The ‘good war’, a comfort feud

The crowd roared, their arms extended in salute. Others waved joyously red pennants. Behind them, crimson banners adorned with black swastikas. Before them, columns of men and vehicles. Then an open-top limousine passed, in it their poised leader. Decibels soared.

Both crowd and noise fade. An old man, whites and creases revealing his 90 years, peered out of his window. An interviewer probed his thoughts on the ‘Greatest Generation‘ – the Americans who grew up during the Depression and went on to fight the ‘good war’. The veteran said:

“…a boy from Mississippi, a farmboy; he was in the foxhole next to me. And out of nowhere through the mist came a bullet that hit him right in the head. And there was a kid who didn’t know anything. He’d never been away from the farm in Mississippi. He didn’t know where he was, what he did, why he was there.”

“Was he a part of the ‘Greatest Generation’? Yes. There was nothing great about him. Just a young boy who lost his life.”

So opens the History channel‘s latest revisit of the second world war, staking its claim as the definitive commemoration of noble American sacrifice. To what end did they give their blood, toil, tears and sweat? That we learn from opening sequence, as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, backed by rousing music and stirring footage, recited a prayer in his 1942 United Flag Day speech:

“Grant us a common faith that man shall know bread and peace, that he shall know justice and righteousness, freedom and security, an equal opportunity and an equal chance to do his best, not only in our own lands, but throughout the world.”

This is the popular (and popularised) memory celebrated in “WWII Lost Films“, which draws upon “more than 3,000 hours of film from archives and private collections across the globe, painstakingly restored to full colour in stunning high definition.” Quite the typical popular television history; it drips with signature commercial logic.

For a start, its original title was the banal “WWII in HD” – crude, but great for pulling consumerist America. The series’ other draw – hitherto unseen wartime footage – was picked to headline the international release – hence “WWII Lost Films”. To emphasise the novelty of watching wanton bloodshed in innumerable tiny coloured pixels, the channel rolled trite trailers hailing “eye-popping explosion[s]” and “dramatic images”, plus rave reviews like Premiumhollywood.com’s: “History gives you a new reason to buy a new TV: WWII in HD.”

Fancy dressings. But this pudding comes off rather stale in the eating.

American parochialism permeates the series. As mentioned, its 10 episodes focuses exclusively on Americans, recounting their experiences through voice acting and oral history. The narrator (Gary Sinise) even refers to US forces as “our” army/air force/navy/marines. Most egregiously, the original tagline had read: “Four years, twelve lives and a war that changed the world.” This they did correct in the international release, when they went for the conventional ‘six years’, although the Chinese probably preferred ‘eight’.

In fact, China would be delighted with any mention at all.

Like most popular histories, “WWII Lost Films” plums for conventional, uncontroversial wisdom. It is a tried and tested approach to apply a predominantly Western perspective. It makes sense for executives to focus on macro-scale histories to access the broadest possible market. It pays off in sales and ratings to produce and market a WWII documentary on eye-catching aesthetics.

The series thus has no room for local narratives – theatres of operation in which Americans did not feature significantly are gratuitously omitted (veterans of the 1st American Volunteer Group, aka the Flying Tigers, might complain). What of the numerous anti-imperalist, proto-nationalist struggles – the likes of the Indian National Army, Viet Minh, Filipino guerrillas and the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army? Too esoteric, too remote, too far removed from the popular Western discourse. They hide instead in the comforting, uncontroversial, and safe Western-centric metanarrative.

Consider this. The war in the Philippines was featured up to the American surrender in April 1942, before disappearing altogether. As the war dragged into late 1944, events on the archipelago abruptly returned to prominence, as did a certain General MacArthur. Coincidence?

Such failings, if we were charitable, might be excused for the vagaries of modernity – colour film was not terribly common in the 1940s, least of all on the fields of the Middle East, China, Indochina, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. But the industry’s track record would suggest the bias to be less of an oversight than a systemic, commercially driven, phenomenon.

The History channel isn’t alone with their 21st century retelling of this 20th century tragedy. Recent efforts by France 2 (“Apocalypse: The Second World War“) and the Discovery Channel (“World War Two in Colour and HD“) also bank heavily on their high definition, colourised bona fides to spice up well-worn grand narratives. These follow on from an earlier colour wave, headlined by the likes of ITV’s “The Second World War in Colour” (1999) and “Britain at War in Colour” (2000), the History channel’s “WWII: The Lost Color Archives” (2000), and PBS’s “The Perilous Fight: America’s World War II in Color“. None – partly given their broad scope – strayed far from the stolid, didactic Western-centric histories already proliferate in school textbooks.

Not that we should expect any less. Popular history appeals to, even reflects, public memory. As historian Richard Evans noted in “In Defence of History“:

“Public knowledge of the past – public memory in other words – has always been structured by influences other than professional historians, from folklore, myth and tradition to pulp fiction, broadsheets and the popular press.”[1]

In other words, public knowledge of the past is a noisy ecosystem of reflexivity. Sort of a Chomskyan propaganda echo chamber. So if you prefer something a little off the beaten track, dare I (or rather Evans) say it, try reading academic history, for:

“The thrust of professional history has more often been towards puncturing the cliches of popular historical myth than towards sustaining them.”[2]

Or try picking out more thoughtfully written, “boutique” documentaries. Unfortunately, albeit with notable exceptions, they aren’t particularly…riveting. Haven’t much in the manner of “eye-popping explosion[s]” and “dramatic images”, you see.

But for all its problems, the “WWII Lost Films” brand of American parochialism does have something to recommend it. While others documentaries sprinkle onto its main narrative bits and pieces of oral histories, “Lost Films” makes them its centrepiece, anchoring itself with the fortunes of 12 (extra)ordinary US veterans. Their backgrounds are fleshed out, emotions intimately documented and experiences honestly presented. You come to know them. They endear themselves to you. When the credits roll, you remember their names, their faces, their ordeals. So where others fail, “Lost Films” succeeds in turning the horror of modernity on its head – displacing the mass anonymity of total war with tangible individuality.

The result is a welcome departure from traditional political and military history. And an apropos package of sentimental guff, hitting small screens and shop shelves as quickly as the ‘Greatest Generation’ is disappearing. As noted in the series dénouement, “only 10 per cent of the Americans who served World War II are still alive today” (in 2009). If technological novelty and continued post-9/11 Western intellectual and moral malaise (ensuring an audience desirous of moral certitude) hadn’t already ticked the right boxes, the History channel could hardly pass up on assuaging this sense of impending loss, and push some DVDs boxsets into the bargain.


[1] Evans, Richard, In Defence of History (London: Granta Books, 1997), p. 207.
[2] Ibid.

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~ by spiegel2071 on July 5, 2010.

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