"The beach was not any general's business…"

I’m fairly smitten with this David Greenberg piece about D-Day nostalgia, even if it’s written in that breathless first-this-thing-happened-then-that-thing-happened style that also constrains J. Hoberman’s writing. (Hoberman can’t shake it off even when he has the spaciousness of a book to work with. Indeed, his clipped recitation of world events in The Dream Life often sounds like a 1965 issue of Time as read aloud by someone who’s running a 100-yard dash.) But I’d love to see Greenberg  or pretty much anyone other than myself – give his subject the book-length treatment it deserves, and I agreed with pretty much everything he packed into his article.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that the public mind was focused on June 6, 1944 in a way that’d be familiar to us today at least 20 years before 1984, when Greenberg claims that Reagan “kicked off the D-Day mania.” Most obviously, The Longest Day was a hit in both print and celluloid by 1962, with the movie version giving us the earliest incarnation (that I know of) of the day’s most enduring icon: an army helmet lying upside-down on a sandy beach. By 1964 the recurrence of June 6 was officially recognized as An Event, for while struggling with what to buy my mom for her birthday that year, I found a rack in a record store that held nothing but tributes to D-Day that had been specially pressed for the 20th anniversary. Even though I wound up buying the sturdiest, most smartly packaged album I could find – a two-LP set containing speeches, radio addresses, and readings from the works of Churchill, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, et al. – I plainly remember Mom trying to hide her disappointment when she tore off the wrapping. It may have been partly her fault that I’m a confirmed WW II nut (she was a WAAV veteran who sang in a Navy band during the war), but she was clearly hoping to get something a little, well, cooler on her birthday.

That said, I particularly appreciated Greenberg’s closing paragraph, especially its last sentence: “But at a time when the culture’s celebration of the martial has reached levels not seen since after the Civil War, a countervailing gust of Vietnam-era dissent would feel like a fresh summer wind.” Amen, Brother Ben! Hell, I’m even ready for some irresponsible dissent at this point, the kind that, when maintained long enough, made Abbie Hoffman as legitimate a part of the cultural landscape as Ilya Kuryakin or J. Edgar Hoover. Also, the militarism that Greenberg complains of shares an especially decadent symbiosis with much of our visual culture, from obvious examples like videogames and Blackhawk Down to the characters’ clipped cadences and regimented paces on The West Wing and all those lurid forensic cop shows. Even a film like Crimson Tide, whose activity works at grinding down the miltaristic point of view, is so aroused by the con tower’s pressed and urgent jargon (it’s so measured that it must’ve been issued from a manual) and high-tech killing toys that by the end it can only give Gene Hackman’s dangerous, and perhaps homicidally insane, submarine captain a loving slap on the wrist. Not even Herman Wouk asked us to think of Captain Queeg as merely a fucked-up uncle; it’s as if Dr. Strangelove had ended with General Jack D. Ripper telling everyone that it was all just a joke.

The best treatment given D-Day I’ve ever seen is the hour-long documentary about it that Charles Guggenheim put together for American Experience a few years ago. The flipside of Saving Private Ryan, it’s mournful without being maudlin and appreciative without being reverential, and takes a spartan tack towards its subject. (Most of its voiceover narration consists of one- or two-sentence reminiscences – dry as beef jerky – from some of the men who managed to survive that day.) The B&W images are lustrous, pristine, and stitched together with great care by Joseph Wiedenmayer. Check out your listings – PBS may well be airing it in the next day or two. It’s a beaut.

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