Last week, the History Channel had a five-night, 10-hour series, “WWII in HD.” My dad and I watched it together, as part of a bonding experience between the two of us and as fellow history nerds.
The series, if you haven’t seen it, is a must-see. Gary Sinise does the bulk of the narration, with 12 actors narrating for individuals whose stories have been singled out. The footage is mostly full-color, digitally restored for the presentation. The series also uses maps to illustrate the action, and interviews with some of the 12 featured individuals (those who are still alive). The people are fairly diverse — an Austrian Jew fighting for the U.S., a Tuskegee airman, a nurse, a Japanese-American who became a POW, a fighter pilot and a collection of Marines, Army recruits and naval soldiers.
My dad and I discussed the action and the tactics. A portion of my political science coursework in school was in the areas of military strategy and ethics, which allowed me to critically analyze and understand what was happening.
My dad said something to me during one of the programs that stuck with me.
“I’m proud of you for taking an interest in this. Most girls your age don’t care about this, or most guys, for that matter.”
That really made me think, about how there are people my age who don’t know what the Holocaust was, or Iwo Jima, or D-Day. I’m sure they’d be shocked and appalled to know that the American government herded American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps while fighting to free Jews, Gypsies, POWs and other political prisoners from the Nazis.
It’s also a bitter pill to swallow knowing that war-based video games are so popular (including among many of my friends), while the young people who play them are oblivious to war’s actual cost and the staggering amount of logistical detail necessary to win one. It’s also eye-opening to see outrage at a dozen or so American deaths in Afghanistan each month, when the casualty toll on any given island in the Pacific could be in the thousands. That’s not meant in any way to diminish the losses sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it does make me wonder if we’d have the iron will necessary to win WWII if it were fought again tomorrow. Of course there are differences in perceived legitimacy, goals and politics between those conflicts, but I don’t think Americans today would tolerate thousands of deaths in a two-week span, no matter how strong support for the engagement was.
I got emotionally invested in the series. When the sad fate of a few of the featured individuals was revealed — John Doe was killed in action — it actually hurt. I think this series would do great things when it came to teaching WWII in schools.
Studying war and military strategy as I have, I try my hardest not to glorify war, glamorize it or elevate it to some noble standard. I do believe in St. Augustine’s theory that there is such a thing as a Just War, and that WWII would be one such conflict. But seeing the death, tension, fear and misery in that old yet surprisingly crisp footage makes me think that, yes, war is hell, and it’s a hell people need to be aware of, lest they send men and women to their deaths too easily.