My habit of watching stuff on TV months after everyone else has seen it continues.... I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II, aptly titled The War.
I am quite glad I waited to watch this, as I had time to gather opinions from others who watched it as it was televised, particularly from my friends who, like me, are very interested in military history. They said pretty much the same thing: “It was good, but not great. I thought I would LOVE it, and I didn’t. I only liked it."
So I sat down to watch it with lowered expectations, and because I expected less, I was pleased and surprised when I ended up liking it A LOT--maybe I didn't LOVE it, but it was close.
There were a few moments where I got to feel smart, because I knew what was coming: I am interested in the Battle of the Bulge--the name just arouses curiosity, and it began on my birthday--so I knew what was going on when the narrator mentioned that German troops started moving into the Ardennes in December 1944. (Though I admit I never made it through all of Band of Brothers--just found it too tedious and didn’t care for some of the actors.) I thought I knew the significance of the USS Indianapolis, since I had read all about its sinking, and the horrible blunders that led to about 900 men, originally hopeful of rescue, bobbing along for days in shark-infested water without food, potable water or lifeboats. (The reason the grisly old shark hunter in Jaws hated the animals so much was that he was a survivor of the Indianapolis, which is often called "the worst naval disaster in US history," though more men died on the USS Arizona--I guess it's that whole fighting off sharks thing, which could have been avoided had anyone paid attention to the fact that the Indianapolis didn't show up at dock when it was supposed to, that makes it worse.) I did not know, however, that when it was torpedoed and sunk, it was returning from delivering the first atomic bomb to Tinian.
One thing I really liked about the series was its use of Eugene Sledge, whose memoir With the Old Breed is one of my favorite books and has been called by a number of military historians “One of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war” (Paul Fussell) and “one of the most important accounts of war that I have ever read” (John Keegan). I teach it often and students find it profoundly moving and almost life-changing--you read it and you realize how much you don’t know, how much you’ll never know, how much separates combat veterans from those of us who either merely read about such things or simply don’t want to know. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s one of the passages we often refer to in classes, about the fighting on Okinawa:
The mud was knee deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one dared venture there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn’t a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completely that ground cover was nonexistent. The rain poured down on us as evening approached. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire, flooded craters with the silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and amtracs; and discarded equipment--utter desolation.
The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal--just a nightmare--and that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else. But the ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils. It was there with every breath I took.
I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war. During the fighting around the Umurbrogal Pocket on Peliliu, I had been depressed by the wastage of human lives. But in the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.
.... We didn’t talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. The conditions taxed the toughest I knew almost to the point of screaming. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness; unless they have seen it with their own eyes, it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. But I saw much it there on Okinawa and to me the war was insanity.
I was also struck to see Paul Fussell lose his composure and tear up. Fussell is an old acquaintance of mine; at least, that’s how I think of him. I first encountered him in an undergraduate creative writing class on poetic forms, via his first book, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (which is still in print 40 years after its original publication). But it was his book about World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, that made me a fan of his analyses of the literature and actual events of modern warfare. In print, Fussell comes across as unsentimental and cynical--or, in his terms, “a pissed-off infantryman.” He is notorious for a very provocative essay called “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” I put that essay in a special place when I discuss his work, preferring to focus on the other ways in which he has “given the Second World War a uniformly bad press, rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensibly proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness” (Fussell, “My War”). If you watch many documentaries about war, you see him all the time, and the voice of that pissed-off infantry man is so strong, and he’s so stoic in most of his appearances, that it was shocking to me to see him begin to cry.
One other thing I liked about the series was that it serves as a good antidote to an attitude I have encountered a time or two in my classes: the sense that the real war was fought in Europe, that the only war that mattered was the one against the Nazis. A student in my class actually said once, when we read Sledge, “It’s good to learn about the war in the Pacific, because you just don’t hear much about it. It’s pretty obvious that it really wasn’t that important.”
“I’d have to disagree with that,” I said. “After all, World War Two started and ended for us in the Pacific.”
“World War Two started in Europe; everyone knows that,” he said.
“We didn’t enter the war until Pearl Harbor, remember?” I said. “The Japanese attacked us, and then we declared war on both Japan and Germany. Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, but we didn’t enter the war until December 1941.”
“Well, at the time, people weren’t as concerned about the war with the Japanese,” he insisted.
“Yes, they were,” I said. “My dad was nine when the war started, and he was obsessed with Guadalcanal. My mother was four when the war started, and she had nightmares about the Japs coming to get her. Plus we rounded up all people of Japanese descent and put them in internment camps, remember? We didn’t do anything to people of German or Italian descent, even though those countries were our enemies too. And don’t forget who we dropped the atom bombs on.” But he just wouldn’t budge. To him, the war in the Pacific didn’t have the veneer of nobility conferred after the fighting by the liberation of the inmate of the Nazi death camps--the full horror of which American politicians, military planners and the press downplayed, even after the Russians, who found them first, issued reports on them--so it wouldn’t matter as much to history, and couldn’t have mattered as much while it was going on.
Anyway. I found the series worth my time. I was moved and informed by it, and I hope that if you haven’t seen it, you’ll take the time to watch it.