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Pearl Harbor: The Corporatization of History, Part II

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The Memorial Day opening of the Disney movie “Pearl Harbor” has spawned a cottage industry of books, articles and memorabilia offering a celebratory, even mythic, account of the events that led the United States into World War II. It is a version of history shorn of racism, social conflict, Japanese or American imperialism, or even cigarette-smoking soldiers. As we discuss the corporatization of history, we will look at the Disney version of Pearl Harbor and what it tells us about the priorities shaping public discussion of our history.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, Resistance Radio. I’m Amy Goodman.

The Memorial Day opening of the Disney movie Pearl Harbor has spawned a cottage industry of books, articles and memorabilia offering a celebratory, even mythic, account of the events that led the United States into World War II. It’s a version of history shorn of racism, social conflict, Japanese or American imperialism, or even cigarette-smoking soldiers. As we discuss the corporatization of history, we’ll look at the Disney version of Pearl Harbor and what it tells us about the priorities shaping public discussion of our history.

We’re joined by historian Howard Zinn, author of, among many books, A People’s History of the United States, and Danny Schechter, the news dissector and editor of MediaChannel.org.

Danny, let’s begin with you. How this movie was launched?

DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, you know, this is all part of playing on the whole Tom Brokaw book Our Greatest Generation, as, I guess, opposed to our generation, the generation of our parents. And it was launched by Disney, who spent $5 million last week on a huge press junket in Hawaii, including the rental of an aircraft carrier from the U.S. Navy. Now, this is happening while 4,000 Disney employees are being laid off, 130 people from the news division are being cut. Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, had a bonus check of $11.5 million last year, while the company itself spent another $18 million in political advertising. So, you know, Disney’s priorities, of course, are totally promotional here in terms of this film. And, you know, history has very little to do with it, as they say.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the aircraft carrier, Disney, its effect, and the military’s relationship with the movie.

DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, you know, this is part of the — you know, Studs Terkel called World War II “the good war,” because we can look back, and we were fighting — you know, we were good guys fighting bad guys. And Pearl Harbor was the place, of course, of the so-called sneak attack on the United States, although there’s a lot of historical dispute, which I’m sure Howard will speak to, about what did or didn’t happen there. But, you know, Disney is sort of cashing in on this particular symbol, in the same way years ago it was trying to create a theme park here in the — I’m in Washington today — in the suburbs of Maryland, you know, kind of appropriating American history as its own. And that was rejected by local people, mostly for environmental reasons. But this whole attempt to kind of coopt and remake history and sanitize it in the process seems to be increasingly what Hollywood is doing, as is television, with so-called reality television, where reality has very little to do with it. You know, it’s a sort of dramatization and remaking of history and putting it in a more fashionable and marketable fashion.

AMY GOODMAN: What role did the U.S. military play in the script of Pearl Harbor?

DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, you know, in order to get cooperation, there are whole divisions in the U.S. government, as in the New York City Police Department, as in most official agencies, to cooperate with Hollywood. They all recognize the importance of it. For years, J. Edgar Hoover, for example, had virtually scripted The F.B.I. show that was on TV for many years to give the G-men a popular kind of mystique. And the U.S. government also, the U.S. military particularly, provides military equipment, access to U.S. government sites, personnel, advisers and all the rest of it to try to picture the U.S. military in a certain way. It’s sort of ironic to me, because this is also, I think, the week that Apocalypse Now’s new version is opening. And, of course, this was a story based in Vietnam, with Martin Sheen and others — you know, the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” — which the U.S. military hated. It was actually filmed in the Philippines, not in Vietnam. This, I think, has full cooperation from the U.S. military.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, you are a well-known historian around the world focusing on people’s history, especially in this country. When you see a blockbuster like Pearl Harbor come out, what are your thoughts about where we are today?

HOWARD ZINN: Well, I worry. Danny Schechter spoke about the priorities of the people making the film. The priorities seem to be money. But in the course of it, they do a great disservice to coming generations, that are going to have to live, if the message of this and other films carries, live continually with the threat of militarism and war.

I worry because what all these films about World War II that have come out recently — I’m thinking of Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor — and what they do is to perpetuate the notion that war is good, because they seize upon the fact that there was a strong moral element in World War II, the war against fascism. But what that clouds over is the fact that even “the good war,” the war against fascism, was full of atrocities, not just by the Japanese and the Germans, but by us. That is, it was not just the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor — I mean, not really a sneak attack, since we knew the Japanese were going to attack; we just didn’t know where. It was about as much a sneak attack as our sneak attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the Japanese knew we were going to bomb, but they didn’t know where or with what. And I think we — I worry about a one-sided view of history in which we are the victims, we are the good guys; the other sides are the perpetrators of atrocities.

