn't something any film can accomplish.