Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 2, 2007

Ruminations on WWII

Filed under: Film,war — louisproyect @ 8:37 pm

UPDATE: Apparently, Ken Burns justifies the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Just around the time I watched Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” I decided to take in as much of Ken Burns’s PBS series on WWII titled “The War” as I could bear. As should be obvious from my review of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” I am no fan of WWII nostalgia.

Ken Burns

Turning first to Ken Burns, I must add that I not a fan of his work in general. I found his PBS series on Jazz to be problematic as well. All in all, I find that his documentaries tend to wrap their subjects in a kind of hagiographic gauze. Whether he is dealing with Duke Ellington or some marine who killed a bunch of Japs (as the interviewees are wont to say), you feel as if you are being introduced to a demigod. “The War” is co-produced by Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein, the daughter of Bard College President Leon Botstein, who also worked on “Jazz.”

I managed to watch most of three episodes of “The War”. It is a mixed bag, with the kind of hero worship found in “Band of Brothers” but focused on ordinary soldiers rather than the top generals. It also describes WWII as a cataclysm rather than a glorious adventure. Finally, it zeros in on the racism directed at Black and Japanese-American soldiers.

When the highly respected Black historian John Hope Franklin went to enlist, he found out that he would not be treated on a par with white soldiers, he had the following reaction:

I went down to the recruiting office, the Navy and volunteered. I volunteered in response to the call that they made specifically for men to man the offices. The young recruiter for the navy said, ‘What can you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I can run an office. I can type. I can take shorthand if that’s needed.’ I said, ‘And, oh, yes, I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.’ And I wondered what he was gonna say. He said, ‘You have everything but color.’ And I said, ‘Well, I thought there was an emergency, but obviously there’s not, so I bid you a good day.’ And I vowed that day that they would not get me, because they did not deserve me. If I was able — physically, mentally, every other kind of way, able and willing to serve my country — and my country turned me down on the basis of color, then my country did not deserve me. And I vowed then that they would not get me.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who lost his right arm during WWII, describes the prejudice that he had to put up with: “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an] enemy alien. “And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.” Meanwhile other Japanese-Americans joined the army straight out of the concentration camps they and their families had been herded into.

(Originally, Burns only had plans to tell the stories of the African-American and Nisei minorities. When word filtered out to the Latino community, there was a hue and cry. The final version of “The War” does include testimony from Latinos.)

Episode one is titled “A Necessary War” and is probably the most repugnant in the entire series. It is focused on the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and is filled with all sorts of really ugly characterizations about the Japanese. In keeping with the almost total refusal to engage with the historical causes of WWII, the program guide states:

For most Americans finally beginning to recover from the Great Depression, the events overseas seem impossibly far away. But on December 7, 1941, their tranquil lives are shattered by the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America is thrust into the greatest cataclysm in history.

Well, the attack on Pearl Harbor might have been a shock to the average American but not to the corporate elite and military brass who understood that the Japanese had almost no alternative except to go to war after the US decided to put a stranglehold on oil. Then, as now, oil had a way of making nations go to war.

If Burns was following convention in describing Pearl Harbor as a bolt from the blue, there are alternative interpretations. Chapter four of Michael Zezima’s “Saving Private Power: the hidden history of ‘The Good War'” targets the myth that “The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise”:

The build-up to Pearl Harbor began two decades prior to the attack when, in 1922, the U.S., Britain, and Japan agreed that the Japanese navy would not be allowed more than 60 percent of the capital ship tonnage of the other two powers. As resentment grew within Japan over this decidedly inequitable agreement, that same year the United States Supreme Court declared Japanese immigrants ineligible for American citizenship. This decision was followed a year later by the Supreme Court upholding a California and Washington ruling denying Japanese the right to own property. A third judicial strike was dealt in 1924 with the Exclusion Act which virtually banned all Asian immigration. Finally, in 1930, when the London Naval Treaty denied Japan naval hegemony in its own waters, the groundwork for war (and “surprise attacks”) had been laid.

Upon realizing that Japan textiles were outproducing Lancashire mills, the British Empire (including India, Australia, Burma, etc.) raised the tariff on Japanese exports by 25 percent.

Within a few years, the Dutch followed suit in Indonesia and the West Indies, with the U.S. (in Cuba and the Philippines) not far behind. This led to the Japanese (correctly) claiming encirclement by the “ABCD” (American, British, Chinese, and Dutch) powers.

