Thursday, April 10, 2014

The World At War

            Since it appears I’m unable to curtail my television viewing entirely, I’ve been trying to make it at least not a total waste of time by steering myself towards more towards historical documentaries than the normal vapid sitcoms (although I’ve been watching a lot of the latter as well).
            I had never heard of this series until a couple years ago, but apparently it’s quite famous in Britain, and whenever I had been talking about historical documentaries with British friends, this always ends up popping up in the conversation.  After about 4 or 5 people had recommended this series to me quite highly, I decided I might as well check it out.

            The DVD selection in Cambodia is not exhaustive (there are many documentaries I’d love to see, but have been unable to track down), but it is impressive, and I was able to find this DVD series  on one of the shops on the riverfront.

            This series was produced for British television back in 1974, but has aged remarkably well. 
            (That’s worth mentioning, because in my last review of a 1970s documentary series, I mentioned that the style of the documentary dated it somewhat.  But it’s funny how some stuff ages better than others.  I found The World at War to be indistinguishable from modern documentaries in everything from its pacing to its music to its narration.)

            The original series is 26 hours, but the DVD set includes another 9 hours of bonus episodes, plus featurettes on the making of the series, totaling around 40 hours. 
            I don’t usually consider myself a World War II nut.  I’m interested in World War II in the sense that I’m interested in all history, but I’m more interested in social, political, and biographical history, and less interested in military history.  (I know plenty of other history buffs whose only historical interest is World War II, but I’m not one of them.)  But I enjoyed this documentary.  The story telling qualities were quite good, the use of archival footage impressive, and I learned a number of new things. 

            I have a number of other thoughts, some about this documentary in particular, and some more philosophical in nature but inspired by this documentary.  I’ll deal with these in the subsequent sections.

Archival Footage
          This documentary was one of the most expensive shows ever produced for television—which is somewhat surprising considering all it consists of is interviews and archival footage.  But I suppose it’s easy to forget how labor intensive it must be to search through all the stored footage.
            Equally surprising is how much footage there is of World War II.
            I had seen World War II footage before of course on other various documentaries.  (We all have.)  But I had always assumed that a lot of it was either reconstructed or just generic battle footage that was applied to all situations.  I didn’t think the news cameras were actually filming at all the battles.
            It turns out though that the news cameras were actually filming just about everywhere.  (Although some of the British and Russian news footage was actually reconstructed after the events for the purposes of newsreels—the “Making of” featurettes talked a little about how they sorted through authentic and inauthentic footage.)
            Much of the authentic footage was without sound.  The sound equipment back in those days was very bulky, and most of the footage was filmed for the purposes of being used in newsreels, in which dramatic music would be laid over the footage anyway. 
            So, this means that most of the time when you’re watching old World War II footage, those classic sounds of airplanes diving and guns firing were all added later.
            A brief making of feature at the beginning of the DVD gave some interesting background information to the documentary, and they claim that they only used actual footage (not reconstructed footage) and that only footage from the particular battle was used to illustrate that battle.  It’s impressive how much footage they were able to put together considering these constraints.

            All that being said, if I had to make a complaint about this documentary series, it would be that there was too much archival footage.
            I know that’s an odd thing to complain about.  A history geek like me should be salivating over all the authentic footage used in this documentary, but I was more interested in the story and the narration, and began to regard the long stretches of authentic footage, unaccompanied by narration, as simply long breaks in the story.  I also quickly tired of seeing so much footage of battle after battle, much of which just started to look the same to me after a while.  (Part of this no doubt is because I “binged-watched” all 26 hours of this documentary in a few short weeks.  It was originally intended to be 26 episodes broadcast over 26 weeks.)
            I wouldn’t have minded all the archival footage if the narrator had continued to tell me interesting things while the footage was playing, but all too often the story would simply stop for 5 minutes or so while I just listened to the rat-a-tat of guns and the vrrooomms of airplanes while watching repetitive images of airplanes diving and guns firing.
            (In the “Making of” Featurette, someone said that this series was produced during a time when film documentary makers had an “almost messianic faith in the power of the image alone to tell the story”, and that documentary styles have since changed, so that if this documentary had been made today, it probably would be more heavy on the narration and less heavy on the archival footage.)

