Monday, September 24, 2007

When War Is Necessary

The New York Times can’t stand it that there's a public-TV war documentary on that isn't centered on America losing.

In TV critic Alessandra Stanley's review of Ken Burns's "The War," ("What So Proudly We Hailed"), she complains, (on whose behalf it isn't clear), that

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.

I watched the first episode last night, and found this not to be the case at all.

The opening minutes of the documentary make very clear that, compared to the devastation the war visited on most other participating nations, America never suffered the destruction of her cities nor the high toll of civilian deaths, indeed, our mainland population was never really in danger of significant attack throughout the war. Even the staggering number of American combat deaths was much lower than those suffered by the other main participants in Europe, the USSR, and Japan.

Yet Stanley isn’t really unhappy that Burns’s series suggests that World War II happened only to us. She’s unhappy that, in delivering “almost everything viewers care to know about wartime America; [he’s] also telling that this is the only tale he wants to tell.”

“The war was necessary,” she writes, “but is this approach?”

Nothing in art is necessary. That's why it's a creative enterprise. And Ken Burns as a documentarian is nothing if not an artist. Why shouldn't he be free to use this approach to tell his tale?

Because obviously it’s not the tale Stanley wants him to tell. Too Americo-centric, and all. Stanley writes:

The tone and look of Mr. Burns’s series…is as elegiac and compelling as any of his previous works, but particularly now, as the conflict in Iraq unravels, this degree of insularity — at such length and detail — is disconcerting. Many a “Frontline” documentary has made a convincing case that the Bush administration’s mistakes were compounded by the blinkered thinking of leaders who rushed to war without sufficient support around the world or understanding of the religious and sectarian strains on the ground. Examining a global war from the perspective of only one belligerent is rarely a good idea.

Now we see. Burns’s mission, as a trusted PBS producer, is to adopt Frontline’s “case” against the Bush administration and the Iraq war. PBS has a duty because "Americans are growing more hidebound and parochial," unlike the way Americans were, say, in small towns in the early 1940s, when they went to war to serve the global community.

Ms. Stanley no doubt means to suggest that, if one is going to make a 15-hour documentary about World War II, it should at least be used to show how this administration’s war on terror and the prosecution of the war in Iraq are even greater failures than we already know them to be, when compared to the political and strategic decisionmaking of a Churchill, a Roosevelt, and of the Allied generals.

Yet I can't think of any historical treatment of the Second World War that portrays Allied responses to the Axis as examples of advanced planning, tight exit strategies, and unblinkered “understanding of the religious and sectarian strains on the ground.”

If anything,the opposite was the case. Just the first episode of Burns’s documentary describes tragic mistakes and disasters that--if judged by contemporary standards--would have ended Roosevelt’s administration and caused pitched rioting by members of the press.

First, Pearl Harbor was caught unprepared in spite of advanced warning that a major Japanese attack was being planned. Then the government withheld information about the number of dead and the extent of the damage to the fleet. Then the President ordered the internment of Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. Then the US Army in the Philippines was scandalously undersupplied, and finally abandoned to capture by a brutal enemy--leading to the deaths of thousands of servicemen. The British and American leaders argued about whether to attack the Third Reich first on the European Continent or in North Africa. (Burns didn't explore whether any Hollywood actresses made broadcasts plaintively asking Americans "What did the North Africans ever do to us?").

As for "insularity," the individual soldiers upon whom the documentary focuses don't even describe themselves as fighting for flag and country. The soldier caught in the Philippines tells about volunteering for that posting to avoid the war he expected against the Germans. After the Japanese attacked the Philippines he told about not knowing what to expect from the enemy army, about which they knew so little. When he saw his buddy bombed to bits in a slit trench and the pilot who’d just done it grinning, he had all the insight into the enemy he would need.

For today’s antiwar proponents, World War II should either be left alone or used as an object lesson to instruct on the wisdom of abstaining from all warmaking--the one lesson that cannot be drawn from World War II.

What makes World War II so formidable is that it really was a necessary war, and for the generation who fought it, both civilians and military, its necessity arose from the enormity of the enemy we faced, not from the cold, slow, deliberative weighing of the pros and cons safely guarding the nation from "rushing into war." World War II simply wasn’t a masterpiece of planning, nor the result of careful calculations, nor entailed a methodical assembling of Allies, nor had the benefit of a carefully worked out exit strategy, all of which then finally added up to an “unblinkered” concensus of political and military leaders that beating Hitler and Tojo was “doable.”

It was the result of there not being any choice but to fight. That’s what the word “necessary” means.

One doesn’t cavil about “political” or “military” solutions when the object of the fight is survival.

The Left doesn’t believe the war against Islamist fascism is necessary, because they themselves are blinkered as to the enormity of this enemy. They think that fighting jihadism is a matter of choice, and it's a stupid choice when one can just as easily dismiss the threat of terror states that don't threaten us directly every day. After all it isn't American women who are being executed by Ahmadinejad, or having their genitals mutilated in Sudan. They aren't American families being blown up in market squares by suicide bombers. In other words, it's a very insular view. Nothing else can explain the childish reaction by the media and the Left to the visit to New York by Ahmadinejad.

Burns said he began making "The War" before 9/11, and never had any purpose of using it to comment on the war on terror. (If he had been any other PBS producer with that attitude, he'd now be a former PBS producer). That means that he's letting World War II speak for itself. When that war speaks for itself tends to say that some evils are so irrational and deadly that they must simply be stamped out, whatever the cost.

I suppose that message, repeated at such length over so many nights, is why Ms. Stanley has to find something to dislike in this documentary. So she writes that “’The War’ gives generous voice to a wide variety of remarkable people, but they are all American voices.”

More likely, she just can't see the use of showing so many graphic photos of death and destruction where the bad guys are so unmistakably not the American military. If it shows us being the good guys, the documentary must be unbalanced, “insular,” or (GASP!) leaving someone out.

A well-produced and heavily-watched series like this can undo years of media brainwashing. Let's hope it does. We can use some help at this point.

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