In his new revisionist study, No
Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-45, renowned British historian
Norman Davies challenges the "very superficial and Americanocentric view"
of World War II reflected in the popular war histories.
For instance, the American author Stephen Ambrose's Band
of Brothers and American director Steven Spielberg's movie Saving
Private Ryan show World War II as a struggle between freedom, represented
by the Anglo-American powers, and the forces of fascism and totalitarianism
that climaxed with the Normandy invasion.
"There is little doubt that the Ambrose-Spielberg axis, combining a specific
historical stance with the preferences and commercial power of Hollywood, chimed
perfectly with the rise of the 'neoconservatives' and the declaration of a 'new
American century,'" Mr. Davies argues.
One recalls, in the days leading to the war with Iraq, President George W.
Bush keeping a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk and a copy of Mr. Ambrose's
D-Day by his bedside. At the same time, Mr. Bush's advisers have
compared him to Churchill and Saddam Hussein to Hitler.
"It all formed a part of the same package," Mr. Davies suggests.
"A very superficial Americoncentric view of history was a necessary adjunct
to the reigning Americoncentric view of world affairs." And Mr. Davies foresees
that "someday, somehow, the present fact of American supremacy will be
challenged, and with it the American interpretation of history."
There are many other perspectives on World War II, he notes. "The Chinese,
for example, remember the war years as period of immense suffering inflicted
by imperial Japan and a necessary prelude to the Chinese Revolution. In a Sinocentric
world, one could expect the importance of Europe and of Europe's suffering to
be downgraded; the victories of Russians and Americans would be pushed to the
margins; the Japanese militarists, not the Nazis, would represent the prime
force of Evil; the 'memory spot' par excellence might be the city of Nanking;
and the screen epic of the mid-21st century (if screens still exist) might show
some unknown Chinese private being rescued on some as yet unremembered beach."
Well, we might not have to wait until the release of Saving Private Li.
Ang Lee 's award-winning, very expensive, and very long Lust, Caution
seems to fit the bill of a Sinocentric screen epic about World War II. Or was
it the Pacific War? Or the Greater East Asia War? The film, set in World War
II Shanghai during the Japanese occupation, is about a young Chinese woman,
played by the very talented Tang Wei, who is a member of an anti-Japanese underground
and whose task is to seduce a member of the Japanese collaborationist government,
played by Tony Leung, as part of a scheme to assassinate him. It's a WWII story
that is told from an Asian perspective.
That there are no European or American characters playing a central role in
this film might explain why the movie has not been doing so well in American
Interestingly enough, another award-winning, very expensive, and very long
WWII movie, Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, which is set in Holland during
the Nazi occupation and is about a Dutch-Jewish woman, played by Carice van
Houten, who is a member of an anti-German underground and whose task is to seduce
a German officer, played by Sebastian Koch, as part of a scheme to kill a Dutch
Nazi collaborator, was more successful than Lust, Caution in terms of
attracting American audiences when it was released in the U.S. last year.
The reason is that Black Book is more "conventional" than
Lust, Caution, as far as the Western spectators are concerned, since
it has all the ingredients (occupied Europe, Nazis, the Holocaust) from other
WWII movies with which they are familiar.
And when it comes to the battles in East Asia, Americans expect to see a movie
about American soldiers fighting the "Japs" on this or that Pacific
island and are not familiar with the suffering inflicted by the Japanese on
the Chinese and other Asian nations – an issue that has only surfaced in the
American media in recent years during the debates over Korean "comfort
women" and the Japanese leaders' visits to their country's war shrines.
If you were a Pole, Hungarian, or Czech, the war was not a simple victory of
good over evil, but the defeat of one totalitarian state, Nazi Germany, by another,
the Soviet Union, whose crimes were just as vast, if less diabolical.
But that kind of view was not evident in the documentary The War, produced
by Ken Burns, which was broadcast recently on American public television and
in which the Soviets seemed to play the role of the understudies in a war fought
and won by the Americans.
Trying to construct a meaningful and balanced narrative of WWII or, for that
matter, of other major chapters in world history is a task that is embraced
not only by academics, but also by contemporary political players who are trying
to shape the direction of our current history.
Hence Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's efforts to raise doubts about
the historical facts of the Holocaust are part of a strategy to challenge both
Israel and its Western patrons.
The anger expressed by many Chinese and Koreans over the Japanese attempts
to downplay their role in WWII atrocities is an integral part of the current
attempt to shape the balance of power in East Asia.
And then we have the recent vote by the U.S. Congress to condemn the atrocities
committed by the Ottoman Empire and its allies against the Armenians during
World War I and in its aftermath. On one level, it was part of a campaign by
the Armenians to depict that tragedy as genocide – which the Turks reject. On
another level, the debate intertwined with the current politics of the Middle
East, including Iraq, and demonstrated Turkey's effort to reassert its power.
And on yet another level, that issue highlights the way the West, including
the U.S., has been preoccupied with the killing of 1.5 million Christian Armenians
by mostly Muslim Turks and Kurds.
That most of us tend to identify and empathize with the plight of those who
are close to us – family, friends, compatriots, co-religionists – is understandable
and even natural. Nations write their own histories, and if they are victorious
and powerful, they have an enormous influence on the construction of the broad
and accepted historical narratives.
But in a world in which globalization is making it impossible for nations to
live in isolation from each other, they all need to reexamine their common histories.
One such exercise has been performed by American actor and producer Clint Eastwood,
who, in two separate films, examined one of the bloodiest battlefields of WWII
in Iwo Jima from American (Flag
of Our Fathers) and Japanese (Letters
from Iwo Jima) perspectives.
It is possible that the Americans who defeated the Japanese in WWII and who
regard them now as close political-military allies and economic partners find
it less agonizing to adopt a more balanced approach to their former enemies.
But unfortunately, interpreting the wars of the past is going to continue to
play an important role in the evolution of the contemporary relations between
nations by providing a sense of legitimacy for the wars of the future.
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