Scope of the Project
          The 26 hour documentary has the feeling of being comprehensive.  (That feeling is somewhat aided by the God-like voice of the narrator.)  But, as the filmmakers admit in the “Making of” featurette, they’re actually only just scratching the surface.
            In the “Making of” featurette, the filmmakers somewhat apologetically list all the campaigns and areas of the world that they simply didn’t have time to include, before concluding: “We realize how much we’ve left out, and we hope you realize how much we’ve left out.”
            Nevertheless, much of what they did include was very interesting.
            The decision was made to include both the military and social aspects of the War, and to give one episode to describing conditions in an occupied country in Europe, specifically the Netherlands.  (I’ll write about that in the next section.)

            The fact that this was a British television production, and not American, was occasionally evident in their choice of focus.  The fall of Singapore got more attention than the attack on Pearl Harbor.  But I didn’t mind this.  Having been inundated with the American perspective growing up, it was interesting to see how the British viewed the war.

Holland in the War
            The episode on the Netherlands was especially interesting to me, partly because I’m of Dutch descent, and partly because it’s one of those aspects of World War II that doesn’t usually get a lot of coverage.  Despite being of Dutch descent, I have very little knowledge of Dutch history, and before watching this DVD, I had only the vaguest ideas of what Holland’s role in the war was, or how they reacted to Nazi Germany.  Now I feel I understand it a lot better.

            I was recently talking to an Australian who was also of Dutch descent, and he was explaining to me how the Netherlands is actually a very divided country.  “When the Nazis came in,” he told me, “half of the Dutch resisted them, but the other half welcomed them with open arms, and thought the Nazi program was great.” 
            The division of Dutch society during World War II was reflected in this documentary much like my Australian friend described it.

The Nazis—Shockingly Evil!
          I know I’m not the first person to arrive at this observation, but it’s incredible how evil the Nazis were.
            The Holocaust is the main thing everyone remembers, but even excluding the Holocaust, the Nazis acted with shocking barbarity in every country they occupied.  They brutally crushed rebellions in Yugoslavia.  They used starvation as a weapon in Holland against millions of people.  In Slavic countries like the Ukraine, they either massacred the villagers or used them as forced labor.  When frustrated by the Russian army, they took their frustration out on the Russian peasants, whom they also massacred.  They took horrific revenge in Poland after an uprising in Warsaw, and responded by razing the whole city of Warsaw to the ground.  (An act of revenge which seems especially pointless because at that stage they must have known they were about to lose Warsaw to the Russian army anyway).   The World at War documentary begins and ends by recounting an incident when the Nazi soldiers systematically killed everyone in a whole village in France (for no apparent reason). 
            This was not, of course, my first time learning that the Nazis were no good.  I had learned a lot of this in high school and college history courses, but a lot of this information had since moved to the back of my brain, and I hadn’t actively been thinking about it recently.  This documentary moved these atrocities back to the front of my brain, and I was again shocked by how evil the Nazis actually were.
            It’s especially difficult to account for when you consider that this took place right in the heart of Western Civilization.  No doubt similar atrocities took place during the barbarian invasions of ancient Rome, but the fact that the Germanic countries had been for centuries the intellectual center of the Protestantism makes it all the more difficult to account for the mindless barbarism.

