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October 30, 2007

When Reel Tales Rewrite
Real History

by Leon Hadar

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 cinemas.

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.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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