Lest We Should Forget

[27 February 2007]

By Chadwick Jenkins

Some events in human history are simply beyond our control. Take the flooding of New Orleans as an example. The local and federal governments could certainly have taken greater measures to prevent the extent of the loss and displacement, but the force of nature itself is relentless. We cannot prevent a tornado or an earthquake; we can only be prepared and react to them to the best of our ability.

Most historical events are of another order. They are the products of human volition. They are often not the results of simple action but rather the accumulation of many different (to an extent contradictory) decisions, actions, and reactions. We may find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to accurately account for the precise nature of the decisions and actions that led up to what we, with historical hindsight, regard as an “event” but we believe that, at least in theory, those decisions and actions are knowable. The event occurred because specific people behaved in this way and not in another. Depending on the nature of the event, tracing all of its antecedent actions may not be feasible but most historical accounts attempt to get at some of them. We need to believe that there are good and bad decisions, that we have some aspect of free will. History is the story of human action; that is its moral function.

And yet in the case of historic events of a particularly catastrophic nature, it is tempting to set aside history’s specific moral function, to think of history as less the culmination of a series of relatively circumscribed individual acts than the inexorable unfolding of a cataclysm that happened to humans rather than because of them. These are events that seem to be beyond the purview of human volition, beyond the realm of the contingent; they seem to have arisen of necessity and the individual human beings caught in the midst of such events are left simply to weather the storm. Perhaps this mode of history also contains a moral function but it is certainly different in kind. This mode of representing human history seems to strike us as particularly compelling with respect to war, all the more so when discussing a war that involved so many human lives and had such far-ranging consequences as World War II.

The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II, a 10-DVD collection containing almost 30 documentaries, presents the vicious struggle utilizing both modes of representation. This is not a unified series that explores the great conflict from beginning to end. Rather it brings together diverse series and individual documentaries that have been featured on the History Channel over the course of its existence. Indeed, one of the greatest advantages of this collection of rather heterogeneous documentaries is that it exposes the viewer to starkly different ways of understanding what is ostensibly a shared subject.

This is not to say that the DVD set contains 27 distinct approaches to World War II. The documentaries form subgroups that can be treated together. The first four DVDs comprise 15 episodes of a series called War Chronicles. DVD 5 presents a biography of General Douglas MacArthur; this is followed by an in-depth look at the final battle of the Pacific War, Okinawa. DVD 7 investigates the production of warplanes and DVD 8 explores the Nuremberg Trials. The final two DVDs contain eight episodes of the series Great Blunders of World War II. One might have expected even greater diversity in a set issued by the channel flippantly known at its inception as “The Hitler Channel”. Certainly, considering the plethora of documentaries on WWII shown on The History Channel, the producers of the DVD set could not have lacked material. However, I imagine that they opted for some loose kind of consistency by bookending the set with a pair of series. This approach allows for the kind of desirable coverage that may have been lost had the set merely strung together 27 completely individual documentaries on various aspects of the war.

If coverage were indeed a primary objective of the set, then that desire is fairly well satisfied by the War Chronicles series. After an introductory overview of the entire war, the series is divided into two large parts: the first seven episodes treating the war in Europe and the remaining seven examining the War of the Pacific. The series is decidedly low key and low budget. It was filmed in the early ‘80s, but when I first saw it, I would have placed it at least a decade earlier. Produced in a manner all too reminiscent of the educational films shown in high school history classes, each episode primarily consists of a narration by actor and sportscaster Patrick O’Neal (although occasionally an uncredited narrator inexplicably substitutes for O’Neal) over an endless stream of archival footage. There are none of the interviews with university professors or participants in the battle that are so typical of later History Channel productions—just the voice and the footage. When the narration sets the stage by laying out the geography of a specific battle, we are presented with the image of O’Neal pointing to a map that looks like it may have been his son’s history project in middle school.

War Chronicles is the finest example in the set of the representation of the war as though it had been a natural calamity and not the result of a series of contingent decisions. Indeed even the title betrays this sentiment. A “chronicle” is an older method of recording historical events that lists them without any concern for causal connection. A chronicle simply documents what occurred; it never asks why. O’Neal’s sportscaster training contributes greatly to this effect inasmuch as his baritone narration strikes one as so matter-of-fact; he keeps careful track of the score but otherwise just seems to account for the unfolding of events that appear to accrue without any meaning aside from the terrible necessity of it all. The participants in this narrative seem to have no more to contribute to the unfolding of the war than the individual bits of snow contribute to an avalanche. The soldiers and officers are the human material of war. They are the fuel fed to the war machine, but that machine churns on without any operator. Armies face each other in bitter dispute but, in this mode of representation, it all proceeds in a mechanical fashion like some international chess game that, once set in motion, plays itself to the point of checkmate—and then stops.