World War II and the Problem of Pacifism
          In my younger days, when I was still trying to sort out my politics, I was unsure if principled pacifism was a realistic world view to have. 
            In November 1999 I was travelling to the School of the America’s protest with a group from Calvin College and a few older activists who were mentoring our group, including a member of the Michigan Peace Team—an organization dedicated to principled pacifism.
            I explained to him that I was attracted to pacifism, but had difficulty in defending the idea when people brought up World War II.  He was used to being asked this question, and had an answer all prepared.  He gave me a detailed analysis about how it would have been possible to defeat the Nazis using non-violent resistance, and I’ve since then co-opted his analysis as my own.
            After watching this documentary, however, I’m having second thoughts. 
            The Nazis brutally put down any resistance they encountered, whether violent or non-violent.
            In the Netherlands, the Nazis responded to non-violent resistance by simply just diverting the food, and starving millions of Dutch people. 
            In many wars, forced annexation of one country by another has meant little more than a change in masters for ordinary people.  But this was not the case for the Nazis.  In Slavic countries, the Nazis used the native inhabitants as slave labor.

            In short, it seems hard to imagine any other appropriate response to the Nazi invasions than a violent counter-reaction.

            There is a rub though.  And the rub is that if World War II presents a problem for pacifists, it presents a problem equally great for Just War theorists.
            From this documentary, one gets the impression that civilization barely survived the destruction of World War II.  The result of all out total warfare on a mechanized scale meant that much of Europe’s and Asia’s cities were just completely destroyed.
            Given the advances in destructive capabilities since 1945, I don’t think civilization could survive World War III.  If we ever again had a total war on a world scale, there would just be nothing left at the end of it.
            Even assuming that somehow all sides were smart enough not to use nuclear weapons, conventional bombs alone would be able to completely wipe out all the major cities of any country in the war (as they did during World War II).

            There have of course been examples of total war since World War II (in the Vietnam War, more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were dropped by all sides in World War II combined), but all of these post-World War examples have occurred when one side was unable to respond in kind.  If we ever got into another situation where two or more superpowers went to war, as in World War II, it would be disastrous.

            So, if pacifism doesn’t work, and the Just War theory is no longer an option, basically we just better hope that the world never, ever, again gets into a situation which resembles 1939.  (The pessimistic side of me is worried that, like the thousand monkeys on the typewriter (W), given an infinity of future time it’s an inevitability that sooner or later another 1939 will occur.  But at least we’ve managed to avoid it for the past 70 years.)

The Sins of the Allies
          I think it’s pretty well established that the Nazis were pure evil.
            But even if the Nazis were pure evil, I’m not sure that de facto means that the Allies were pure good.  I had a Calvin College professor who, as a preface to his lecture about the American fire-bombing of Japanese cities told us: “You have been brought up to view World War II as a struggle of pure evil against pure good. I want you to try to see the War instead as incredible evil on both sides.”
            The Russian Army was just as brutal as the Nazi Army in their sweep across Europe (something which was included in the documentary.)  Churchill was just as concerned about preserving the British Empire as he was about defeating Hitler (something that was not included in the documentary.)
            But perhaps the biggest reason that neither side in World War II can lay claim to moral superiority is that both sides practiced total warfare against civilian populations in the bombing of cities. 
            Although the atomic bombs get all the press, more civilians were killed in the firebombing of cities that preceded the atomic bombs.
            Not that this justifies the atomic bombs at all.
            I personally have been greatly influenced by Howard Zinn’s account of the atomic bombs  [LINK HERE] since I discovered it several years ago, and which told me any number of things I was never told in schools—like the fact that prior to the atomic bombings the Japanese government was trying to find surrender, and had even approached the Soviet Union to act as an intermediary in negotiating a surrender, and that the United States government knew all this because we had long ago broken the Japanese codes, and we went ahead and dropped the atomic bombs anyway.
            But inside the United States, this is information one rarely hears outside of marginal figures like Howard Zinn.
            I was therefore surprised to find that all of this information was included in The World at War, which fully acknowledged all of the above.  Somewhat surprisingly, however, they interviewed several U.S. government officials who acknowledged that the Japanese had been trying to surrender, but said that the dropping of the atomic bomb was still justified because it probably shortened the length of the war by several days, and anytime you have the opportunity to shorten the war you should take it.
            This seemed to me to be an utterly indefensible view, but it was not challenged in the documentary.

