View From Lodi, CA: Does Burns` The War Ask The Right Questions?
September 28, 2007, 05:00 AM
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The entire television-viewing world is heaping praise on Ken Burns' new epic "The War," a comprehensive look at America's involvement in World War II through the eyes of those who experienced it.

But if Americans want to come to grips with who we are and how we got that way, a different perspective on the war fought by the "greatest generation" would be more useful.

To raise objections about The War exposes me to potential criticism as unpatriotic and ungrateful for the valiant efforts of our courageous soldiers.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin at the beginning:

The Burns documentary was well done and informative, especially for those who have only a general understanding of the war and its consequences.

I'm all for enlightening Americans about history. As study after study proves, we know next to nothing about it. Even Harvard graduates, according to a recent report, only get a D+ on civic literacy.

My reservations about The War are on two grounds.

  • First, I'm concerned that journalism about World War II has become an industry—and a moneymaking one at that.

This doesn't mean that those who have profited handsomely from their ventures, most famously Tom Brokaw who wrote The Greatest Generation, its sequel the Greatest Generation Speaks and hosted a television special based on his books, aren't sincere in their admiration for World War II veterans.

But the market for World War II-related material has reached its saturation point.

Consider that other World War II books and films released within the last few years include three by Stephen Ambrose D-Day June 6, 1994: The Climactic Battle of World War II,  Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers which in turn spawned the Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks Saving Private Ryan.

For those who prefer Clint Eastwood to Hanks, they had two of his 2006 World War II films from which to choose: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

Even former presidential candidate Bob Dole, a prominent member of the greatest generation, published his memoir, One Soldier's Story in 2005.

  • My second and more pressing objection to The War is that Burns' documentary overlooks the most fundamental question: Why has the U.S. engaged, decade after decade, in so many conflicts—most of them long term—in so many different corners of the world?

If we Americans are ever going to understand ourselves then this basic question has to be answered.

In my lifetime, the U.S. has fought wars and lost lives in World War II, Korea, the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

And why, as indicated by the "shock and awe" campaign waged by the Bush administration against Iraq, have we learned so little from those wars?

Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a decorated World War II hero who was interviewed in The War" and who served as a member of the "Go For Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese-American soldiers that fought in Europe, is one of only a handful of Congressional members who voted against the Iraq War. Inouye's war experiences (he saw the bombers fly over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941) no doubt influenced his vote 

In an interview about Iraq's futility, Inouye told the Congressional Quarterly, "See, we had V-J Day, Victory Over Japan Day; V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. I don't think you'll have a Victory in Iraq Day. Who's going to sign the papers?"

The Burns documentary has graphic footage of mutilated bodies, floating corpses and men killed on camera. No one questions the sacrifices made by those brave soldiers and others who died in subsequent conflicts.

And as the Iraq war drags inevitably into the second decade of the 21st Century, more lives will be lost.

I worry that our infatuation with and romanticizing of World War II may make more wars easier to condone.

Democrats and Republicans alike have authorized hundreds of billions for wars—some not even directly in our national interest—but grudgingly spend only pennies, by comparison, on health care, inner cities and education.

I'd like to see a fifteen-hour series on what America's priorities should be.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.