The New Normal
“Entertainment Changes in Response to Terror,” declares the USA Today of September 20, nine days after the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The gist of this article—like several other newspaper, magazine, and TV reports in the past month—is that Americans want something gentler after September 11. The moviegoing, TV-watching zeitgeist has resettled in a radically different place following the attacks and Hollywood and the TV studios have postponed many of their shows and movies as a result. Given such pronouncements, it’s odd that HBO has proceeded with the grueling, ultraviolent Band of Brothers, which debuted the week before the attacks. This relentlessly bloody miniseries is, to say the least, a clunky fit into USA Today‘s kinder, gentler new mediascape. A $120-million epic about the Allied military’s invasion of Fortress Europe in 1944 and ‘45, Band of Brothers supposedly explores the gruesome reality of armed combat, much the way Saving Private Ryan does, by lingering on the spectacle of American troops fighting even while artillery and gunfire are ripping them apart. All the rage before September 11, such fare is surely the last thing Americans would want to see these days.
But maybe it’s not so surprising that Band of Brothers has stayed on the air since the attacks, because these attacks are being understood in relation to World War II, as well. Both are situated in a long-standing nostalgia-meets-propaganda machine that started orbiting the Second World War as 50th anniversaries of various seminal moments in the war came and went during the 1990s. This propaganda machine has persisted, and consolidated, in the years following: even if we haven’t read them all, many of us have at least set eyes on Stephen Ambrose’s various oral histories of World War II, since they tend to be arranged on their own prominent displays at Borders and Barnes and Noble. And most of us have seen Saving Private Ryan at least once, I imagine. And even those who haven’t cracked open Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation have doubtless heard him interviewed on the subject a time or two in the past few years.
This largely homogeneous body of popular work seemed to have stabilized in a kind of remembrance, guilt, and awe before September 11. It was Private Ryan who went to pieces at the end of Spielberg’s movie recalling Captain Miller’s dying excoriation to “Earn this,” but we regular civilians might have felt just as reproached in the summer of 1998 as we sat in the neighborhood multiplex, eating Juju-bees in unearned comfort while we watched Captain Miller and his squad suffer and die in unspeakably horrible ways. The 50th anniversary commemorations had already come and gone by then, culminating in 1995 with a ferocious battle between museum curators and the American legion over a then-forthcoming Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian. After much to and fro concerning the Enola Gay commemoration, a minimalist exhibit was decided on, one that would focus on the atomic bomb’s role in ending World War II. Little would be said about possible alternative reasons for dropping the bombs, less about the horrific ordeal of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that resulted.
So much more terrible, then, is the irony that Smithsonian attendance has fallen by half in the weeks since September 11, as would-be attendees stay home, fearing “weapons of mass destruction” in public places. The genie of wholesale civilian slaughter is clearly out of the bottle for good, no matter the attempts to bowdlerize it away into forgotten history, or the indignant objections of those who insist “we” did not “bring this on ourselves.” “We” most certainly did not. But indignance will not change the fact that the atomic bomb began narratives as certainly and terribly as it ended them, narratives that endure, complex and unfinished, to the present day.
Just before the horror of September 11, the American legion’s good-vs.-evil history of World War II, as vectored through Brokaw, Ambrose, and Spielberg, had hit other snags in the context of an enormous World War II memorial to be built on the National Mall facing the Smithsonian. The memorial met some unexpected opposition not only from groups who felt it would spoil the Mall’s open vistas, but also from some World War II veterans who recognized in the memorial’s angular Roman columns uncanny hints of exactly the Third Reich aesthetic they had fought to eradicate.
Showing a tin ear for irony, Congress quickly quashed all democratic debate and proceeded with the memorial as planned… only to face subsequent revelations that one of the architectural firms helping to design the memorial had done business with the Nazis in the 1930s. Mysterious, indeed. Forgotten for the moment, this jaw-droppingly bizarre controversy is certain to resurface once the “War on Terrorism” gets underway and the nation settles into a “new normality.”
When it again begins ramrodding its memorial through to completion, Congress will doubtless suppress any opinions that acknowledge the eerie parallel between the memorial’s inexplicable, spotted past and the fact that those who so recently subjected American civilians to the terrible, ruthless cunning of September 11 learned their trade, in part, at the hands of the U.S. government. Now indubitably evil, Osama bin Laden was, once upon a time, a force for “good” against the Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein against an Islamic fundamentalist Iran. These facts are well known by now, although it’s woefully impolitic to mention them. For the time being, we may forget them, but the sparsely peopled halls around the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit testify that the erasure of unpleasant truths does not endure.
It behooves us to understand these phenomena—which the CIA calls, in their simpler manifestations, “blowback”—lest the United States find itself fighting, say, the Northern Alliance (or the nuclear-capable Pakistanis) some years hence. Anyone paying attention knows that the political mood in the U.S. at the moment is leaning aggressively away from the kind of searching policy introspection that might mitigate future incidents of “blowback”; helping in this is a facile comparison of WTC with Pearl Harbor and World War II more generally that, in practice, oversimplifies both the 1940s and the present time.