The Problem of Evil
          I’m going to go on a little bit of a digression here, and mix in a quote from something completely unrelated that’s another one of my reading projects.
            I’m currently reading The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, (which I’ll get around to reviewing on this blog eventually.)
            When discussing the problem of Hell, Lee Strobel argues that Hell isn’t a place where God is actively torturing people, but simply a place where God removes his presence, and leaves human beings to their own devices.  To quote from that section
            …if God took his hands off this fallen world so that there were no restraint on human wickedness, we would make hell.  Thus if you allow a whole lot of sinners to live somewhere in a confined place where they’re not doing damage to anyone but themselves, what do you get but hell?  There’s a sense in which they’re doing it to themselves, and it’s what they want because they still don’t repent.
(The Case for Christ page 165).
            The implication then is that God is currently acting as a restraint on human wickedness, but it would get a lot worse if God were to remove that restraint.
            After watching this documentary, I’m at somewhat at a loss to imagine how human wickedness could get any worse than it is now.
            To be fair, there are numerous other ways that Christians could attempt to account for the problem of evil in the world.  You could argue that after God created the world, he then removed his influence and left humans to themselves.  Or you could argue, as my 12th grade Bible teacher did, that it’s unfair to blame God for the evil we humans do to each other—and that’s probably fair enough.
            But it’s clear to me that what you can not do is try to argue that God is in anyway moderating or restraining human evil, (or argue that things would get worse if God wasn’t around to restrain human wickedness.)  Because then you would have a quite a problem accounting for everything that happened during World War II, and asking why God let this happen.
            In The World at War, the idea that we seem to be living in a world which God has abandoned is brought to the forefront in the episode on the Holocaust.  One of the Holocaust survivors recounts the screams of the woman and the children as they were being gassed, and he says, “To this day, I still don’t understand how God couldn’t hear those screams.”
            In the same episode, another Holocaust survivor remembers a rabbi among the crowd of people who were being pushed into the gas chamber.  The rabbi lifted his head to heaven and cried, “God, this goes against everything you stand for.  Stop this.”  When nothing happened, the rabbi reportedly then exclaimed, “There is no God!”
            (Incidentally, World War II is not the only historical example which seems to indicate God has abandoned the world to its own devices.  One of the most brutal wars in European history was the Thirty Years War, which was in part a religious war between Protestants and Catholics.  If God has any influence at all on human actions, you would think at the very least he would be able to influence the minds of the religious zealots who were praying to him every day for guidance, and tell them to stop slaughtering each other.)

Pearl Harbor Conspiracy Theories
          I’m not sure if this is common knowledge, but on the fringes of American society there exist various conspiracies about the Pearl Harbor attack.
            According to the logic of the conspiracy, Franklin Roosevelt desperately wanted to get America into World War II, but knew that the American public was resistant to the idea, so he needed some dramatic event to change public opinion.  The conspiracy alleges that the American government knew the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbor, but chose not to take any actions to prevent the attack.
            The conspiracy is based on the true facts that:
             1) Several friendly governments warned the US government about the attack, and the warnings were ignored.
            2) The primary target of the Japanese attack, the air-craft carriers, were coincidentally out on training exercises that day, and so the Japanese were thwarted in their attempt to cripple the American Pacific Navy in one strike.

          In America, this theory is believed only by fringe elements of society: the extreme Roosevelt hating right, and (closer to home for me) the pacifistic left.
            In Japan, however, the idea that Roosevelt tricked the Japanese into attack in Pearl Harbor has achieved mainstream acceptance—(or at least that’s the impression I got from my small exposure to Japanese media, and political arguments with my at-the-time Japanese girlfriend.)
            I don’t believe in the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory myself, and I tend to dislike conspiracy theories in general.  (I agree with Chomsky [LINK HERE] that the obsession with 9/11 conspiracy theories has been very destructive for the Left the past 10 years.  If you want to be taken seriously in the real world, you have to stick with what there is hard evidence for and not get lost in a world of conjecture and supposition.)

