NEW YORK -- The potentates who run the taxpayer-subsidized Corporation for Public Broadcasting have an exquisite sense of timing. To honor America's 232nd birthday, PBS is bracketing our nation's anniversary with a three-part documentary on the horrors of warfare in the 20th century. Regrettably, nearly two-thirds of the series is a dubious assessment of American motives and methods during and after World War II. Given that we are at war against brutal adversaries who despise our belief in being endowed by our "Creator with certain unalienable Rights" -- as in "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" -- the decision to air this demoralizing critique now is, at best, unfortunate.
The PBS series is actually a condensed version of a six-hour production, "The War of the World," which aired two years ago on Britain's Channel 4. Written and narrated by famed British historian Niall Ferguson, the U.S. adaptation takes on the daunting task of explaining mankind's bloodiest century in a mere three hours. In so doing, Ferguson traveled the globe with a camera crew, visiting the places where wars began and battles were fought. He is unequivocal in depicting Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao as bloody tyrants and totalitarian warlords. However, he is also downright hostile to his Anglo-Saxon forebears and only slightly less disparaging of American conduct during and after the war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan.
In support of his thesis that wars are perpetrated by "imperial rivals" during times of "economic volatility" and that they occur on "ethnic fault lines," Ferguson alleges that the Western Allies -- meaning the U.S. and Britain -- adopted "aspects" of our adversaries and became "fellow travelers" of the totalitarian regimes we opposed. While his descriptions of Soviet-era genocides and repression, Japanese atrocities, and Hitler's aggression and mass murders are stark and spot on, his charge that World War II was not a just war "between evil and good, but a war between evil and less evil," is simply wrong.
To make such a charge stick, Ferguson accurately observes that during WWII, the U.S. and Britain allied with Stalin -- a brutal dictator -- to defeat the Nazis. However, what his PBS rendition fails to ask is, "What was the alternative?" By June 22, 1941, when the Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa, Britain stood alone against Hitler's legions. Had the U.S. not helped arm the Russians and the Nazis prevailed, Ferguson might well have grown up in Scotland speaking German.
The PBS documentary uses graphic imagery to drive home to Americans that we "dehumanized" our enemies and that the Pacific campaign "became increasingly racial." Footage of U.S. troops employing flamethrowers, bombing area targets from high altitudes, grisly combat film of a brutal incident on Peleliu in September 1944, and a Life magazine photo spread about a U.S. serviceman who sent home the skull of a dead Japanese all make the point -- repeatedly. Supposedly, this explains why so many Japanese troops fought to the death rather than surrender.
No one who has been to war denies that it is terrible. I describe it as the most vicious of human endeavors. In hating war, however, one need not come to despise the warriors. Unlike our adversaries in WWII, it was never U.S. (or British) policy to kill prisoners of war or noncombatants. Well before we captured a single enemy soldier, the Japanese photographed and filmed atrocities and used the images in propaganda to demonstrate their superiority. The Nazis and Japanese made members of their armed forces complicit in crimes of mass murder as instruments of state policy. The U.S. never condoned such behavior. In fact, Americans were prosecuted for it.
Ferguson concludes that WWII was "a tainted victory, if victory at all." That's a tough sell for the people of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Denmark, Norway, South Korea, New Guinea and the Philippines. It may have been incomplete, and it certainly wasn't perfect, but it was victory.
So was the Cold War, which the PBS special describes as a "proxy" conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It's a fascinating theory, but the "proxy" argument just doesn't wash for anyone who knows anything about (or who served in) the Korean War, Vietnam or the Israeli army. Perhaps that's why all these "icebox" battles were all but ignored by PBS. Ferguson, who serves as an adviser to the McCain presidential campaign, should ask the Arizona senator whether he was a "proxy POW" at the Hanoi Hilton.
Here's the bottom line that the PBS series ignores: Twice during the 20th century, Americans died liberating Europe from tyranny. We did so without subjugating any ethnic group on any continent. We're the only nation on the planet to have tens of thousands of its sons and daughters volunteer to don a uniform and go into harm's way around the globe. They go not for gold or colonial conquest or ethnic cleansing, but to offer others the hope of freedom -- the kind we celebrate on Independence Day.