September 27, 2007
When I was growing up in Norwalk, Calif., in the 1950’s, World War II was just a game. At about the age of ten I had a shoe-box full of small olive-drab plastic soldiers and an impressive array of complementing military hardware — mortars, howitzers, jeeps, tanks, amphibious vehicles. When my neighbor Sammy came over with his own battalions to play war, we had a fine fighting force.
The dusty ground beneath the nectarine tree in my family’s back yard became some Pacific island, and we would dig it up with miniature foxholes and riddle it with mud-scattering explosions scooped out by hand. Our tongues and throats perfected convincing sound-effects for screaming bombs, machine-gun fire, flame-throwers, and what he called "hang grenades." When our dads came home from work and our moms would summon us to our respective dinners, we’d call a cease-fire and troop home caked with dirt and pumping with adrenalin from our after-school battle for America.
In the evening, washed and fed and homework done, I’d convince my parents to tune the TV in to "Victory at Sea," "Navy Log," "The Big Picture," and other wartime documentaries and dramas. That way, before hitting the subject in school, I learned about Pearl Harbor, Corregidor, Guadalcanal. I heard Hitler, Churchill, and FDR and tried to imitate their oratorical styles. I saw the night bombings and the dogfights and the kamikaze attacks, and the bodies of dead soldiers bobbing in the surf.
War was a terrible beauty to me then, cinematic, shot by the camera behind my eyes.
Sammy’s dad had served in the Pacific, which is why in our backyards we always fought "the Japs," whoever they were; through random conversation he had taught his curious son about military equipment and gear, and supplied him with cuss-words and randy ditties that appalled my parents. My dad had spent the war running turret lathes in a machine shop in South Gate; he was rejected for service because of anemia (at his induction physical, he often recalled, the medical officer looked at his chart and said, "Your blood count is so low you should be dead"), but he felt perfectly healthy and always considered it something of a lucky mistake.
There were many veterans among my parents’ friends, and the stories they told after a couple highballs only reinforced my romantic image of war: the camaraderie, the pranks, the exotic places they went to on leave. If they had been wounded in battle, they neither showed it nor discussed it, and they never said a word about the killing they may have seen and done. How could they? Highballs and horror don’t mix.
Years later, seeking perspective, I would try to get veterans to talk about their battlefield experiences. Most were evasive. About 20 years ago, a man who was in the D-Day invasion told me bluntly: "It was beyond words, and I try not to think about it. What I can’t get rid of is the stench of dead bodies. To this day it’s still in my nostrils." At around the same time, a neighbor in Van Nuys, whose loopy, happy-go-lucky husband came home from Germany with a metal plate under his skull, often confided, "I didn’t sleep last night. Lou was screaming in his dreams. He’s still fighting the war there."
These recollections from years past are being unlocked by Ken Burns’s documentary The War, airing on PBS this week. The film, hyped for months and supplemented by local productions such as California at War and Latino Stories of World War II on KCET and New York War Stories on WNET here, tries to get at The Big Picture by looking at the small, from the point of view of ordinary Americans who were caught up in it.
Burns has said that he could not have done this type of study even ten years ago because so many veterans were still reluctant to talk. Suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the only way they could cope with what they had seen and done and live an apparently normal life was to banish it from waking consciousness and release it only in their nightmares. Burns’s own father opened up to his history-obsessed son just once, close to his death in 2001, as the project was beginning to take shape. Only now, Burns claims, with veterans dying at the rate of a thousand per day, have more been able and willing to loose their tongues and share their memory with the world before it is lost forever.
This is not entirely true, of course; over the last decade there have been many first-person accounts of specific battles and domestic wartime life presented on PBS and the History Channel, but it is Burns’s scope that is significant — the tracking of individuals from the war’s beginning to its end, and the changes it effected in their lives and in the life of the four small towns they came from.
Burns determinedly avoids the usual documentary commentary "from above" — the talking heads in this film are not historians and military experts but the octogenarians who had known the war personally, in the battlefield, in the factory, and in the case of Japanese-Americans, in the internment camps. The historians stay behind the scenes, however, in the well-researched narration and vintage film footage that put the experiences of these people in context.
Viewed for itself, the film is often unsatisfying, at least in the two episodes I have so far seen before sending this column off. Burns too frequently returns to quotidian small-town life, leaving the film lacking the sustained tension that should drive the heroic story forward. Wynton Marsalis’s sound-track is decidedly dull, even though the music of the Big Bands was the cement that kept home and abroad together, and there is no haunting and memorable theme-song unifying the film like the "Ashokan Farewell" did in his 1990 documentary The Civil War. And the consistently monotone narration by Keith David is positively soporific.
The War is worth watching, less for what it is as a cinematic piece and more for what it opens in our collective consciousness — for those who lived through the period, for those like myself who knew it in shadow form from their parents, and for the generations for whom it is as distant as the Revolution. It taps the well of memory.
I lost track of Sammy a long time ago. I wonder if he’s been watching.