"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.