Such moves, combined with Japan’s expanding colonial designs, says Kenneth C. Davis, made “a clash between Japan and the United States and the other Western nations over control of the economy and resources of the Far East and Pacific…bound to happen.”

Burns not only leaves out these dimensions, he treats the Philippines practically as American territory–which, come to think of it, it was. The episode guide states that two interviewees, Corporal Glenn Frazier and Sascha Weinzheimer, are “caught up in the Japanese onslaught there, as American and Filipino forces retreat onto Bataan while thousands of civilians are rounded up and imprisoned in Manila.” The PBS website describes Weinszheimer as follows:

Sascha Weinzheimer was born February 7, 1933. The daughter and granddaughter of wealthy planters with extensive holdings in California and the Philippines, she lived with her sister and brother, father and mother, uncle, aunt and cousins on a vast sugar plantation in Canlubang, Laguna Province, on the island of Luzon, an hour and a half from Manila.

Her reaction to the Japanese conquest of the Philippines and her subsequent loss of the family plantation reminded me eerily of “Gone with the Wind.”

But Ken Burns is not interested in trying to figure out what caused the war. His goal is to mine the stories of hitherto obscure fighting men and their wives and lovers for personal drama. The war becomes a kind of rite of passage in which young men become adults. You are initiated by killing Nazis or “Japs” rather than enduring tribal scars or some other test of your manhood. This seems like an awful waste considering the cost in life and treasure.

When Burns was interviewed by Fox News, he tried to draw comparisons between WWII and the current war in Iraq. He said that he was not interested in making a political statement about the first war, but did note that there was a sense of national unity then that cannot be found today. As he put it, we were all in the same boat and all the oars were moving in the same direction in WWII. Whatever Ken Burns’s attitude toward the war in Iraq, there is no doubt that “The War” will reinforce all the worst prejudices in American society. If the US had a right to control resources in Asia in the name of democracy against “evil dictators”, why should it not have the same right today?

Clint Eastwood

Comparisons between WWII and Iraq were also inevitable after Clint Eastwood came out with “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”. The first film was interpreted as an attack on the lies surrounding the invasion of Iraq. Three Marines who were photographed hoisting the flag on Mount Suribachi turned out to have been involved in a staged presentation that was deemed more effective for propaganda purposes. When they went around the country promoting war bonds, they began to resent being exploited. Newsweek connected the dots:

Watching Eastwood’s harrowing film, which raises pointed questions about how heroes, and wars, are packaged and sold, it’s hard not to think his movie is a commentary on today. Images of Jessica Lynch pop into your brain. And when Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), the unit’s leader, is killed by friendly fire, your thoughts turn to Pat Tillman, the ex-football star whose death was initially rewritten to suit the mythical role the military, and the media, had decided he must play. “When people ask me if this movie is applicable to today,” Eastwood told NEWSWEEK, “I say, ‘Well, you know, everything is …Everyone’s distorting things, just as they distorted them then’.”

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is also a departure for a director once associated with the Republican Party in Hollywood, alongside John Wayne, Charlton Heston and other such luminaries. It takes the same battle that is depicted in “Flags of Our Fathers” but makes the Japanese the protagonists. Not only that, there is a key scene in which American marines kill a couple of Japanese prisoners since they feel that escorting them would be too much of a burden. It takes a considerable amount of nerve to describe this kind of brutality since it goes against the grain of traditional accounts of American behavior during the war, at least in a literature that excludes Howard Zinn or Michael Zezima.

However, I could not help but think that this is a bit like trying to break down an open door in some ways. Despite a spasm of anti-Japanese hysteria in the 1980s, when the American auto industry began to decline under the impact of Toyota and Datsun imports, the image of the sneaky Jap belongs much more to the immediate postwar era. By the 1960s, Japan was considered a staunch ally of the US and exemplified “our values.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Clint Eastwood or some other Hollywood mover and shaker decided to make a movie from the point of view of the Vietnamese? Even though the Cold War has pretty much collapsed, there is still residual hatred directed toward the Vietnamese. Since “Letters from Iwo Jima” takes place mainly in caves, the same technical experts could work on a production of a film based on Tom Mangold’s “The Tunnels of Cu Chi,” an absolutely riveting account of how the NLF fought from tunnels dug deep beneath the ground. For years at a time, men and women combatants only saw daylight when it was time to engage the American enemy. A NY Times review of Mangold’s book states:

Nothing more fetid could be imagined. Penetrating the Cu Chi tunnels was like traversing the pit below a latrine. There were water baffles, like those of a flush toilet (to prevent the spread of chemical gases). Filled with human detritus, the baffle had to be passed by the tunnel rat. Tunnels were back-angled with V-twists, trapdoors (tension-balanced to hand grenades) often stacked with decaying bodies (the Vietnamese tried to recover all wounded and dead to confuse American body counts). Scorpions and poisonous insects infested the walls.