But the fact is that war brutalizes everybody. World War II was an instance of terrible Japanese brutality against the Chinese, and then, yes, at Pearl Harbor and, yes, the Bataan Death March. But World War II was also the occasion for brutality on our side, the killing of huge numbers of civilians in bombing attacks. I mean, the Japanese, in one of the most brutal events in this century killed 200,000 or so Chinese in a terrible massacre in Nanjing in 1937. Now, in our bombing of Japan, we killed probably 400,000 civilians in the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, that one terrible night in Tokyo and the other bombings. And so, I think we need to maintain a certain perspective in which we see war itself as the enemy. I worry about movies coming out in which there is the enemy, and there is us. No, the enemy is war itself.

And the concentration and romanticization of World War II, I think, is a very bad thing to teach the young. We don’t want the new generation to grow up glorifying war and military heroism. And all that that does — and this comes back to what Danny Schechter was saying about their priorities and profit and money — we don’t want the young to grow up in a world in which we continue spending a huge amount of our natural wealth on weapons of war. And so, yes, there are movies that we should show, but we’re not seeing them at the same time as we see Pearl Harbor. We should be seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai, you know, which ends up with this American lieutenant looking at the dead on both sides — the Japanese dead, the British dead, the American dead — and saying, “Madness. Madness.”

DANNY SCHECHTER: I have a suggestion for a World War II movie that I don’t think will ever be made, but it’s kind of interesting, related to the war in the Pacific, Howard, which was the war crimes tribunal convened by the United States against the Japanese in the end of the war. But what was interesting about it is that unlike Nuremberg, which was four countries essentially only trying the leaders and saying that people could get away with the excuse that they were only following orders, in the U.S. war crimes tribunal of the Japanese, there was a much higher standard invoked, imposed by the United States, saying that everyone had responsibility for crimes they committed. And there were a lot more people prosecuted, tried and executed in the war crimes tribunal, which has been totally forgotten, which was the Tokyo war crimes tribunal. And I thought of that recently in connection with this whole Bob Kerrey case about war crimes. Where the U.S. convened a war crimes tribunal, there were very high standards. But most of that has been totally forgotten, gone into the sinkhole of amnesia, historical amnesia.

HOWARD ZINN: Well, if we really had impartial war crimes trials, the leaders of all countries would be up there in the dock. Well, you know, I see where Christopher Hitchens has just written this book about Kissinger as a war criminal. And it’s not just Kissinger. You know, it’s all of them. And, you know, I think —

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, Howard Zinn. The U.S. Embassy — I was reading in the headlines — has just told a French judge, who is probing the Chilean coup of 1973, following General Augusto Pinochet’s charges in Britain by Spain, and they want to question Henry Kissinger. But the U.S. Embassy responded on his behalf and said that he would not come forward. And he raced on. He was in France recently, and he raced on to Italy, I guess, to get out of France. They said that he had other obligations and that the information the judge was requesting was confidential. But, you know, it may be that at some point Henry Kissinger is called to account for what he has done.

HOWARD ZINN: Yes. I just want to say one more thing about concentrating on World War II. And that is, when we do that, we forget all the other wars in the century, starting with our war in the Philippines at the beginning of the century and ending with our bombing of Yugoslavia at the end of the century. And there are all these other wars, which were ugly wars, which don’t at all have the moral aspect of World War II and “the good war.” And, you know, when I think of the Bataan Death March, the Japanese, again, committed one of the most cruel atrocities, marching these people on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, and maybe 10,000 people died. Well, just 40 years before, the United States had waged a war against the Philippines, and probably a million people died in that war.

DANNY SCHECHTER: Yeah.

HOWARD ZINN: And, you know, we need to keep it all in perspective, the Japanese imperial designs and their brutality, the imperial designs of the other Western nations and of the United States, too. And if we do that, we will have a more balanced picture of the cruelties of war, and then we won’t rush to war thinking in our minds that, oh, this is going to be like World War II, a “good war.”

DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, there’s a terrific film being made about the bells of Balangiga, which was one of the atrocities in the Philippine war that has been forgotten, as was the resistance by Mark Twain and many others in the first anti-imperialist movement in the United States challenging the war in the Philippines — the Vietnam before Vietnam. And it’s something I know Howard has written about, and it’s something that we all ought to know about. Bernard Stone, the filmmaker, is making a terrific film about this, that I’ve had a preview of. And I think that will go a long way to try to enlighten people. But independent filmmakers like him don’t have the marketing and promotional budgets of Disney, you know, and Pearl Harbor, and so it’s much more difficult to get independent and critical and dissenting films out. On MediaChannel.org this week, we have an analysis of the Pearl Harbor film from The Guardian in England, which is far more critical than anything you’ve read in the American press. So, you know, this is something which other people in the world are debating and discussing, even if our own media is more involved in hyping all of this.

