Staying Up To Watch ‘The War’

Susan Page
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Wednesday - October 03, 2007
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I’m waking up with bleary eyes and a foggy brain these mornings. Why? The War.

No, not the war in Iraq, Ken Burns’ The War, the PBS-aired series about World War II and the generation that fought it.

I will not miss a single frame even if, because of other commitments, I have to watch the late version at 10 p.m. and have tired mornings.

Burns, brilliant and provocative, has by coincidence or design released his latest, a depiction of World War II, the 20th century’s most cataclysmic occurrence, at the precise time we Americans most desperately need history lessons.

Surely all who have staked out different positions on the Global War on Terror can agree that we must learn from history - because our enemies do. And our enemies today have the same goal that Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had in 1941: domination or annihilation.

In The War, we see that in 1941 leaders of Japan and Germany were students of American culture - just as the radical Islamic terrorists are in 2007. Enemies of democracy, in which capitalism is intrinsic, see Americans as weak and preoccupied with self-fulfilling silliness, like earning money. In Imperial Japan, the merchant was two rungs lower than the Warrior (Samurai) Class, which was noble. What they saw in the U.S. was what they despised - weakness due to ignoble pursuits. Al Qaida attacked the World Trade Center to show its disdain for capitalism.

In The War, we see that both America and its soldiers were young, but grew up fast. If unlucky, the young men died in the sky, ocean, prison camp or desert, on a beach or a mountain ridge. Those who survived came home, got jobs and without fanfare pursued their dreams in a country that survived because of their toughness.

Ken Burns’ veterans, their loved ones, and homefront workers came from small towns across our land cut out of the patchwork cloth of American diversity: from Minnesota Norwegians and deep Southern Alabamans to families from Sacramento, Calif. to Waterford, Conn.

He shows those who fought for a country that denied them basic rights. Yet black Americans, Americans of Japanese ancestry like Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye (featured in the series), and new immigrants all fought with the same vigor and valor. They fought for different reasons: to prove loyalty or not to shame family or a country “that had done much for them,” as Inouye’s father told him before shipping out with the famous 442nd. Some AJAs even fought while their families remained behind barbed wire in detention centers. Some blacks fought because, though still treated like second-class citizens or worse, they believed in a future in which the Bill of Rights would prevail for their children and grandchildren. They fought for hope.

We see in The War that nobility didn’t lie in the act of war, depicted in all its brutality. Nobility was in soldiers’ devotion to one another, in protecting family from worry in cheery letters home, and simply in doing their duty. It was in how Americans back home united for the cause - with resolve, hard work, a remarkable spirit, patriotism, sacrifice and faith. Nobility was in their pursuit of life, liberty, happiness - even prosperity - in a country that would become leader of the free world.

In The War we see things were different in 1941. A “declared war” could restrict the press. It was 21 months before Americans saw a single photo of any of its dead soldiers. Information like how many ships were sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor wasn’t reported. A vast propaganda effort kept Americans motivated and united against the enemy. There were no blurred lines between treason and free speech. Giving comfort to the enemy in whatever form it took was undeniable treason punishable by death.

By watching The War it’s clear our enemies today have it easy. They can slip in and out of our country with impunity, use our own media reports as their propaganda, find comfort within our universities, benefit from a divided citizenry, and take heart that most Americans aren’t paying attention to their often and loudly stated mission to destroy them. In 1941, Imperial Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto feared his Pearl Harbor sneak attack had awakened “a sleeping giant.” Today’s men and women in uniform show radical Islamic terrorists the same “giant” resolve the Japanese awakened back then, but much of America has yet to hear the alarm go off.

I hope you will stay up and watch The War, too, even if the next morning you’re bleary-eyed. At least, thank God, you’ll be awake.

(Teachers, I hope you show The War to your students. I will buy the box set for the first history teacher who e-mails me.)

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