While at the beach over Christmas, every evening we settled in to watch a couple episodes of a 2009 documentary titled “World War II in Color.” I learned a lot watching this mminiseries, not academically, but philosophically. This miniseries helped me reflect on the effect of war and also the role of the United States in that war. It struck a deep chord.
“World War II in Color” consists of 13 50+ minute episodes that used re-colorized black and white archival footage with a masterful voiceover narration. The episodes are organized in rough chronological order with a particular theme being followed until a stopping point is reached.
At first, my thoughts focused on the senseless waste of war. I watched as historic buildings fell prey to reckless, relentless bombardment. The early episodes mentioned nothing of the Holocaust, the iconic horror of the war; contemporaries had yet to discover evidence of the atrocity. My thoughts, with over 70 years of hindsight, kept this in mind as I watched the Germans bombard London, a city full of civilians and as their u-boats relentlessly bombed merchant ships bringing desperately needed supplies to Great Britain as she stood along against an indefatigable foe.
During the episodes describing Germany’s blitzkrieg advance across Europe, my thoughts began to shift. Multiple times Mom turned to me and asked “Did they know what was going on? How could the US see what was going on and not do something about it? The thoughts that come if one follows that “what if” to the possible conclusion of the US never becoming involved do not yield anything boast-worthy. If the US refrained from involvement and then concentration camps had been discovered?
The middle episodes dealt mainly with the European front. We watched as both the Allies and the Soviets gained the upper hand over the Germans and hitler’s actions showed an increasing lack of sanity and lucidity. History perished in flames as the allies engaged in strategic and carpet bombing over Germain cities in the hopes that such bombardment would break the spirits of the German people. This bombing did not have the desired effect. I listened to the muted tone of surprise in the narration and wondered how they could not see their own recent history of steadfast opposition during relentless bombardment. Could it be that the Allies simply could not fathom the fact that the Germans believed in their ideals just as strongly as the Allies did theirs?
As the Allies advanced towards Berlin from the west and the Soviets from the east, ruined cities and towns remained behind, their residents now tasked with rebuilding. Not only did bridges need reconstruction, rubble need clearing, and homes need reconstruction but people, also, needed an incredible amount of care, compassion and restoration. All of the countries involved in this war faced this, all of them save the United States. Only Pearl Harbor and the immediate surrounding area received direct hits.
Then came the final episodes of the miniseries, the one that described the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, the ultimate conclusion of the war. With regards to the earlier episode on the Pacific front, the one telling of the Japanese “blitzkrieg” over other Pacific countries and island nations, I noticed that, for the most part, the opposing forces fought over land not their own. When the Japanese took Hong Kong and Burma, they battled the British. When the Japanese took the Philippines, they battled the United States. The native people found their homeland torn apart and themselves subject to unspeakable violence at the hands of others with no say in the matter.
THe final episode discussed the violent, drawn-out, horrific end to World War II, an end which ushered in the nuclear age. The United States, the main Allied power on the Pacific front, faced an untenable situation. Their opponent had already demonstrated an utter unwillingness to stand down. When the Japanese had the upper hand, they rolled over the opposition like a steamroller. When the tide turned against them, they refused to surrender and went so far as to sacrifice their own lives rather than be taken prisoner. The infamous kamikaze pilots baffled the Americans as often happens when cultures clash. Americans have no concept of death before defeat as the Bushido code of the Samurai, a concept passed down and enshrined through generations.
The episode opened with talk of the victorious American advance. I knew, objectively, the opposition the Americans faced yet I watched as the United States began a campaign of fire bombing Japanese cities. As the United States moved closer to the Japanese home islands they moved within range for the bombers. They carpeted the city with incendiary bombs, burning whole cities to the ground. As we watched, Grandpa recalled his time in the occupational force and told us that when he looked out from his post, only burnt out, skeletal ruins met his view. Watching as Japanese city after city met a fiery fate, I could not help but think that the United States had gone from underdog to bully.
Of course, everyone knows how the war ended, Little Boy and Fat Man. I watched discussion of the Manhattan Project anticipating the horror to come. Even knowing the potential catastrophic loss of life on both sides that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would bring, the horror inflicted by the dropping of those two atomic bombs exceeds conceivability. History will forever remember the culpability of the United States in dropping the first nuclear weapons as an act of war. So far, only the United States has used such weapons. In an argument against nuclear proliferation, how could we possibly maintain the moral high ground?
The United States inflicted catastrophic, irreparable damage to people in a country that attacked the United States. The force of those bombs vaporized people. Ponder that. That’s the destruction the United States unleashed on a civilian population. Granted, even though countless tests had been run and calculations made, no one really knew, before that first drop, how the bombs would affect the city and the inhabitants thereof. Still, the United States did not drop one bomb. They dropped two, with the second one being even more destructive.
The end of the episode left me unsettled. I cannot square what the facts present with the image created through the rose-colored glasses of history written by the victors. As a child, I first learned that the Allies defeated an overwhelming evil. Great Britain stood strong against relentless German bombardment. The Allies liberated the concentration camps, thus putting an end to this unspeakable horror. The atomic bombs, as terrible as they were, ended the war months earlier than projected, thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives; those Japanese were crazy and would rather die than surrender when they knew they were beaten. This picture created in the history lessons of my childhood portrayed the Allies as the completely virtuous saviors and the Axis powers as indisputable evil incarnate.
No human being is completely virtuous or evil incarnate. Thus, a reframing of actions taken during World War II needs to happen. Were the Allies ultimately on the “right” side? Overwhelming opinion says yes. The Allies did not round up millions of people based solely on their race and systematically exterminate them. However, the United States did deprive thousands of American residents and citizens of Japanese descent of their liberty and possessions by relocating them to fairly inhospitable internment camps based solely on their ethnicity. Many other examples proving the less than entirely virtuous nature of the winning powers exists. I have mentioned a few earlier in this essay.
All of this leads to the conclusion that war is ugly. War contaminates everything it touches. War leaves broken bridges, buildings and people in its wake. War peels back pretty facades to reveal the ugliness within. Only with these thoughts in mind can World War II be properly framed.