Ken Burns and the Risks of Reconciliation

The opening episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War shows a series of iconic moments in film with a twist: they play backwards. As viewers we are asked to rewind our understanding of the war, to start from the beginning. In the process we are supposed to build a new understanding, through which we can all find solace in a shared history. But can we?

Ken Burns likes narrative history. An authoritative voice speaks to connect hours of historical footage and talking heads. The format harks back to earlier periods in historical scholarship when historians presumed their own objectivity. The sort of editorial decisions that go into selecting who to quote, what words to use (calling the Vietnam War a “failure” or “tragedy” rather than a “defeat”, for example), and what images to put behind them, are all acts of interpretation obscured in the guise of fact and marshalled to support an interpretation. Giving the appearance of showing all sides further glosses over the biases. With subject matter as divisive as the Civil War or Vietnam War, this framing of the story ends up flattening out the events’ complexity and decades of debates.

A major challenge of teaching history at college level is that students arrive with an understanding of history not dissimilar to that found in Ken Burns’s documentaries or their school textbooks. The past is presented as a series of facts, while little or nothing is said of how or why those facts were chosen, if indeed they are agreed upon ‘facts’ as opposed to contested issues. Historians understand, and try to communicate to students, that the past is subject to debate and our understanding of it continues to change over time. The danger of narrative history is that it makes an argument and selects evidence to support that argument without acknowledging that it does so. Whether to accept the stories these documentaries tell at face value or probe them further is left to the individual. Too many, I fear, may choose the former. Neither The Civil War nor The Vietnam War ask explicit questions of their viewers. Therein lies their broad appeal and therein lies their danger.

The films are about, in Ken Burns’s words, “ultimate reconciliation”. This may come from a noble impulse to come to terms with history and establish an American canon that bridges partisan divides. Laudable though this optimism may be, reconciliation can create moral equivalence where it may not exist. It leaves us with “a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes” without sufficient critical analysis of those causes. In the case of the Civil War this very narrative enabled the glorification of the Confederacy, the reimposition of white supremacy, and willful amnesia around emancipation.[1] In the case of Vietnam, the reconciliation narrative depends on mischaracterizing the anti-war movement and apparently explaining the politically-motivated decisions and lies of successive American governments as attempts by “decent people” to “muddle through” (episode 1). The hope for closure may be premature.

This is not an indictment of either film. There are good reasons for watching both and much of value to learn.[2] Rather, it is a call to see them for what they are: particular perspectives on American history. We have a rich past. It is complicated and messy, and its meaning is far from clear-cut. We can and should ask difficult questions and engage in civil debate over how to answer them. Questions – like protests – show not a disdain for the American project, but rather a commitment to bettering it. Reconciliation may be therapeutic, but it is not a cure. Privileging it risks losing a fuller examination of our past and our present.

[1] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap Press, 2001).

[2] I will leave it to historians of the era to evaluate the content. See, for example, Christian G. Appy’s reviews of the series for the OAH blog Process: Introduction, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episodes 3 & 4, Episodes 5 & 6, Episodes 7 & 8, Episodes 9 & 10.

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Everyday War

Mathew Brady, “Deck of a Gun Boat,” National Archives (NWDNS-111-B-129)

Bearded and clean-shaven, grim and smiling, black and white, sailors of the United States Navy assemble on the deck of a gunboat in a nation torn apart by the Civil War. They sit or stand. Some look into the camera, unsmiling. Others turn away, focused on the task at hand. Motion blurs the outlines of a few. Their officer stands on the prow behind them, upright in his double-breasted coat, eyes fixed on the horizon and a cannon at his side. In the foreground sits another cannon, the machinery of war disguised as a prop for casual poses.

Look closely. A five-string banjo is out, and perhaps a tune in the air, though the drummer holds his sticks at rest. Checkerboards lay on the deck, players poised over the next move. A few sailors concentrate on sewing. One man reads a book; another may hold a newspaper, half hidden behind the wheel of the ship. A head peeks out from below deck, furrowed brow surveying the proceedings. The men pose, but the positions they adopt more closely resemble those of a family snapshot than a studio portrait.