HOWARD ZINN: It’s interesting, the so-called free market decides what films get produced and what don’t, and what films can raise money. And you said, Danny, that Disney had spent $5 million — is that the figure? — on promoting —

DANNY SCHECHTER: No, no, no, Howard, just on the launch of the movie.

HOWARD ZINN: Just the —

DANNY SCHECHTER: Usually, the rule of thumb is that half the money in a budget goes to making it, and half to selling it and marketing it.

HOWARD ZINN: So, they start — well, they’re probably over $50 million on marketing.

DANNY SCHECHTER: Exactly.

HOWARD ZINN: But $5 million just on that one publicity stunt. And documentary filmmakers, who are doing serious and good films, like the film you were just talking about, about the bells of Balangiga in the Philippines, they have trouble raising $100,000 to make a film.

DANNY SCHECHTER: Right.

HOWARD ZINN: I mean, and I was watching some of the things done on television around Memorial Day, and they kept showing a documentary that was done about prisoners of war who came back from Vietnam. They kept showing this film again and again, Return with Honor. And it was about the American airmen who were imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and who were subjected to torture and terrible treatment. And here’s another example of presenting something in isolation, with a great loss of perspective, because it’s true that these men who suffered in the prison camps of North Vietnam were brave in enduring all of that, but it’s also not true that there was honor surrounding their participation in the war, because they had bombed villages in Vietnam, they had killed innocent people, they had subjected people in Vietnam to even worse cruelties than they had experienced in the prison camps. And it was not an honorable war. And therefore, to show that film again and again, Return with Honor, is to cast a kind of glow over the war in Vietnam.

DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, you know, there’s a whole industry about this, Howard. You know, it was just yesterday I was in the Congress of the United States. You walk past the offices of several of these congressmen, they’re all — they still have POW and MIA flags, you know, which, of course, are completely symbolic attempts to placate the public. And some years ago, when I was working at 20/20, I did a film, a profile of Rambo, the movie Rambo, and at that time of the great hype of Sylvester Stallone and the idea that there were these POWs still in Vietnam. And I was really struck when I interviewed the head of the League of Mothers of the POWs, and she was basically attacking Rambo for being shamelessly exploiting this whole problem and implying that these people were still alive, when the families knew very well that they weren’t. And this was sort of an industry of political exploitation. And this is sort of continuing to this day. And, you know, I would just say also, Howard, your comments on this — and you might want to say something about this — you know, you yourself were in the military during World War II and, I think, were a pilot, no?

HOWARD ZINN: I was a bombardier. My role gets romanticized, too, Danny. But being a bombardier was romantic enough. But, yes, I flew bombing missions over Europe in World War II. And I was an enthusiastic enlistee in the Air Force and believed in the war against fascism. But, you know, when the war ended, and looking around, yeah, I felt like the lieutenant in The Bridge on the River Kwai, looking around. Fifty million dead. And was fascism gone from the world? Was racism gone? Was militarism gone? The Germans, the Nazis, had committed unspeakable cruelties, and we had committed unspeakable cruelties. And I came to the conclusion that war cannot solve the fundamental problems that we have in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Howard Zinn, I wanted to end this segment with a column you did on “Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?” for The Boston Globe, that ended your stint — that ended your stint with The Boston Globe, after you did the biweekly column for a year and a half. And you concluded your piece by talking about who we should honor on Memorial Day.

You talked about “Thoreau, who went to jail to protest the Mexican War. And Mark Twain, who denounced our war against the Filipinos at the turn of the century. And I.F. Stone, who virtually alone among newspaper editors exposed the fraud and brutality of the Korean War. Let us honor Martin Luther King, who refused the enticements of the White House, and the cautions of associates, and thundered against the war in Vietnam.”

You wrote, “Memorial Day should be a day for putting flowers on graves and planting trees. Also, for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren. … There’s 90 billion for the B1 bomber, but people don’t have money to pay hospital bills.”

And you conclude it by saying, “In the end, it is living people, not corpses, creative energy, not destructive rage, which are our only real defense, not just against other governments trying to kill us, but against our own, also trying to kill us. Let us not set out, this Memorial Day, on the same old drunken ride to death.”

Well, I’m sorry it ended your stint as a columnist for The Boston Globe, but very glad that we got a chance to talk to you today. That essay, “Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?” is a part of your book, The Zinn Reader. Howard Zinn, thanks for joining us.

Danny Schechter, the news dissector and editor of MediaChannel.org, will remain on with us for our last segment, where we talk about the continued concentration of media with the, looks like, imminent takeover of DirecTV by Rupert Murdoch. We’ll also be joined by Bob McChesney. You’re listening to Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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