Air in these chambers was often too foul to breathe. The Americans tried to pump the tunnels full of chemical irritants, but the gases sometimes proved fatal in the close confines. Dynamite blasted the tunnels and bulldozers plowed them up. Casualties on both sides were heavy. But again and again, a few Vietnamese with tin bowls and pans gouged out new tunnels.

And if the Vietnamese are not sufficiently evil, there are always the Iraqi Sunnis who can provide a challenge to the plucky film-maker. I am sure that Paramount or Universal Studios would be happy to pony up 20 or 30 million dollars for a movie that is from the point of view of somebody who fights with Fida’iyyi Saddam (Saddam’s Martyrs) or similar groups.

Jacob Proyect

Thinking about all this prompted me to go through my father’s WWII memorabilia that is stored in an old Goetz Country Club beer box that I inherited after his death in 1970, along with some underwear. My father was like one of the characters interviewed by Ken Burns, but probably would have turned down the opportunity to talk about his experiences. He was lucky to get out of the war without any serious wounds or even getting killed, considering the action he saw. Like the veterans of other wars, the only scars appeared to be mental.

My father’s Bronze Star

Looking at my father’s honorable discharge for the first time ever, I see that he was awarded four bronze stars for participating in campaigns in the Rhineland, Ardennes, Central Europe and Southern France. I could only find one bronze star in the box and that was from the Battle of the Bulge. The citation states:

For Heroic Achievement

Bronze Star Medal

is awarded to

Staff Sergeant Jacob Proyect, 32 048 069

S/Sgt Jacob Proyect, 32 048 069, Hq Hq Co 3d Tank Bn, U.S. Army. For heroic achievement against an enemy of the United States in Belgium on December 19th, 1944.

During the siege of Bastogne, Belgium S/Sgt Proyect, a mess sergeant, traveled several miles of infested enemy territory over a route being fired on by heavy artillery, mortar and automatic-weapons to deliver water to a unit that was surrounded. After distributing the water he volunteered to evacuate a wounded officer over the same route to Monte, Belgium. Both missions were successfully completed. The outstanding courage and personal concern for the comfort of his comrades in arms reflects great credit upon himself and the military forces of the United States.

Everything went downhill for my father a few years after returning from the battlefields of Europe. He met my mother in early 1944 when he was staying at her mother’s house in Kansas City, Missouri. She used to put up Jewish soldiers over the weekend and provide a kosher meal. My mother fell in love with his uniform and married him without delay, just like the people interviewed in Ken Burns’s film. Unlike them, they were not really a match and the marriage went sour in no time at all. I had the misfortune of being born while he was in Europe and having reached the age of six months by the time he returned. As has been noted by some psychologists, it is very difficult for fathers to bond with their children if there is this kind of time lapse. In my case, it was especially difficult because I was far too brainy and far too neurotic for his tastes. Over the 25 years that I knew him, I doubt that more than several hours were spent in conversation.

If he had lived longer, I would have developed a different kind of relationship with him as I became older and more self-confident. I would have loved to talk to him about the war, especially in light of the memorabilia that he considered important, including a newspaper photo of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. It is contained in a scrapbook along with clippings about the progress of the war in Europe, as well as the Charter of the United Nations.

In a letter to my mother from Paris that contains a smidgen of French mud, he writes that the people “were sick and tired of the Boschies but not all Frenchmen are friendly.” He has come across “batches of them that I’d hate to trust as friends of the allies–they look hate and distrust at us.” In Ken Burns’s film, all the French are seen greeting the Americans like the Iraqis were supposed to–according to Dick Cheney’s interpretation of the world. I am sure that my father was running into the reality of Vichy France, a regime that reflected the French bourgeoisie’s ambivalence toward Nazism. However bad the Germans were, they could never be as bad as the Bolshies.

Like other members of the “greatest generation,” my father regarded life in the 1950s as a gift from heaven. There was enough peace and prosperity to compensate for a loveless marriage and a peculiar bookish son. As the 1960s wore on, he became less and less happy about the way things had turned out. His modest little fruit store was being crushed by the supermarket and the Catskill Mountains were no longer attracting the Jewish masses from New York.