A relatively lax approach to military uniforms points to the exigencies of war. Standard issue frocks prevail (we know they are navy blue, though it’s a black and white photograph), complemented by woolen flat hats, some worn at jaunty angles. A couple caps are in evidence, such as that worn by the man leaning over the checkerboard at center. Neckerchief styles vary. A few men have insignia of an eagle and anchor on their left sleeves, indicating their rank as petty officers. The gunner in the foreground has the same patch on his right arm.

The ship is probably the USS Miami. The year could be 1864. The location is a mystery.[1] The officer may be W.N. Wells. The names of the enlisted men who appear are lost to history.[2] The photograph stays mute on those details. Mathew Brady or one of his employees captured the image. We cannot know why was he there or what prompted him to record this scene.

The most striking Civil War photographs tend to stick in our memories: the dead on the battlefields, Lincoln and his generals. Yet photographs of mundane moments like this one – the crew of a gunship passing the time – offer a fuller picture. While artists or illustrators could draw on traditional heroic imagery to portray the heat of battle, the limits of technology constrained photographers. As a result, we see more of the everyday-ness of life (and death) in war. Alan Trachtenberg writes, “the strength of the pictures lies in their mundane aspect – their portrayal of war as an event in real space and time”.[3] This photographer seems to have interrupted a relaxing afternoon. It just so happens the space is a gunboat and the time is a war.

 

[1] It could be the James River in Virginia as the USS Miami operated there at various times during the war and other photographs of gunboats in Brady’s collection are identified as having been taken there in 1864.

[2] The names of the men who served on the USS Miami are no doubt recorded in some capacity, but we would find it difficult if not impossible to match names to the faces in this photograph.

[3] Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), p.74.

Remembering Japanese-American Internment

On February 19, 1942 – two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It authorized the establishment of military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” in the interest of national security and defense.[1] In broad terms, it gave the military power to decide who constituted a threat. It did not, as many discussions of it imply, specifically mention Japanese Americans. That fact does not make it any less pernicious.

General DeWitt of the Western Defense Command was convinced that the entire Japanese-American population posed a threat to the nation. Between March and August of 1942 he authorized a series of “exclusion orders” that applied to “all persons of Japanese ancestry”.[2] Authorities removed approximately 110,000 men, women, children, of whom about two-thirds were American citizens, from their homes on the west coast. Without any attempt at due process, they were ordered to store or dispose of their property, herded into groups at assembly centers, given numbered tags, and sent on buses or trains patrolled by armed guards to unknown destinations. The ten internment camps, known euphemistically as “war relocation centers,” were all in desolate, distant locations. Those closest to the coast were more heavily militarized, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. As one man recalled:

We were told that we are being evacuated so that the government can protect us. The first thing that I had observed was that they had armaments, not facing out, but facing in.[3]

Clem Albers, military police at Manzanar, April 1942 (National Park Service)

Clem Albers, military police at Manzanar, April 1942 (National Park Service)

No evidence supported the perceived threat. Rather, its origins lay in racism and fear. Adding the two and throwing government propaganda into the mix meant the policy enjoyed widespread support. Both the press and Congress almost unanimously endorsed it. Groups supposedly committed to ending discrimination either supported the policy or looked on in silence as the “gravest violation in civil liberties since the end of slavery” took place.[4]

Many understand the historical lesson of Japanese-American internment, like that of the Holocaust, to be “never again”. But there is another important lesson. It could happen again. Fear is part of human nature and those in power have repeatedly harnessed it against the ‘others’ in society. The record of internment should stand today not as a monument to a past from which we may safely distance ourselves, but as a reminder of what is possible and what we should do all in our power to resist.

Manzanar National Historic Site, January 2016 (photo by Sara Goek)

Manzanar National Historic Site, January 2016 (photo by Sara Goek)

Cemetery monument at Manzanar, created by Ryozo Kado and erected in August 1943 (photo by Sara Goek, Jan. 2016)

Cemetery monument at Manzanar, created by stonemason Ryozo Kado and erected in August 1943 (photo by Sara Goek, Jan. 2016)

[1] Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942. Full text available from: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5154.