Certainly O’Neal mentions decisions made by figures such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, or MacArthur, but these decisions seem more like the necessary attributes of their characters than acts of human volition. Hitler and Churchill (partly because neither graces the screen for more than a fleeing moment) appear to be forces of nature, incomprehensible and perhaps uncomprehending. In this account, they are hardly men at all. According to the War Chronicles, all soldiers fought bravely (regardless of whether they were among the Allied or Axis forces) because that was the nature of the soldier; all Japanese are fanatics, all Americans eager, and all Germans determined because that was simply their national characters. People didn’t fight this war, the series wants to tell us; nations did.

For the most part, the archival footage marshaled in support of the narration buttresses the austerity of this impersonal mode of historical representation. We see images of armies on the march, tanks rolling through desolate fields bereft of vegetation, men with flamethrowers meticulously prodding the entrances to small caves, warships plowing through the seas toward an island, and warplanes dropping the bombs that flash brilliantly as they strike the targets far below. It all seems so methodical, so orderly. In many of the episodes, the men even seem to die in an orderly fashion. One moment a soldier is marching in line, then his head jerks backwards and he falls to the side as the line marches on ineluctably. Every moment builds to the necessary conclusion. All acts are excusable (the series only makes passing reference to the Holocaust—another documentary in the set treats it in far greater depth). At its most chilling, the narration reports on incidents such as the April 1942 bombing of Tokyo by sixteen US Army B-25 bombers under the orders of Col. James W. Doolittle (an action seemingly designed to kill Japanese civilians rather than combatants) by declaring that “the raid had little military significance but its psychological lift to the sagging American morale cannot be estimated.”

The series seems enamored of moments of destruction carried out with the precision of surgery; it all appears so clean and sterile. The bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino is a case in point. O’Neal tells us that the move was controversial but he fails to tells us that one reason for the controversy (a controversy that continues largely unresolved today) was that it appears that the Germans were not occupying the venerated religious structure but rather the caves in the hills beneath it. But the tactical efficacy of the maneuver is beside the point for this series. The assault presents a striking visual illustration of the pageantry of war. This is history that seems to lack all human warmth and we are overwhelmed by the sheer indifference of it all.

But then there are other moments preserved in the footage. They slip in surreptitiously without the narrator ever acknowledging them directly. During another clip of American soldiers methodically shooting flames into holes dug into the island of Okinawa, a Japanese soldier suddenly appears, having been smoked out by the flamethrower. He quickly looks in the direction of the camera and then runs the other way as the American soldiers shoot him in the back. In another episode, the mutilated corpses of American and Japanese soldiers are entangled in the mud, the bloody, cast-off detritus of battle. In another clip, a German soldier is shown surrendering to Allied soldiers. He looks to be about 20-years-old and wears glasses. His hands raised in the air, he glances from one to the other as the Allied soldiers remove his hat apparently to search for weapons; the boy appears so frightened and ashamed that it makes it difficult for me to watch.

These moments puncture the stern mechanistic imagery and the droning narration to remind us of the people who were there, the people that suffered and that caused suffering, the people who were so sure that they were doing the right thing as they slaughtered other people who, in the end, were not so very different. If the narrative speaks of necessity and the foregone conclusion, these images speak to the contingencies of the moment, of fear and of sadness. These unanticipated moments, these flickering images of people dying and afraid make the War Chronicles series a haunting testimony to the tribulations of the individual despite the script’s framing narrative depicting the nearly anonymous unfolding of events.

If War Chronicles presents history at its most impersonal, then at least two other documentaries included in the set bring aspects of the unmitigated brutality of the war home to the viewer in a most chilling manner. Okinawa: The Final Battle accomplishes this, in part, by utilizing interviews with actual participants in the conflict. Hearing these men bear witness to the fates of their comrades, friends, and the men they called their enemies leaves an indelible impression that no mere third-person account could hope to produce. Although no one could have known it at the time, Okinawa (fought from April to June 1945) turned out to be the last battle of the War of the Pacific; shortly thereafter, Japan surrendered following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August and the declaration of war by the Soviet Union.

The landing took place on April Fool’s Day (which this year was coincident with Easter Sunday, making some wonder whether it would be a day of folly or salvation) and at first it must have seemed like a trick had been played on the US Army. They shelled the beaches with an awesome assault but when the troops came ashore they realized that they had wasted their artillery. The beach was entirely undefended. Japanese General Mitsuri Ushijima realized that he could not defend the entire island so he concentrated his main force in the south on the heights surrounding Shuri Castle, a medieval fortress. He further understood that this was a battle he could not win, a battle that would place the Allied Forces at the backdoor to mainland Japan. He instituted a war of attrition: he expected the invaders to pay ten men for every man he lost. Meanwhile the Japanese army offered little protection to the native Okinawans, whom they considered to be lesser Japanese (Okinawa was colonized by the Japanese centuries before). The Okinawans were therefore caught between the two raging armies, unsupported by the Japanese and fearful of the Americans owing to Japanese propaganda. They were simply mowed down; in the end, over 140,000 civilians were killed or missing.