Even while some point out how inappropriate any comparison between World War II and the “War on Terrorism” is, the History Channel juxtaposes a quote from President Bush with a statement by Winston Churchill from 1940, during the London Blitz. Entertainment Weekly punctuates an article about the news coverage of the WTC attack with a photograph of people watching a modern-day teletype on Times Square, an image reminiscent of those seen in newsreels in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. The most obvious (and perhaps the most premeditated) is the photograph of firefighters planting a flag after the attack, a fairly obvious nod to the famed Iwo Jima photograph of 1945.
These WTC words and images, and the World War II words and images that give rise to them, have ramifications and meanings that the media manipulating them don’t fully consider. For instance, the flags the Iwo Jima marines and the New York City firefighters are planting have a different number of stars because Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states during the Pacific war of the mid-‘40s. This is not a trivial point, considering that the WTC attacks are being likened to Pearl Harbor as massive affronts to the American “homeland” even though Pearl Harbor was, in fact, a U.S. military colony in 1941. Even as the mainstream media cover the “War on Terrorism” as though it were a World War II re-enactment, the seams in the analogy between the Second World War and CNN’s “New War” are visible even, occasionally, in the images used to link them.
Band of Brothers also helps to illustrate where the comparison breaks down. Consider, for instance, what the eventual U.S. response to these attacks is likely to be. The Bush administration simultaneously warns of further American casualties and predicts a war that will be largely hidden from public view. This seems intended to prepare us for piles of bodybags to be shipped back from invisible wars in the Middle East in the coming months and years, bodybags carrying American boys who have died in mysterious, unknown ways. Because Band of Brothers, which seemed so remote its opening week, suddenly provides exactly the spectacle the administration is hoping to erase, in the current political and cultural climate, the show is nearly unwatchable.
Consider also the body of work into which Band of Brothers appears to fit: the Stephen Ambrose oeuvre that includes Citizen Soldiers, a serialized account of World War II from the point of view not of the elite 101st Airborne Division, but of Army regulars, many of them draftees. Citizen Soldiers’ driving theme is that of a nascent fighting spirit in the ordinary American civilian. Above all, Ambrose would have us know that when the need arises, the citizens of free democracies can indeed become warriors. The free world could never have been saved from Nazi expansionism had common people not answered the call to defend freedom and endure the unendurable overseas.
As a history of U.S. politics in World War II, this is awfully idealized and simplified. Still, it’s easy to concede that the wholesale recruitment and mobilization of the civilian populace in America was essential to the nation’s victory in the war and, realizing this, the American people have generally chafed for a similar mobilization in the wake of September 11. We can leave it for another time to question the wisdom of telling the American population, in the face of this, to simply spend money and be patient. Suffice it to say for now that the mood among many these days seems to be high on energy, low on plan of action.
For example: whether merited or not, general anxiety about biological weapons attack has alternated between intense and intolerable in the past month, but the Bush administration initially said little about the possibility of such attacks, instead focusing much of its attention on buttressing the airline industry and on the same capital gains tax cuts and other policy measures it was concerned with before September 11.
Meanwhile, the cable news channels, predictably, have fixated with Condit-like singlemindedness on the Anthrax mail bombs sent to the American government and media. Thus a lot of people are fearing for their lives, but the fear is going unaddressed since no local infrastructure has been put in place to deal with the possibility of biochemical attack, and no one seems inclined to start now. Sure, there’s a boosted police and national guard presence on your local street corner, but no increase in public health facilities, no talk of manufacturing or distributing vaccines but instead a fairly absurd insistence that we don’t need them.
Here, again, Band of Brothers is instructive, albeit in ways its makers could not possibly have foreseen. One such object lesson comes in the form of Pvt. Albert Blithe, a 101st paratrooper who, like Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan, can’t cope with the stress of combat and repeatedly buckles under gunfire after he is dropped into the inferno of Normandy. In Blithe’s helplessness, chronic terror begins to plague him. He can’t sleep. He succumbs to a temporary “hysterical blindness” that could either be his system breaking down under fear or a failed attempt to malinger his way off the front lines; it’s never quite clear which. Blithe eventually redeems himself by leading an advance on a German-held farmhouse, but in the process, he is gravely wounded. By the close of the third episode, sight is the only thing Blithe has left: immobilized and speechless on a stretcher in an army hospital, he gazes endlessly at a hallucinatory, clear blue sky. Blithe’s paralysis is both a result and a cause of his irreconcilable position, brought about when his desire to help himself and his fellow soldiers conflicts with his survival reflex.
One fears a similar psychological turmoil may become systemic now in the U.S., where—although for different reasons—sustained fear is being answered largely with domestic inaction, at least where large-scale corporate interests are not involved. At this point, signs of such hysteria are mostly anecdotal: a stranger recently told me that her husband, who was working near the stricken portion of the Pentagon on September 11, was saved when his mother foresaw the event and called him at his office moments before it took place. The woman attributed her mother-in-law’s prescience to an inner “stillness” that moved her closer to God.
In a contradictory environment where the need to take action collides with the inability to do so, trying desperately to find salvation in stillness makes a kind of sense.