I've watched two episodes of Ken Burns' "The War." I don't think I'll watch any more. It was young men of my generation who fought those battles. The kids killed on Guadalcanal or storming Monte Cassino were only a couple years older than I was. Nor will I read the late David Halberstam's book The Coldest Winter about Korea. My friends died in that winter cold. War is inherently ugly, destructive, horrible. The lives of young men are cut short. Parents, spouses, friends, children are marked for life by the losses they suffered. It is astonishing that despite the four wars of the last half century, we Americans do not remember the horror. Instead we blunder into new wars, blithely confident that it will be easy, short and almost bloodless. We are always mistaken. Perhaps we don't want to remember.
The TV critic of the Wall Street Journal (a newspaper that never saw a war that it didn't like including a possible war with Iran) says that Burns is wrong. Americans know that "The War" was horrible, she said. They've seen all about it on the History Channel. Yeah, everyone watches the History Channel, don't they? If Americans remember how horrible the "good war" was, why do they continue to continue to support nutcase conflicts into which our leaders rush?
The only ones who remember how bad the "good war" was are those who fought in it or those who lived through it. It became real for me, a clueless 15-year-old, one night when I was praying in our local church. In semi-darkness, a young woman, maybe a half decade older than I, was kneeling in front of the gold star shrine, sobbing softly. Then she cried out in anguish, "Why didn't you take me instead of him!"
Dismayed, I got out of the church as quickly as I could, leaving behind a prayer to God, "You take care of her, I can't!" Since then I've often wondered what happened to that young woman -- and to the other young women who have lost the men they loved. Were those deaths necessary?
There is no question that the war that Burns so brilliantly brings back was necessary. However, even in necessary wars, stupid and evil things happen. Not all the killing is necessary, but it is in the nature of war that evil is often done in the name of good and the innocent suffer without reason. Inept and publicity-hungry commanders like Mark Clark and Douglas MacArthur make terrible mistakes. Civilians are killed randomly and recklessly as in the RAF night raids on German cities. Individual human life is cheap. Angry soldiers kill prisoners. Pilots kill parachutists. Americans drop atomic bombs. Killing other human beings becomes routine.
Obviously there is a subtext to the TV series: If that war was the most terrible ever and yet was necessary, what about the subsequent wars and the present war? It is, I suspect, the reason that the Journal's critic is so measured in her approval.
Why was it necessary to invade Iraq? Because they attacked us? But they did not. Most of the 9/11 killers were in fact Saudis. Because they had weapons that might kill us? It turns out that they did not. Why is it necessary to continue this pointless, never-ending war? For the sake of democracy in Iraq? For victory? Because the president says it's the "right thing" to do? So that a future president will be blamed for "weakness?"
And I think of that young woman in St. Angela Church in 1943 and of similar young women today and wonder why we don't have war crimes trials for unnecessary wars.