I wonder now what he would make of American society, with its ceaseless wars, obscene class differences and racial animosity. Probably he would have remained silent since he had too much invested in blood to challenge the prevailing mythos. If there is anything I have inherited from him, it is a stubborn independence. That quality has allowed me to continue on my quixotic path for the past 40 years or so. That inheritance is worth a lot more to me than WWII memorabilia and some underwear.


  1. Louis,

    That’s quite a post, meandering as it does into your family history.
    Thanks for connecting a personal story with public history- good writing
    and really quite moving.

    Comment by Clifford — October 2, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

  2. Louis

    I don’t know how much truth there is in the story but I read once that Churchill had advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbour attack but chose to say nothing, desperate as he was for the US to get involved in the war.

    Paradoxically, although there was naturally a surfeit of WW2 films in the late 40s and 50s here in Britain as well, WW1 (still popularly referred to as the Great War) had a much more profound effect on British society – well kept war memorials from that era in countless towns and villages are testimony to that. It’s still a widespread belief amongst all levels of society that the Great War was a pointless exercise in mass slaughter. That belief contributes to the pacifism that certainly drives large sections of anti-Iraq war sentiment.

    Comment by Doug — October 3, 2007 @ 9:28 am

  3. Louis,

    Hope you live for 80 more years or so. Your writings is tremendous important and I’m impressed of your ability to analyse the relations between the abstract and the concrete.

    Comment by Rolf — October 3, 2007 @ 6:38 pm

  4. Boche is French slang, it’s English equivalent would be something along the lines of kraut.

    Comment by Michel — October 3, 2007 @ 7:45 pm

  5. Re “Burns … treats the Philippines practically as American territory–which, come to think of it, it was.”

    You bet! As a minor footnote to history: I’ve always been intrigued by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s gold-braid-encrusted khaki officers cap; it’s like no headgear I’ve seen on the head of any other US Army officer … however pretentious. Well, it turns out this brass hat *isn’t* of US issue at all. It was one given to MacArthur in his capacity as Field Marshal of the Philippine Army – the perfect assignment for such an imperial popinjay. There’s a photo of a replica of the cap here:

    Wikipedia describes MacArthur’s tenure as Philippine Field Marshall as follows (btw, MacArthur’s old man, Brig. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, Jr., was senior US commander during the atrocity-filled US occupation of the Philippines in the early 1900s and was appointed the Philippines military governor by William McKinley):

    Field Marshal of the Philippine Army

    When the Commonwealth of the Philippines achieved semi-independent status in 1935, President of the Philippines Manuel L. Quezon asked [Douglas] MacArthur to supervise the creation of a Philippine Army. As a general, MacArthur elected not to retire [from the US Army] and remained on the active list as a major general, and with Roosevelt’s approval MacArthur accepted the assignment. MacArthur had been friends with Quezon when his father was Governor General. MacArthur was given the rank of “Field Marshal of the Philippine Army” (and is the senior officer on the rolls of the Philippine Army today — he is also the only American military officer to hold the rank of field marshal).

    Among MacArthur’s assistants as Military Adviser to the Commonwealth of the Philippines was Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Some years later, Eisenhower was asked if he knew MacArthur. He replied, “Know him? I studied dramatics under him for seven years!” MacArthur retorted that Eisenhower was the “Best clerk he ever had”.)

    When MacArthur retired from the U.S. Army in 1937, his rank for retirement purposes again became that of a general, and he was made a Field Marshal of the Philippine Army by President Quezon. In July 1941 Roosevelt recalled him to active duty in the U.S. Army as a major general and named him commander of United States Armed Forces in the Far East promoting him to a lieutenant general the following day. In December, he became a four star general yet again when the Japanese attacked across a wide front in the Pacific.

    Comment by Carl Remick — October 3, 2007 @ 8:09 pm

  6. I just got back from petitioning with my 80 year old Dad to make him a local committeeman of the Illinois Green Party. Dad joined the army in 1945 to get away from a crazy home situation and ended up going to Japan as part of the occupation army. He was a photographer, a pretty good one, for the Tokyo War Crimes trials and took other photos of (devastated) Japanese civilian life at the time. We’re just completing the process of donating them to the Japanese Diet, which I comfort myself by knowing that the Japanese Communist Party has a significant presence in. The Japanese Diet Library is very excited to receive them, having little documentation from that time.

