The Myths of World War II
Back in April, the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and the Public Broadcasting Service announced a collaborative initiative to collect war stories, which will include Ken Burns' new film, The War, slated to air on September 23.
Given Burns' masterful look back on the two best cultural gifts America has ever given the world -- jazz and baseball -- I'm looking forward to his soon-to-be-released documentary.
But when I checked the Veterans History Project home page, I got a little worried when I read: "Throughout 2007, PBS stations all over the country will be initiating outreach programs designed to raise awareness of World War II and the need for its veterans and civilian workers to tell their stories for the record."
Raise awareness of World War II? How could anyone in America who hasn't been in a coma since Tom Brokaw coined the term "Greatest Generation" not be aware of World War II?
Given the huge success and popularity of WWII movies like Saving Private Ryan and all of the World War II dominated national commemorations (Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Pearl Harbor Day etc.), how much more aware can people be?
Indeed, it's important for "veterans and civilian workers to tell their stories for the record" -- honest stories; not tales that perpetuate a war mythology that has blinded U.S. war planners ever since we won the "Good War."
One soldier's story I hope is represented in Burns' project is the kind offered by WWII vet Edward W. Wood Jr. in a book called Worshipping the Myths of World War II: Reflections on America's Dedication to War.
It's not too late to add it to your summer reading list -- and not just for history's sake but for the insight it provides into our present conflaguration.
"The philosophy of the way to fight terrorism or to halt rogue states from possessing the atomic bomb rests squarely on the four Myths of World War II," Wood writes, sure to raise the hackles of those who consider the prevailing mythology as sacred.
Wood's four myths: 1) The Good War. 2) The Greatest Generation. 3) We Won World War II Largely on Our Own. And 4), When Evil Lies in Others, War Is the Means to Justice."
The Good War myth is exposed as such by the historical record, testifying of the mass killing of innocents. What's good about that? A necessary war, perhaps. But "good?" That's sick.
The Greatest Generation myth is disproved, Wood argues, in considering that the same generation who defeated Nazi and Japanese imperialism "also helped defeat the hope for peace that swept the world at the end of World War II," largely through the telling of "heroic" stories while staying relatively silent about war's dark side, setting up future generations to experience similar horrors.
"The story told in the mainline media explains why it was so easy for America to accept the idea of a 'war on terror.' Once again, we would storm the beaches of Normandy ... (and) bomb the people of Japan. Our policies of preemption, our war with Iraq are rooted in a war now sixty years past. By believing the Myths of World War II as the truth of war we have but created another monstrosity, resembling our failure in Vietnam, another war that will only cripple those who fight it, harm our armed forces, erode our reputation throughout the world, and, this time, turn much of the world against us."
The We Won the War Largely on Our Own myth is much easier to lay bare when you consider the huge contributions of money and blood made by Russia and China. And finally, there's Wood's When Evil Lies in Others, War Is the Means to Justice myth. That's probably the most difficult myth to pierce, Wood acknowledges. Whether his argument questioning the way we think about "enemies" and international cooperation are ultimately convincing is in direct correlation with how familiar (and honest) the reader is with American history and its intimate relationship to "war and atrocities" -- the "gray area" beyond we're-the-good-guys-and-they're-the-bad-guys.
Wouldn't it be interesting to have an honest discussion about World War II, without all the myths? Come on, Ken. I'm counting on you. But, if we can't get it from Burns and PBS, there's always veterans like Wood, not so much interested in the myths but in the God's-honest-truth.
Editor's Note: Read more about the controversy with the Latino community surrounding Ken Burns' documentary here and here.