Monday, September 24, 2007

"The War": It's Personal

"The War" started last night--the new Ken Burns documentary about World War II. I had to watch. I have so much of my childhood vested in that time, it never fails to draw me in when there's some new angle of approach, some new insight offered into that cataclysm brought about by human lust for power and territory and countered by that other great human urge--for freedom from tyranny.

It's painful stuff--the more so for its tragic and indisputable inevitability--and a timely reminder that war sometimes seems to have a dreadful necessity in human history. It's debatable, at the very least, whether today's conflict in Iraq meets the necessity test, and the fact that the debate was never truly held is, in my view, shameful. So, too, is the fact that the burden of war is so unevenly distributed amongst Americans. What "The War" makes clear is that the grave costs of war were shared by everyone. In choosing to observe it through the perspective of four relatively small American cities, Burns makes it personal, and reminds us that no one's life remained untouched. Even if your son wasn't fighting in Southeast Asia, you were at least busy buying war bonds or lending your skills and labor to the war effort.

Impossible to watch the Pearl Harbor episode, of course, without recalling the attack on the World Trade Center. To my knowledge, they remain the only two attacks on American soil in modern history, and both of them found America unprepared, and left the country in horrified disbelief. Having spent my early years in Europe, in relative safety from the violence but within sight and sound of London during the Blitz, I inherit centuries' worth of world-weary European realism when it comes to human behavior, and wonder how much Americans really understand and value the protection afforded us by two vast oceans, one on either side, that made such attacks impossible until men learned to fly--and to create weapons that make a mockery of geographical distances. Even now, those oceans present formidable barriers to potential assailants.

Still, once engaged in World War II, it was America and Americans that stood between world domination by those fascist allies and the freedom that we continue to enjoy in many parts of the globe. The sacrifice was inestimable, and it was personal, and the world owes a debt of gratitude for the immensity of the American effort at that time. It's worth remembering how the country responded back then to a real threat to human civilization, in the context of a world that is much changed since the 1940s. I'll continue to watch "The War," because I too need to be reminded of those dreadful times, if only to keep me alert to the dangers of today.


carly said...

Ken Burns pointed out as one reason he made The War, is because he learned that many young today think WW2 was fought against Russia, in alliance with Germany!

Such reports don't bode well, for it means a new large group of ignorant people are growing up here.

I woke up with some idea of your questions of apathy, outrage, and protest. If one were to start with the premise that Americans have not yet learned the lessons of Europe(1) and Eastern Europe, especially, one might think they are absorbing the situation and don't exactly know what to do. This my read. They have seen that the protests of the Vietnam era didn't create change as much as the change which came about as the profiteers of that war era flamed out internally, that is, until those movements changed from their opposite of aggression into regression, until they made their military money goals. And civil rights abuse went undercover.
The young, of course are fueled by ideals, while millions of adults are assessing the events, and taking the usual long period to do so. After all, for many the pressure is to revert 180 on their beliefs. For those who were already peaceful before hostilities, caution and some fear are part of it. And then, there is a minority which which are exhibiting sage-like qualities - they don't feel outward rage, outrage, is appropriate nor wise, in light of what can be accomplished by it. America is vast and diverse and is not structured in a way that protest can bring vital systems to a halt as they have done in Europe. Protest can also degenerate into something ugly and have counter-effects. Protest needs the media on its side, but that is not the case. Protest also needs effective leaders who can keep from being assassinated. I think people have learned these things, which the warlords already understand. The waring ones do their deeds within time frames. Not only is there a wait and see mentality in the US, it has been in some ways, not right to protest in a land where money is king. Protest here has long been associated with socialist movements and other anti-capitalist causes. In the heartland, protest is anti-American.
If protest could could be carried on correctly, it could help the thick-headed ones to realize that fundamental change is apparent, cherished ideas are more and more outmoded. All of which takes time, for until the lessons are fully absorbed, no movement is possible, nor wise. The new problem is for, not only Americans, but Indians, Chinese, everybody, really, that the Great American Dream is now a dream of greed (to me, at bottom it always was) and not only destroys others but the body politic as well.

Until a segue into something else can be clearly seen, I don't expect significant protest nor displays of outrage. But I do feel something seething beneath the surface, in the form of an unrest about the meaning of events and uneasiness with the short-range future. In world affairs, one must find a way to live with what is achievable.

TaraDharma said...

"I inherit centuries' worth of world-weary European realism when it comes to human behavior" What a great line. Yes, we are babes in the woods, and assume we have the answers for all the world. Many times the teenager can wake-up the old fogies, but often it's important for the teenager to observe and learn from her elders.

We toured a WWII submarine in SF this weekend -- I'm in awe of the men who could live and fight there.

carly said...

This just out: Vincente Fox (sp?) has cut Bush in his new book. ? With lines like, he's "the cockiest guy I've ever met".

robin andrea said...

I've read this post a few times, Peter, and I can't seem to write what I want to say about it. I've often felt a conflict between the part of me that would like to be a pacifist and the part of me that knows I would grab a gun and defend what is right. My father fought behind enemy lines in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart for his efforts. I, his daughter, marched against the Vietnam War in Washington DC. I think my father's war was right and true. I do not think the wars my country has engaged in since have met the measure. There are things that must not be permitted, and young people are asked to lay their bodies down in defense of that. It is one thing to die to stop genocide and entirely something else to sacrifice lives for oil.

PeterAtLarge said...

Robin, I think you said it extraordinarily well. Thanks.