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D-Day: The Total Story

Robert Rue

Historian Stephen Ambrose relishes stories of GIs who, in the chaos of war and absence of a clear chain of command, trusted their own wits to accomplish their aims.


Cast: Gerald McRaney, Stephen Ambrose, John Keegan
Subtitle: The Total Story
Network: New Video
First date: 1994
US Release Date: 2004-04-27

When the Twin Towers collapsed September 11, 2001, those of us who watched on television could only imagine the chaos inside those buildings. Afterwards, reporters, bystanders, and survivors began to tell their stories, fragmented, confused, contradictory. It seemed impossible on that day to conceive a coherent perspective. Since then, however, history and politics have intervened, and the dominant American story of 9/11 has emerged.

Of all the stories that have been told about this day, accounts of selfless firemen and policemen are most revered and most repeated. This story is reinforced by an image of three firemen raising the U.S. flag over the rubble of 1 World Financial Center, an act reminiscent of the four Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Ricky Flores, the White Plains, NY Journal News photographer who snapped this famous photo, has considered the process by which it became a cultural icon, in "Firefighters Raising Flag at WTC":

When I took the photo of the firefighters raising the flag in front of the World Financial Center from a second floor window, it felt like it was the bare glimmer from the rescue workers that they were beginning to get a grasp and a comprehension of what had taken place... Once back at the office they were pushing to see this one image. An image that, in my mind, was just a small part of the story. My laptop was soon surrounded by a large grouping of writers, photographers, designers and editors as they began to see my photos for the first time. I sat there feeling ambivalent and overwhelmed by their response. They saw something that at the time, actually for several days afterwards, I could not see.

What Flores's editors saw was the chance to make meaning out of incoherence, the chance, perhaps, to create the first myth of 9/11: Americans love America, and its citizens will be as heroic and resilient as soldiers in assuring its survival.

The making of meaning is also at issue in The History Channel's D-Day: The Total Story. The Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, D-Day, has long since been shaped into a coherent and particularly "American" story. Though some, like Howard Zinn, question the notion that the United States entered the War in response to Hitler's attacks on innocents throughout Europe, few would argue with the moral clarity of the result. The good guys won and the bad guys lost.

In the current climate of intellectual skepticism about absolute moral claims, World War II enjoys a special immunity. D-Day -- the war's most important battle -- still represents proof of U.S. goodness and superiority. Americans won World War II (with some help) not merely because of better resources and luck, but also because of our way of life. America won because, in the cosmic order of things, democracy was supposed to win.

D-Day: The Total Story, originally broadcast in 1994 (the 50th anniversary of the invasion) and now available on DVD, does nothing to complicate these notions. "Total" here means that a couple of Germans, a few Brits, and one woman have been interviewed. Make no mistake, this project, directed by Rob Lihani and narrated by Gerald McRaney, is an unmistakably American story.

Stephen Ambrose, a historian well known for his World War II books Citizen Soldiers (1997) and Band of Brothers (1992) as well as consulting for Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), appears frequently in Lihani's documentary. He provides scholarly commentary throughout the film, and his narration of American ingenuity and chutzpah sets the tone for the entire project. He relishes stories of GIs who, in the chaos of war and in the absence of a clear chain of command, trusted their own wits to accomplish their aims. He contrasts this spirit with the rigid, mechanistic training of German soldiers, that he says was paralyzing: "It was at Omaha Beach," Ambrose intones, "that American democracy and the army that the American people had built showed just how good they were."

Ambrose also discusses British soldiers' frustration with their Yankee counterparts as GIs arrived in England in preparation for the invasion. The Brits, he says, were fond of saying that Americans were "overpaid, oversexed, and over here." Ambrose smiles wryly as he recounts the American response: the British were "underpaid, undersexed, and under Eisenhower." The joke concerning the Allies' choice of General Eisenhower over Montgomery for Supreme Allied Commander underlines the sentiment that, if you resent Americans or Americanness, you're just plain jealous.

This two-disc set contains three special features. One is a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower (which revisits some of the material in the D-Day section, and addresses his upbringing and his post-war career in politics). Another extra, Dear Home: Letters from World War II, hosted by Harry Smith, provides more of the quirky details of war that seem largely missing from the other tracks and is often quite moving. The third feature, The True Story of the Screaming Eagles: 101st Airborne, is a short propaganda piece designed to solidify the status of the American soldier as brave doer of good deeds. It traces the rise (World War II), the fall (Vietnam), and the rise again (Desert Storm) of the American soldier's status.

Given how much his "goodness" is raised in politics and in pop culture, it seems there is still a deep undercurrent of belief in the U.S. that the American soldier has not yet been sufficiently recuperated from the humiliation of Vietnam. Whether the current fiasco at Abu Ghraib prison will shame "Operation American Goodness" into silence or create a new generation of myths to wash out the painful images now before our eyes remains to be seen.

The investment in U.S. heroism is certainly deep, illustrated by our fixation on the heroism of 9/11 firefighters and rescue workers. In the cultural story that is now being told, they are not merely brave and selfless, but also soldierly and masculine. Such a sentiment lies behind conservative scholar Christina Hoff Sommers' claim, in May of 2002, that "The male heroism of Special Forces soldiers and the firefighters at ground zero should persuade gender scholars to acknowledge that 'stereotypical masculinity' had some merit."

Perhaps it is this political point that makes it seem inappropriate, or even worse, unpatriotic, to pursue stories of 9/11 that in any way undermine this reinvigorated image of American masculinity. Surely there is a story somewhere of a rescue worker who didn't walk up the Tower stairs, a man who decided to preserve himself instead of another. Surely some man acted in a way that was less than "heroic" on that day. For the most part, such stories remain untold, though underreported rumors of firemen using the WTC attacks as an opportunity to loot jeans from a local Gap store did circulate.

I don't know whether these rumors, originally reported by William Langewiesche in The Atlantic Monthly, are true or false (they do seem insufficiently supported), but they surely threaten something more sacred than fact. I know that fear of investigating this story and others like it exemplifies the ways that history and meaning are made. Such stories can never be "total."

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