Thursday, September 27, 2007

Faith Works 9-29-07
Jeff Gill

If Only In Our Dreams

Tomorrow begins the second half of Ken Burns’ “The War” on public television, with last week repeated through the day tomorrow on most PBS stations.

You’ve probably heard that the story of World War II is covered largely from the point of view of the home front, using two small towns and two medium sized cities of the United States as the lenses to view this global conflict.

The selection of just the right pictures, now including color and movie clips alongside the classic “Ken Burns effect,” panning across old black and white photos, is complemented by precisely the narrator voice and exactly the music background for bringing out the unvarnished emotion of everyday men and women. Even the sound effects are just right, just so, justly praised.

An image from last week that sticks with me, as no doubt intended, is a shot of women in a Catholic church, kneeling in prayer while wearing black lace mantillas, loops of rosary beads between their hands. The picture homes in on those prayer cords, and then dissolves into IV tubing, held aloft by a corpsman tending a fallen comrade. Their helmeted, framed faces, drawn and weary, echo the women’s appearance as they prayed back home, the connections between them as real as a rosary, an IV, a vein.

Burns’ team at Florentine Films does a good job helping us sense the absolute lack of inevitability about war’s end, even in 1944, and anxiety about what that end would look like.

In my contact with Americans of the WWII generation, there’s a love of the song “White Christmas,” but the tune that can bring a room of them to absolute silence is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” When Bing sings, “you can count on me,” even us younger folk know he’s saying “as far as it’s in my power,” but we all know that the tone of the song is not about optimism for Christmas next, but a prayer for some Christmas soon, and not just in our dreams.

For many in service, Atlantic or Pacific theater of operations, the fall and winter of 1944 brought no easy confidence that the sharpest or the best would necessarily make it home. Many good men had fallen from the sky or been swallowed by hedgerows in Europe, and the vastness of the Pacific had consumed so much, so many already. They wanted to be home for Christmas, but feared that it would only be in the dreams of their loved ones.

Hispanic and other ethnic groups have already taken their shots at Burns and PBS for not emphasizing their own role in the conflict. I don’t want to get in that line, but I’m nagged at by the feeling that the place of faith in the motivations of Soldiers and Sailors and Marines, and how church and communion kept the home front connected, has not gotten much consideration.

You could even say that church groups had a role to play in how little they did to prevent “The War,” even that Mainline Protestants have some accountability in their eagerness to embrace warfare in World War I, the harshness they encouraged at Versailles, and the stage setting they helped provide for Hitler, both in Germany or around the world.

You could say that, but then you’d still be affirming that organized religion has an important role in public life, so we don’t even hear about the shortcomings.

Nor do we get much of the picture of when tens of thousands of volunteers, through a network of co-operating churches, fed and offered a smile to soldiers on trains crossing the country. In Kansas, in Illinois, in Dennison, Ohio, people of faith looked for ways to embody love in a time of war.

Chaplains served with honor, and without weapons, in every major ground and sea action of the war, giving the citizen combatants a place to wrestle with hard questions and harder realities of what they had done in their nation’s service. Mass on aircraft carriers, hymn sings in marble quarries, Yom Kippur observances under pine trees – all these are indelible images of the war from many veteran’s reminiscences.

The lack of such a perspective doesn’t take too much away from Ken Burns, but it does leave an interesting gap for someone to fill; we’d best not wait too much longer for that story, either.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of “The War” at

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