Archive for Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mayer: Ken Burns film a truly great war memorial

September 25, 2007


Tell your story

The Lawrence Public Library continues to conduct interviews with people who lived in the World War II era.

Since the program began four years ago, nearly 200 interviews have been conducted and recorded on videotape, said Pattie Johnston, library outreach coordinator.

Johnston has worked on the project in conjunction with Watkins Community Museum of History.

Johnston is not limiting her interviews to military veterans. She said she will interview anyone who lived through the war. If you know of somebody in the Douglas County area who should be interviewed, call Johnston, 843-3833, ext. 115.

Editor's note: Bill Mayer is the contributing editor for the Journal-World. He saw combat as a 20-year-old B-24 navigator with the Army Air Corps in the final five months of World War II in Europe. His bomber crew was based in Norwich, England. This is one in an occasional series of Mayer's recollections of World War II.

Filmmaker Ken Burns has the gifts and skills to fight a room full of feathers, organize them and produce delectable chicken salad - the way he and his people did in giving us "The Civil War," "Jazz" and "Baseball."

But with "The War," which began a 15-hour run on public television Sunday, the Burns operation has managed to manipulate all the floating feathers to give us the full chicken dinner with all the side dishes. Much of the meal is unappetizing and creates indigestion at times, but the table is set to provide a fully educational and stimulating experience.

It's to the point where if a product bears a Smuckers or Ken Burns label, it's got to be good. "The War" truly is good, more appropriately, great.

Much of the finished product is not pretty, soul-soothing or entertainment. It is not child-friendly. There is horrendous noise from combat venues and there are countless ghastly and grisly scenes of corpses of all nationalities. This is not video games, it's the real blood and guts of life in many of the most demanding times in our history.

Yet realistic as the footage may be, there is no way to project the smells, the groans, the moans, the sobs, the tears and gut-wrenching agony of war. As most veterans will say, "You just hadda be there." It's like watching something through a glass window and not quite grasping the total scene. Yet Burns takes us as close as most of us will ever get to what happened.

Burns says he worked hard to "manipulate the truth" to the point people can understand a series of events.

There was strict censorship of countless items and details during and after the war. Most of us, even in service, had no idea how bad things were - like my bomber division losses - until years later. There have been thousands of other piecemeal explanations; none as thorough as this. One sister of a soldier remarked, "There was so much we didn't know, and maybe that's just as well, considering how terrible things became and how close we came to being beaten."

If possible, young and old would do well to see it all, troubled though they might be afterward. There is cause for deep shame about how loyal and decent Japanese Americans were rounded up and shipped to relocation camps; the fact that African Americans and Latinos not only had to fight vicious enemies overseas but mindless bigotry at home; the fact that some of us feared the prospect of killing someone else, then had circumstances that adjusted our thinking to the point it was satisfying to do so, or at least acceptable.

It was a war that had to be won, at almost any cost, one we COULD NOT LOSE or Americans would wind up working in German breweries, or cremation camps, and being herded on new Bataan Death Marches of enormous scope.

Parents have to judge whether their children can handle what they will see in "The War." Much depends on the understanding of the psyches of the youngsters in your house, but they need to know.

Commercial television people agree that "violence sells." World War II produced the highest body count in history but because of so many distractions in today's world, many will fail to devote sufficient time to this classic. With today's immediacy of media coverage, would we have been allowed to win as we had to?

Back to that room full of feathers and the maddening task of organizing them into a decent narrative. There is no foolproof way because there remain millions of stories never to be told and events never to be chronicled so "the real thing," the ultimate package, is impossible to produce. Yet it is difficult to believe anyone ever will do a more spell-binding and complete job in this category than Burns and Lynn Novick, the co-producer and co-director for "The War." Another highlight is the musical background orchestrated by the incomparable Wynton Marsalis.

This is not a case of celebrities and high-ranking officials pontificating. Going on the basis that "there are no ordinary lives," Burns and Co. bypassed the icons to focus on people in and around four U.S. towns: Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Luverne, Minn. Sunday night, the offering hit upon Pearl Harbor, the Japanese internments, racial problems and the hideous Bataan Death March.

"The War" tells not only about the armed forces but about the people back home who also suffered and agonized and did anything they could imagine to help. America never before had been so unified and focused on a common goal "to beat the Germans and Japs." It has not been that way since and may never be so again.

Nobody can forget what he or she was doing on "Pearl Harbor Day." I was at home in Kansas City listening to Count Basie's "Fiesta in Blue" on the radio and grousing about having to read "Silas Marner" for a Wyandotte High School class. Came the news and my first thought was: "I've gotta go; I wonder if I'll be killed or anything." I did and I wasn't. A year later I was old enough to enlist in the Army Air Corps.

There was a tremendous surge for enlistments on Dec. 8, 1941. Many felt they had to get going and there were great emotional surges of patriotism, love of country, hatred of the "enemy" and sharing in "the great experience," which turned out to be a lot worse than many bargained for.

One of Burns' interviewees chuckles as he bypasses the notion he was patriotic or heroic: "It was the opportunity to be somebody more exciting than the kid you are."

Death and destruction, but mostly death, dominated everyone's thinking. The war world-over ground out more than 60 million fatalities, the majority of them home-deprived civilians, something that America was spared for the most part. Some 16 million served in U.S. armed forces between December 1941 and the fall of 1945. There were 407,000 killed and 10 times that injured. But "the folks back home" didn't get hit.

One veteran describes war as "absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." America had its role in that scenario and yet "The War" reminds us that above and beyond the hate and bestiality of humans toward each other, there is also incredible courage, nobility and compassion.