            However what I will say, though, is that it’s sometimes surprising just how slight a nuance sometimes separates “crazy-conspiracy-nut” from “established-historical-fact.”
            If you claim that the United States government knew in advance that the Japanese were planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, you’re into crazy-conspiracy-nut territory.
            But if you claim that the United States government knew in advance that the Japanese were planning a surprise attack somewhere, you’re arguing established history.
            The United States government knew negotiations with Japan had broken down, and because they had broken the Japanese codes, the United States knew in advance that the Japanese were planning a surprise attack somewhere.  The United States government did not declare war on Japan in advance because the US desired that Japan attack first, for propaganda reasons.
            And this was the story reported in The World at War.  (It was also, by the by, the view reported in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! , admittedly a Hollywood movie, but one that took a great deal of effort to get the history right.)

            To be clear: I don’t believe there was a Pearl Harbor conspiracy.  I don’t believe the United States government knew in advance that the Japanese were going to specifically attack Pearl Harbor. (I tend to believe nothing stays secret for long, and if such a conspiracy had existed it would have come out eventually.)  But what I do find interesting is that all the fuss over the “Pearl Harbor” conspiracy draws attention away from the plain facts that aren’t even controversial—the United States knew full well in advance that the Japanese were going to attack somewhere.

It’s Always About the Oil
          An Iranian friend was once explaining to me the historical antipathy his country feels for the British, and among other grievances he cited the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran during World War II.
            “We weren’t even in the War,” he complained to me.  “And yet they still invaded us anyway because they wanted to control the oil.”  (And for what it’s worth, the Wikipedia entry on the Anglo-Soviet Invasion largely supports his claims (W).)
            It occurred to me then just how important securing access to oil (and denying oil to your enemies) is during a war.
            During the Iraq War, you may remember it was common for conservative pundits to mock the “simplistic” belief among anti-war activists that the War was all about oil. 
            But it occurred to me: of course that War was all about the oil.  And it’s not only for the usual theories about gas prices at the pump, or about Halliburton profiteering off the war.  (Although it’s that as well).  But it’s mainly because modern mechanized armies run on oil, and wither without it.  Airforces, Tanks, Navys, supply trucks—all of them need oil to function.  The United States would not be in the superpower business if we weren’t securing strategic access to the world’s oil supplies.  If another major world war ever breaks out, whoever controls the world’s oil will be the victor.
            Although the Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran was not in this documentary (one of the many parts they had to leave out), it was very evident how much of World War II was fought simply to control the oil fields.  Hitler’s invasion of Russia was in part to gain access to oil fields. 
            The war between Japan and the United States was entirely about oil.  Japan needed oil to continue its military campaigns in China, the United States had embargoed oil to Japan, and Japan wanted to take over the oil fields in the Dutch East-Indies, but was worried the United States navy would prevent them from securing that oil.  Thus, Pearl Harbor.
            Many of the military campaigns in Europe were fought to secure oil fields for the use of one army, or for the purpose of denying the oil fields to the enemy.
            So, don’t let anyone ever tell you the war in Iraq wasn’t about the oil.  It’s always about the oil.

The Olympics
            In a blog post from a few years back, I questioned whether the Olympics actually promote peace (as its proponents would have you believe) or just foster nationalism.  After seeing how Hitler and the Nazi Party used the 1936 Olympics to promote German nationalism, I’m even more convinced that the Olympics are primarily an instrument of nationalism.

Star Wars
          As every science fiction fan knows, Star Wars had a million different influences—from Kurosawa to Flash Gordon to Joseph Campbell. 
            But it’s also well known that George Lucas was heavily influenced by World War II movies and newsreels.  Someone of his generation must have grown up on it.
            Of course anyone of my generation grew up on Star Wars, and only knows the World War II references indirectly through Star Wars.
            So much of this documentary reminded me of Star Wars that I was constantly thinking to myself: Oh, so that’s where they got that from! 
            The World War II airplane fights are an obvious enough parallel to the Death Star attack in Star Wars, but I hadn’t fully understood before just how much Lucas had borrowed—the squadron leaders, the formations, the lingo they used to chat back and forth to each other, and even the command headquarters where everyone else was listening in is all straight out of the World War II footage.
            The battle on the ice planet in The Empire Strikes Back is borrowed straight from the footage of the Russian campaign—the snow white uniforms of the Siberian troops are exactly the same as are used in the Empire Strikes Back, and the Imperial Walkers are an obvious stand-in for the Nazi tanks.
           The Nazi uniforms, caps, and military ceremonies are duplicated several times over in the Star Wars trilogy. 