When the Allied Forces had closed in on the Japanese defenses after three months of intense fighting, the US Army requested a Japanese surrender. General Ushijima simply laughed. He and his men committed ritual suicide having, as the documentary puts it, “served his country well”. Many remaining Japanese soldiers followed suit, throwing themselves to their deaths off of a precipice at the southern tip of the island. Lieutenant General Victor Krulak of the US Marines, one of the interviewees of the documentary, asks the camera: “What sort of a guy would do that?” It is, in its way, an elegant question. Lt. General Krulak’s bewilderment (continuing unabated over half a century later) bears testimony to the cultural split that served as a foundation for the conflict between the Americans and the Japanese—not the political but rather the personal ground for the fighting. It is the kind of split that we still experience today between various cultures. 

Perhaps the most difficult documentary in the set but arguably the most important to watch is Nuremberg: Tyranny on Trial. The facts of the trial are well known and I need not rehearse them here. However, what the documentary clarifies in a remarkable fashion is the sheer lack of precedence for the proceedings. Despite the calls for the immediate extermination or summary imprisonment of the Nazi leadership, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson insisted that the war criminals be tried through due process of law. Stimson wanted to hold a real trial and not simply administer “victor’s justice”. He believed that only in this fashion would there be an appropriate documentation of Nazi crimes. This required offering the Germans the best possible defense and allowing them astonishingly wide latitude in making their statements in court. Nothing like this had been done before. There was no fitting international law and no international court. The Allies had to begin from scratch.

The trial exposed not only the depredations caused by the Germans, but those wreaked by the Allies, as well.  When the leader of the Kriegsmarine, Karl Doenitz, was accused of violating the London Rules of naval warfare, he was able to mitigate his sentence through a successful tu quoque defense (literally, “you too”), in which he submitted as evidence Admiral Chester Nimitz’s statement that unrestricted naval warfare was employed by the US in the Pacific from the moment of their entry into the war. Most importantly, the trial established the first real convictions of those accused of “crimes against humanity”.

The documentary employs the footage from the concentration camps that was used as evidence. We see the film clips of the emaciated corpses of Jews being pushed into mass graves by a bulldozer, the Nazi executions and humiliations of their Jewish prisoners, the bones and ashes in the ovens. It is all too much to bear and yet one cannot help but feel that it must be borne because, in the words of US Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, “the wrongs that we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.” The documentary presses upon the viewer the utter weight of those words and the cost in life and suffering that underwrites them.

The collection ends with eight episodes of the History Channel’s fascinating series Great Blunders of World War II. Each episode presents a tactical mistake made by one of the nations that either served to prolong the war or changed its course in a manner devastating to that nation’s cause. These are the questions that we love to ask in historical enquiry. What if Hitler would not have declared war so precipitously against the United States? What if he had pressed the trapped British forces at Dunkirk harder instead of allowing them to escape across the British Channel? What if the Japanese had been more cautious at Midway? (In this collection, there are no Allied blunders to be examined, creating a rather disappointing lack of perspective.) What might have been different? These “what if” questions are among the favorite pursuits of history buffs. They allow the imagination free rein to imagine new impossible worlds, either utopic or hellish.

But perhaps they are the wrong questions. Perhaps we should more seriously pursue Lt. General Krulak’s rhetorical question: “What sort of a guy would do that?” But instead of allowing it to be a marker of cultural distance and the only possible response to the impossibility of cross-cultural understanding, perhaps we should truly look for an answer, an answer that would do more than acknowledge the striking surface differences in order to seek out deeper connections. After all, it was not simply the Germans or the Japanese that brought about the world war. It was the fraught political situation and the countless decisions and actions of countless people from the world over that brought it about. It was, quite literally, a global problem.

These are the questions I would like to see answered, even if the answers can only be provisional. Why should this thing have happened at all? What could have perpetuated in Germany and anywhere else such a monstrous disdain for a group of people that they could have justified a call for their extermination? What were the conditions that allowed for a Hitler or a Mussolini at all? For that matter, what were the conditions that allowed for a Churchill or a Roosevelt? And most important of all, why do we continue to find excuses to destroy each other? What compels us toward acts of inhumanity? I fully agree that we should honor the men that fought so bravely for their respective countries, but I also maintain that in honoring them, we should do everything in our power to ensure that we never have to ask such brave men to commit such drastic deeds, again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/lest-we-should-forget/