    He was also a mature adult at the time of the Vietnam War working as a researcher for Johnson’s War on Poverty. He later said that because of Vietnam and the lies told there and the subsequent destruction of butter by guns, that Johnson’s bones should have been dug up and thrown on the dung heap, like French Revolutionaries? did with their enemies.

    I like to say that my parent’s experiences with the U.S. government inspired me to become a truck driver.

    Comment by Alex Briscoe — October 4, 2007 @ 2:32 am

  7. While, undeniably, the US and other Western countries were putting pressure on Japan with the obvious implication that Japan should either surrender or go to war, and while the US were certainly reading Japan’s mail via the “Purple” code and probably knew that they were going to go to war rather than surrender, and that was bad —

    Still, I can’t help but feel that in World War II, the good guys won. Consider what life would be like now if the Axis had indeed succeeded, the Nazis had exterminated most of the population of Eastern Europe and the Japanese turned China and India into colonies — to say nothing of what the Italians were up to in North Africa — no, I can’t think of any counterfactual in recent history that would have been worse than that.

    Comment by MFB — October 4, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  8. Great post.

    Ken Burns’ treatment of WWII is crap politically but he does address a lot of the “warts” that 95% of mainstream accounts ignore or downplay, i.e. racism, internment camps, the destructiveness of American fire-bombing, and the ridiculously futile missions that defenseless bombers were sent on against the Luftwaffe.

    Comment by Binh — October 4, 2007 @ 4:21 pm

  9. I’m sorry that your relationship with your father has apparently soured your view of history and the sacrifice made by millions of people during the Second World War. Yes, in a vast, world-wide conflict like the 2nd World War, there will be many layers. But the truth is Japan and Germany were the bad guys. It’s surprisingly as simple as that. Japan was under an embargo due to their brutal expansionism and horrendous atrocities in Asia. (The Japanese tend to skip that part and jump ahead to “we were forced to attack Pearl Harbor due to the unfair embargoes!”)

    Ken Burns’ style in “The War” may be a simplistic view of when there actually were simple answers to hard questions, but war IS hell, and the hard questions have less and less simple answers as wars are constantly fought for the wrong reasons. But in World War Two, noxiously bad humans — in Germany and Japan — had to be wiped off the face of the Earth and in “The War,” you see the boys and girls who had to do it.

    Comment by May — October 6, 2007 @ 3:03 am

  10. ”the ridiculously futile missions that defenseless bombers were sent on against the Luftwaffe”

    If you are referring to the bombing raids in the Spring of 1944, these were quite successful in one of their major purposes, namely to reduce the Luftwaffe fighter capacity in advance of the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944. The bombers weren’t all that defenseless (they did not call the B-17 the “flying fortress” for nothing), and, if I recall what I have read correctly, by that time there were fighter planes that could fly with them. Quite a number of ME-109’s and the like were shot down during those bomber raids, and the allies had full command of the air over the invasion beaches on D-Day.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — October 8, 2007 @ 1:59 am

  11. […] frenzy when it comes to the Japanese, whose image was softened considerably by Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, a movie that had the temerity to treat them as not much different than the Americans bent on […]

    Pingback by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s “The Pacific” « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 15, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

  12. Well done. I enjoyed your article. The bottom line is that we are fed a steady diet of white-washed half-truths about WW2 in order to keep us ‘on side’ with such nationalistic and imperialistic projects today.

    Further to your points above, I have always found it interesting how WW1 and WW2 are compared in popular histories and media. WW1 is viewed as a war of rival imperialisms and thus a tragedy for ever having been fought, while WW2 is described as the last ‘good war’, justifying the slaughter of millions. A side-by-side comparison of the two conflicts, and the genesis of each, hardly suffers such an interpretation. WW2, as you aptly right above, was directly attributable to expanding and rival national interests around the globe.

    Comment by Scott Jack — April 15, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

  13. clint eastwood could never act. He is a bumb

    Comment by Bill — September 18, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

  14. An excellent piece of work, Louis. Thanks for sharing it. My father and a great-uncle shared some of the same experiences in some of the same parts of France. My great-uncle is buried in the American Cemetery just outside St. Avold, France.

    Comment by Mark Lause — November 12, 2013 @ 3:46 am

  15. […] through my father’s WWII memorabilia for the first time in 11 years when I wrote “Ruminations on WWII” triggered by the Ken Burns PBS documentary, I reread the commendation that went along with the […]

    Pingback by Memorial Day 2018 | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 28, 2018 @ 11:17 pm

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