Other Notes
* One of the extra episodes features an interview with Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge.  I read her memoirs a few years back and found them interesting.

* I actually watched the bulk of this series several months ago, but among the bonus episodes is a 3 hour mini-documentary on the Holocaust.  For obvious reasons, I found that part so depressing that it took me a few months before I felt ready to force myself through it.

* Interesting, though, that in the “Making-of” featurette, the filmmakers say that it was only in the 1960s that the cultural consensus came around that the story of the Holocaust and what happened to the Jews was the most important lesson to take away from World War II.  (Before that everyone had apparently been focused on the big battles).  One of the documentary film makers hypothesizes that if The World of War had come out a few years earlier, the Holocaust wouldn’t have received so much attention.

* Because this documentary was made in the 1970s, there’s some interesting stuff about the generation-gap near the end of it.
            I’m used to hearing about the generation-gap from the literature produced by the Baby Boomers (who were a very vocal group), but it was interesting to hear the other side of it—the hurt many of these World War II veterans felt because their children didn’t understand what they went through in the war, and that their children were not interested in trying to understand what they went through in the war.

Link of the Day 
Noam Chomsky slaps down 9/11 truther: People spend an hour on the Internet and think they know physics
and Daily Show interview with Matt Taibbi (a must see) 


Darrell Reimer said...

"Lee Strobel"?! You owe me a keyboard, buddy.

Another massive blast from my past, this post. It seemed to me like the entire 70s was just an endless loop of The World At War. CBC kept it on post-news rotation for years -- but I could be remembering it a little hazily at this point.

There seems to be no bottom when plumbing the depths of what the Nazis did. Another fine if (understandably) morose doc series, if you can stomach it, is The Nazis: A Warning From History (W)

Darrell Reimer said...

Re: "the problem of pacifism" -- have you read Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker? I think you might dig it.

Joel said...

The Lee Strobel book on my reading list is based on the assumption that I should read something I disagree with every once and a while to challenge my beliefs (in this case my agnosticism) and see how well my own arguments hold up against a counter-argument.
At least that was the idea. Having read the Lee Strobel book, I'm fairly convinced that his book is just an attempt to make cash out of the Christian book market, because he doesn't even try to make sense with any of his arguments. But I'll get around to reviewing that book at a later date.

I'd never heard of The World at War before I started hanging out with Brits. But then I also missed most of the 70s, so I wonder if my ignorance is an American/Canadian thing, or a 1970s thing. Either way, interesting to know this series is not quite as obscure in North America as I thought it was.

I've not read Human Smoke. Never even heard of it. But I read the wiki just now
and it does look like it would be up my alley.

Darrell Reimer said...

A not-bad (and leagues better than Strobel) entry for your exercise would be The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright (Amazon). At least you've got two guys who take scholarship seriously.

Joel said...

I just clicked on the Amazon link now, and it's got my interest. I certainly like the idea of having two different writers from differing opposing views write about the issue.

The Lee Strobel book has been largely an exercise in frustration. He's not interested in honestly debating the issues so much as he is in obscuring the issues, and the assumption throughout the book seems to be that he's writing for an audience that is not going to ask any questions (i.e., an already Christian audience).

Nevertheless....I still think it's good to read something you disagree with every once and a while, if for no other reason than it helps you to clarify your own thoughts as you lay out exactly why he's wrong.
I will have, at some point, a monster post reviewing Lee Strobel's book, and positing my own views opposite his. But that post has been moved to the back burner for now as other things in my life have taken over, and it may be many months before it appears on this blog.