18 March 2011


We are only two generations removed from the conflagration of World War II. In 1939 Hitler's Nazi troops invaded Poland, beginning a campaign of brutal conquest with global intent. German visions of racial superiority and militarism, had they been realized, would have produced a vastly different cultural and moral landscape from the one we know today. It took six long years of bloodshed, courage and misery to prevent that hegemony from becoming permanent.

I just finished watching two superb series about that era. The first, Band of Brothers, re-enacts the actual exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division, from jump training through Germany's capitulation. This remarkable group of men endured fighting in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, and were the Allied troops who captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest retreat in the Bavarian Alps -- under conditions which were at times ghastly. Their participation in D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and the siege at Bastogne, in particular, was pivotal in turning the tide of the war.

Each episode begins with brief interviews with actual Easy Company veterans. These quiet, direct men (typical of World War II vets) lay no claim to heroism. They had a job to do, and they did it. Yet heroes they all were -- rising to the occasion in spite of overwhelming odds, confusion, fear, or the loss of friends. I do not use the word "hero" lightly -- it is much-abused these days.

Band of Brothers shows us the war from the microcosmic view of one group of men on the ground. The ensemble cast is excellent, and faithful to the actual soldiers they portray. It is an experience not to be missed.

In contrast, the Ken Burns documentary series The War, provides a more comprehensive overview, interlacing historical footage with interviews with those who lived through the war, both in the military and at home. The general focus is on the residents of four American towns -- Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. Burns' finely-crafted documentary style provides a different sort of drama from the more immediate, more personal Band of Brothers, yet it succeeds in involving the viewer deeply. Because The War proceeds chronologically, we get a sense of what events were happening simultaneously in different parts of the struggle -- in north Africa, in Europe, in the Pacific, and in the U.S. We learn of the irony imparted when our war against Nazi racism was waged at the same time that we ourselves indulged in racist behavior -- sending over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes to internment camps for the duration of the war -- segregating black soldiers, sailors, and airmen from their white counterparts -- all the time viewing ourselves as occupying the moral high ground. In many ways, we did. In others, not so much.

In addition to the history of those times, for me the most compelling aspect of The War was the interviews with present-day survivors, both those who went into battle and those who stayed at home. This is the generation of my parents, and I grew up steeped in the events and the lore of World War II. I see their faces, hear their voices, and discover a new window into their lives.

Both films deal powerfully with the fundamental result of Hitler's racist agenda -- the Holocaust. On yesterday's date in 1942, the first of a score of extermination camps began operation. Nazi genocide ultimately snuffing out the lives of 6 million Jews, 4 million Polish and Soviet prisoners, and 2 million gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents of the Nazi regime -- this, not even including the tens of millions of military and civilian casualties which resulted from the fighting itself. The death camp scenes from Band of Brothers in particular are harrowing, because you aren't viewing still photos. Rather, right along with the first U.S. soldiers on the scene, you are discovering the shocking, surreal, unimaginable horror of tens of thousands of living human beings reduced to skin and bone, and many more already dead and stacked like cordwood. It is impossible to experience this passage in our collective reality without crying deeply, deeply.

We are only two generations removed from the most barbarous act of genocide in human history. On a smaller scale, our wars and genocides, our sacrifices and degradations, our transcendance and redemption continue. Lest we forget.

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