Point of reference: America now is seeing its military death count in Iraq approach 4,000. Horrible! Yet in two months of combat on Okinawa in 1945 our toll was more than 20,000. (Inject your own politics here.) You hear U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye say he reached the point where he actually appreciated the death of an opponent. One Pacific hero said he first couldn't stomach the idea of taking a life until he saw how the Japanese had tortured and sexually humiliated his buddies before killing them. "From then on, we took no prisoners and felt good about it," he said laconically.

Irreverence? One Pacific veteran said he once was so distraught he prayed for God to come himself and not try to just get by with Jesus.

They couldn't cast enough medals to honor the infantry people who worked so gallantly and suffered so much.

There is a personal story for all of the millions, foreign and domestic, who experienced World War II and its aftermath and Burns and his people could not possibly touch all the bases. But in their quest for illumination they have created a paradoxical masterpiece: If you know anything about World War II you would do well to see "The War"; if you know little or nothing, you need to see it.

A 15-hour chunk of television, even spread over a number of showings into next week, is a tremendous challenge for modern time management. But those who take the time to watch, listen and think are likely to decide they have been a part of the most stirring and appropriate explanation ever given about our lives and times from 1941 through 1945.


rockchalk42 10 years, 9 months ago

"It was a war that had to be won, at almost any cost, one we COULD NOT LOSE or Americans would wind up working in German breweries, or cremation camps, and being herded on new Bataan Death Marches of enormous scope."

Excuse me? "Working in German breweries"...? I understand that Mr. Mayer served and I didn't, nor have I served in our current conflicts, but this paragraph is particularly endemic of the misinterpretations we Americans hold about the Second World War. Any knowledgeable person with a shred of common-sense would recognize that brewing beer was not the fate of prisoners of war during this horrendous conflict, nor in any other conflict ever. (maybe the Pentagon has considered it in the war on terror since alcohol is not permitted in Islam ... I can envision Rumsfield ... "we will force the prisoners to make booze!! then they'll talk!") Also there is the glaring fact that (by Mr. Mayer's figures, which understandably include civilians) of the "60 million fatalities" approximately 25 million (the high estimate, which must be what Mr. Mayer is quoting, since low death tolls put the total at 50 million and 19 million Russian citizens) of these were from Russian territories. Thus the Soviet Union incurred roughly 40% of the deaths during the conflict. Therefore, Mr. Mayer's ironical statement "COULD NOT LOSE" holds weight in the fact that the Soviet Union inevitably would have won the war against the Nazis, with or without American intervention.
I love the USA and what she has done for me, but I'm sorry one must view the past realistically.

littlelawrencian 10 years, 9 months ago

Being the youngest of 4 children, I didn't know much about my father's involvement in WWII until I researched our genealogy and sent off for his military papers. Turns out he was on two different ships, the USS Indianapolis, and the USS Shangrila. He also had 2 brothers in the Navy as well. He didn't talk much about the war but he took us to Galveston, TX or that general area where a big battleship was moored for folks to tour. He took us there and showed us where he spent a bit of his time, down in the engine room where they would smuggle steaks and cook them down there for the enlisted men. The steaks were reserved for officers so the enlisted men were pretty excited. The officers in the white suits didn't want to go too far down into the engine room according to dad because they didn't want to get dirty. He had a good friend from the Navy that lived in Tennessee. We went on vacation to visit him a few months before my father died in 66. My dad wouldn't buy anything if it wasn't American made and he was very serious about that.
I now know why my dad couldn't speak of the battles, he was witness to much bloodshed, saw many of his men die yet he was alive. He had to stand an 18 hour watch and it damaged his foot somehow and also his back as he was standing on a very small area and steadied himself with one foot on a narrow railing which damaged the arch badly. He had chronic athletes foot as well and always had problems. He received 4 stars: Asiatic Pacific for his troubles but never spoke of it. He also served in the American and European Theatres His medical records were in the things I received when I requested his military records. I still have his Navy pictures, my mom fell in love with him instantly when she saw him in his white navy uniform. My father was flown off the ship to Hawaii and on to San Diego for surgery on his back. That is how he missed the tragedy of the Indianapolis and so wasn't on the ship when it sank. He was among the initial crew that started out with the Shangrila as well.
Thanks for letting me tell my father's story, he was one hell of a man, one hell of a hero in our family.

ilovelucy 10 years, 9 months ago

My father received a bronze star for "courage under duress" when he strung phone wire under fire during the battle of the Bulge. He also helped liberate one of the extermination camps, Munchhausen. I still have the pictures of the dead bodies stacked up next to mass graves. He didn't talk much about his experiences until the end of his life, when he shared quite a bit with his grandson-in-law, who is a military man. I don't think the rest of us will ever hear the horrific stories he shared. He DID discuss his adoration of General Patton, which I heard several of the witnesses discuss in last night's episode of "The War." When he passed, I passed the bronze star on to his grandson-in-law.

Shardwurm 10 years, 9 months ago

My impression of the series so far is that it gives a good broad overview of the war. It seems that it was appropriately put together with the idea that people with little knowledge of WWII could watch it and gain some understanding.

For a historian or serious student the series is rather 'blah' with not much in the way of new information.

I doubt I'll watch the whole thing though. There's too much time being spent on fringe information for my taste.

Oh...and to those of you who posted about your relatives who served - there's a whole new generation of veterans being produced as we speak...I hope you praise them as well.

littlelawrencian 10 years, 9 months ago

Oh My God Yes! I praise our veterans current and past. I remember all too well the body counts on the news every day during the Vietnam War and then to find out they were lying about the body count, it was much worse than they said. I hear the reports of casualties today and wonder if they are lying now too, that it is much worse than they say, more casualties than they will admit. And thank you to the families back home making sacrifices, losing their sons, fathers, brothers, it is a huge sacrifice that can never be repaid. I cherish my freedom, I know much blood has been shed and will continue to be shed and I never waste my vote.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.