[2] Civilian Exclusion Order, San Francisco, California, May 15, 1942.

[3] Remembering Manzanar, documentary film (National Park Service, 2004).

[4] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p.241.

“No war is easy for those who fight it”

In war, “you don’t become a killer. No normal man who has smelled and associated with death ever wants to see any more of it,” wrote cartoonist Bill Mauldin (1921-2003) in his book Up Front: “The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry.”[1] His cartoons contained few feats of heroism. Instead, his central characters Willie and Joe griped about the weather, the rations, and their superiors.

Stars and Stripes, March 2, 1944. Source: Military History Now.

Mauldin observed,

I don’t make the infantryman look noble, because he couldn’t look noble even if he tried. Still there is a certain nobility and dignity in combat soldiers and medical aid men with dirt in their ears. They are rough and their language gets coarse because they live a life stripped of convention and niceties. Their nobility and dignity come from the way they live unselfishly and risk their lives to help each other. They are normal people who have been put where they are, and whose actions and feelings have been molded by their circumstances.[2]

Like war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Mauldin gave GIs on the front in World War II both their dignity and a recognizable image of themselves. His cartoons balanced realism and respect for the combat soldier with humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. Pyle himself played an important role in bringing Mauldin’s work to a wider audience. In January 1944 he wrote, “Mauldin’s cartoons aren’t about training-camp life, which you at home are best acquainted with. They are about the men in the line – the tiny percentage of our vast army who are actually up there in that other world doing the dying. His cartoons are about the war.”[3] As a result of this coverage, his series Up Front was syndicated in papers across the nation.[4]

My great-grandfather's collection of Mauldin cartoons

I first encountered Mauldin’s work in that form. When my mom moved to a new house a couple years ago, among the boxes we discovered one that her parents had kept for her when they moved decades earlier. It contained an old cigar box labeled “Bill Mauldin Cartoons (Collected by W.G.M.)” with over 200 newspaper clippings that my great-grandfather had cut from The Cleveland Press during the war and its aftermath. I don’t know why he kept them. His son, my great-uncle, had fought in the Italian campaign (as did Mauldin), so perhaps that connection had something to do with it. Or perhaps, like so many other Americans, he saw in them something of the realities of a war taking place thousands of miles away.

These drawings are not part of military history as we often conceive it – of generals, battles, strategies, weaponry, or even ideology. Rather, Mauldin’s work is part of the social history of wars – of what it felt like to be there – perhaps something those who have not experienced can never truly understand. Despite all his attempts to explain the lived reality of war through both words and drawings, Mauldin reflected, “I guess you have to go through it to understand its horror. You can’t understand it by reading magazines or newspapers or by looking at pictures or by going to newsreels. You have to smell it and feel it all around you until you can’t imagine what it used to be like when you walked on a sidewalk or tossed clubs up into horse chestnut trees or fished for perch or when you did anything at all without a pack, a rifle, and a bunch of grenades.”[5]

United Feature Syndicate, Aug. 8, 1945. Source: Library of Congress.

The perceived distance from ordinary life and the lack of understanding among ordinary people for the horrors of war may have contributed to Mauldin’s disillusionment upon returning home. Like many other veterans, he and his characters, Willie and Joe, struggled to fit back into civilian life. In their final appearance, they are “under a culvert” living “on the bum,” “totally out of luck, out of money”.[6] Despite his own troubles, Mauldin himself never stopped standing up for the Willies and Joes of the world and the respect and fair treatment they deserved.

Title quote from: Bill Mauldin, Up Front (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1945), p.202.

[1] Mauldin, Up Front, p.14

[2] Mauldin, Up Front, pp.14-15

[3] Ernie Pyle, “Bill Mauldin, Cartoonist”, Jan. 15, 1944: http://mediaschool.indiana.edu/erniepyle/1944/01/15/bill-mauldin-cartoonist/

[4] Todd DePastino, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), pp.126-9.

[5] Mauldin, Up Front, p.130

[6] Bill Mauldin in a 1983 interview, in Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), p.360.