D-DAY: 60 years later
|[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Pop culture defines D-day as we know it
By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
Published June 6, 2004
To commemorate today's 60th anniversary of D-day, 1-million people gather for solemn ceremony in Normandy.
And . . .
In Delaware, a NASCAR driver races a car with a World War II warplane paint job. In Oklahoma, 3,000 paintball enthusiasts re-enact the battle with splotches of pigment and homemade tanks. And all over the land, countless kids gun down virtual Nazis in D-day video games.
Sixty years after 156,000 Allied troops took the beaches of Normandy, D-day is a part of American popular culture as well as its history. No other battle of World War II, indeed few other battles in any of our wars, is as familiar or as symbolic.
Its standing has only grown in the past decade, helped by a string of bestselling books and blockbuster movies. There was also awareness that survivors were falling to the implacable enemy of time.
Every day, 1,200 World War II vets die, historian Douglas Brinkley says. "As a society, we're rushing to pay our respects."
D-day has been idealized - and trivialized - as the subject of museums and movies, novels and video games, songs and re-enactments. But, historians say, popular culture may also offer us a more complex and realistic portrait of the battle than official histories and memorials can.
D-day's iconic status was born as soon as it happened because, Brinkley says, "Nothing compares to it. Basically, they moved a country across the English Channel."
D-day was not only unprecedented in scale, he says, but a swiftly decisive victory.
"It was a glorious triumph. Popular culture loves triumphalism, and D-day provided it in spades."
Brinkley is the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies in New Orleans, founded by the late Stephen Ambrose, World War II historian and author of Band of Brothers. The center is a partner of the National D-day Museum founded by Ambrose.
Journalists were among the first to shape the public's image of the battle: Ernest Hemingway came in with the seventh wave on an amphibious craft full of "troops wax-gray with seasickness," and Ernie Pyle arrived June 7 to walk a beach littered with the backpacks, Bibles and family snapshots of dead men, and then write a column about it.
Movies were rushed into production as the battle for Normandy raged; one, The Master Race, was released three months after D-day. Singer Nat King Cole recorded a tune titled D-day the same year.
Even the phrase was transformed. The Allied invasion's official name was Operation Overlord. D-day - the "D" doesn't stand for anything - was military jargon for the start date of any operation whose exact date was not set or was secret.
But June 6, 1944, was so enormous that the phrase came to be associated with it exclusively, and "D-day" is still slang for any critical event, used by everyone from football coaches to wedding planners.
D-day held its niche in popular culture through the years. Cornelius Ryan's 1959 novel The Longest Day sold 4-million copies, and the 1962 film based on it was nominated for a best picture Oscar.
But D-day, Brinkley says, "became something much more because of the 50th anniversary."
Marked with great ceremony in Normandy and around the United States and Britain, it precipitated a surge of interest. "President Clinton's speech (in Normandy), Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks' Band of Brothers, the D-day Museum - there was just a mass consciousness about what a pivotal moment it was," Brinkley says.
The dominant view of D-day in popular culture is "a highly sentimental view," says John Bodnar, chairman of the history department at Indiana University. "And, of course, there's some justification for the view that America was the good nation and the enemy nations were evil."
That idealized view has "just exploded" as the 60th anniversary approached. "All we're hearing are speeches saying that this generation was made up entirely of infinitely and innately moral people. The whole generation has become mythical and fabricated, made into people that almost no one could be."
The depiction of D-day in the film The Longest Day is one example of the sentimental view, Bodnar says. "It focused on the genius of the military leadership, the strategy, the planning, as well as the bravery of the soldiers," while minimizing suffering and death.
But that view has never been the only one, nor is it historically complete, he says. "What you don't get is a really messy story. First of all, you don't get the real soldiers' view of the war.
"Fortunately, we had a lot of academics and sociologists running around gathering this material" during the war. They recorded soldiers "grousing about the conditions, about having to serve for two or three years, grousing about the officers' privileges.
"And you get a lot of soldiers saying, "I'm not sure why I'm fighting this war.' "
Even during a war fought for clear reasons, Bodnar says, there was cynicism about leadership, anger about profiteering, stress between the men at war and the women at home. There were atrocities on both sides, as well as questionable American military decisions, such as the firebombings in Germany and Japan and the first use of atomic weapons.
That darker view of World War II, Bodnar says, was expressed in literature, such as Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and the poetry of Archibald MacLeish, and in popular culture.
The 1949 movie The Sands of Iwo Jima is considered a classic war film, but, he says, its view of conflict is far from idealized. The Marine sergeant played by John Wayne is constantly questioned by younger men who see him as an anachronism.
"Then by 1970 you had two movies about World War II at the same time: Patton and Catch-22. What a contrast!"
But very few films or other works that questioned the war have challenged the idealized view of D-day. One that perhaps came closest was The Dirty Dozen in 1967, about an Army major assigned to train 12 criminals for an assassination mission intended to cripple the Germans during D-day.
The film's soldiers are effective precisely because they are violent, lawless men. But the movie keeps their brutal mission separate from D-day itself.
Perhaps the quintessential D-day movie is Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998. In some ways, Bodnar says, it seems to offer a darker view of war with its stunningly realistic opening sequence of the battle.
"Still, the gore and the suffering of the soldiers are contained within the larger narrative, the one that begins and ends in the cemetery" with the character of Ryan, now an old man.
He is "a highly moral family man, a Greatest Generation type," Bodnar says, as is the film's hero, Capt. John Miller, played by Tom Hanks. Miller is a schoolteacher longing to return to his wife, a soldier who says, "I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel."
Although popular culture has rarely challenged the sentimental view of D-day, not every manifestation of it has been reverent.
There are dozens of video games based on D-day, such as the popular Medal of Honor games Allied Assault and Front Line. A 1980s punk rock group was named D-day, and the name appears as a song or album title by rock, rap and electronica groups.
Bodnar says popular culture produces a range of responses to significant events like D-day. "You get the paragons of Saving Private Ryan, the paintball re-enactors, the somber ceremonies at Normandy," all of which enrich understanding of our history.
Popular culture helps keep alive the conversation about our shared heritage. Its idealized versions of D-day and its valiant soldiers are part of our need to define ourselves and our nation as moral and good, Bodnar says, while other versions continue the debate about the wisdom of war.
"The mass culture depictions give us a more accurate depiction over time than the memorials do."
- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or email@example.com
[Last modified June 6, 2004, 03:04:47]
Rumsfeld shows concern on terror
World and national headlines
Canada reportLiberals' lead slipping
D-day: 60 years laterOne man's war becomes another's guide
Pop culture defines D-day as we know it
IraqSadr meets with Sistani; 2 more Americans killed
Nation in briefNuclear submarine named for President Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan: 1911-2004America's Warrior
Europe: 'It is due to him that we are free'