Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"The War": A Second Reaction

I have now watched the first three episodes of Ken Burns's The War. The second episode reinforced my reaction to the first episode:
War is not glorified (nor should it be), but Burns makes a strong case that war can be necessary -- contrary to the anti-war mantra that substitutes for thought on the Left.

The War
illustrates that, however necessary a war, victory may be attainable only at a very high price. (That illustration is especially valuable for the generations whose only war was the seemingly quick-and-easy Gulf War of 1990-91.) The War also makes the case, graphically, that there can be no alternative but to pay that very high price when one is faced with brutal, fanatical enemies.
The third episode further supports that view. But the third episode also spends a lot of time on issues with racial dimensions; specifically:
  • "the forced removal and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans (62 percent of whom were United States citizens) from the West Coast of the United States during World War II." (Wikipedia)
  • government-enforced racial segregation in the armed forces (and, sometimes, among workers in defense plants), against a backdrop of racial tension.
The internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans remains controversial. I have no doubt that racial hatred (inflamed by the attack on Pearl Harbor) enabled the decision to remove Japanese nationals and persons of Japanese origin and descent from the West Coast. But The War neglects to mention the military considerations that justified the action. (See these three posts, for example.) The War, in other words, engages in the kind of second-guessing eschewed by the U.S. Supreme Court when it opined in the case of Korematsu v. United States (1944). Justice Black, writing for the 6-3 majority:
To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue. Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily, and finally, because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders -- as inevitably it must -- determined that they should have the power to do just this. There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short. We cannot -- by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight -- now say that at that time these actions were unjustified.
It is right to give time to the internment; it was a significant (and temporary) event arising out of our prosecution of the war. But it is wrong to give a one-sided presentation of that event.

The segregation of blacks -- and black-white conflict -- on the other hand, were nothing new in America. Racial segregation had been (and would remain, for some years), a government policy. Would it have been too much to expect a government that was battling ferocious enemies abroad to take time out to desegregate the armed forces, desegregate civilian life, and deal with the resulting racial conflict (of which there was already enough)? The short answer is "yes." That is not to excuse government-sponsored and government-enforced segregation. It is simply to call, once again, for perspective and balance, which The War does not offer. A viewer lacking historical perspective (and there are many out there) might well conclude that segregation and racial tension arose from the war effort.

The War redeems itself, to some extent, by giving expression (perhaps too subtly) to these truths: However imperfect the United States of 1941-45, it was far more perfect than its militaristic, inhumane enemies. Americans of Japanese and African descent could hope for (and would realize) a better future here; they could have had no such hope for a world dominated by Japan and Germany.