So I’ve been glued to Ken Burns’ War documentary. Riveting stuff. Although if I’d have to make one big criticism it’s that you come away thinking that the only nation fighting Nazis Germany was the US. I don’t understand how he could even approach this subject without including Britain, Canada, Australia, and the Free French. Or he should have called it America’s War, or something, because just The War, to me at least, encompasses the whole bloody drama that includes every nation involved. I’m left feeling it’s a work of real propaganda and all the pathos and imaginative capacity needed to emphasize and think is being misplaced because what I’m seeing is some influencing spirit of one nation’s personal sacrifice instead of one of solidarity, which is maybe the most powerful thing that that war achieved.
Yes I understand that America gave a lot of its young blood to that war, but so did all of Europe. So now I start to think that I’m being manipulated into believing that some blood is quantifiably better than others. Some nation inherently braver. Some men more capable of achieving ideas of freedom. A spiritually anointed made up of the right kind of adherents to the very strict and subjective tenets of freedom and liberty.
So then my line of thinking begins to stumble into the wider scope of the world around us now and I start to hear unspoken connections. I start to fill in the fox holes. And the flares all zero in on the war in Iraq and how maybe this present conflict is in some way legitimized now by the lessons of the past. And I’m almost convinced that I should be making the invisible link, it’s almost my patriotic duty to do so. America solely liberated Europe almost 60 odd years ago from warmongers and oppressors and succeeded with its might, power, sacrifice, and lives, so the present conflict in Iraq is also doing the same thing in the pursuit of democracy.
Personally I think that kind of connection chilling. But maybe I’m addled or a blockhead and no such kind of message is being inferred. But I’d make the argument that it is because the focus is solely on America’s contribution to WWII. Nobody else is even acknowledged in the struggle as if they were all at home waiting and praying for deliverance. So now the outcome of that war is skewed, for me at least, it’s become blurred rather than well-defined.
And maybe if you’re an American viewer you figure your role is simply to dutifully accept the message that America saved Europe because that’s just what America does and that god knows it’s almost akin to saying you dance with the devil if there’s any queasy sense that you are not supporting the troops. But the documentary should be pushing people, provoking them to think about wars, about our role in the world, about our place in the world, and why we as humans suffer under wars’ crushing wheels so much. We shouldn’t just adhere to platitudes that invoke only patriotism or jingoism or insular doctrines that inflates a nation as some kind of paradigm of all that is good and just and honorable, some kind of modern-day Charlemagne.
I really think the documentary hasn’t achieved anything new. In fact it’s probably just perpetuated patriotism. If Burns wanted to make a personal history of the war rather than just an historical one, he should have included many more voices than just Americans. It’s just a limited view otherwise and does not, I think, give us a better understanding of that conflict because it actually narrows the objectivity instead of making it an universal question about what wars do to us as individuals and nations. And even saying it’s an “American Experience” suddenly extinguishes the discussion before it’s even begun. War is not an experience that is suited to any particular nation; it’s experience is for the whole of humanity to end.