I really appreciate Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times article about The War, the latest PBS series by Ken Burns. It takes a brave critic to say what many of us have felt about the increasing mythologizing of America’s participation in the Second World War. Yes, of course heroism should be celebrated. Yes, of course we as Americans are proud to have fought so resolutely against utter evil. But this was a world war, not just an American war, and to those of us who would like to stand proudly not just as Americans but as citizens of the world it’s disappointing to hear that Ken Burns series tells us nothing new about the broad, complex realities of the global conflict, but instead focuses on the American experience alone. Why tell us yet again about what we’ve already heard so many times before?
Here’s how Stanley puts it:
World War II didn’t happen just to us.
But it would be hard to glean that from Ken Burns’s 7-night, 15-hour tribute to the greatest generation that ever bought war bonds, joined the Marines or tightened rivets on a B-17 Flying Fortress.
The London blitz, Stalingrad, Bergen-Belsen and the Warsaw uprising are parentheses in this respectful, moving and meticulously illustrated anthology of small-town lives turned upside down by what one elderly veteran calls “a necessary war.”
The war was necessary, but is this approach?
She also writes, bravely:
World War II is as fascinating and terrible a subject as we have, but America’s role in defeating Germany and Japan has not been underestimated in this country. And it can hardly be argued that the heroes of Guadalcanal and D-Day remain unheralded.
I recently read Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan in a desparate attempt to understand World War II in a different historical context. It’s a fascinating book, and as all good history books do, it left me hungry to understand more alternative global perspectives on this horrific period. I do understand that Ken Burns specializes in American culture, but it’s still disappointing to hear that this new series stays tight in the pocket of warm, cozy World War II nostalgia and doesn’t attempt to challenge the mythology of angelic America fighting demonic evil in Germany and Japan. Yes, Germany and Japan were evil, but we’ve already heard the bedtime story over and over. Now let’s reach for greater understanding of all the complex issues involved.
The hyperbole that surrounds America’s glory in World War II was really made clear to me when I was recently arguing with a friend about why I should love the American military unquestioningly. “The American military saved your ass in World War II!” he said. “The Jews would have been slaughtered if it wasn’t for us!”
I had to remind him that actually the Jews were slaughtered.