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Juniata Historian Talks About Perceptions of War

(Posted September 17, 2007)

David Hsiung, Knox Professor of History

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- More than 60 years after the surrender of Japan and on the eve of the premiere of \"The War,\" the latest epic documentary by celebrated filmmaker Ken Burns, will young people who don\'t remember the war in Vietnam or the first Gulf War find relevance in this new interpretation of what author Studs Terkel called \"The Good War?\" According to David Hsiung, Knox Professor of History at Juniata College, his students and other young people may find the topic even more relevant to their lives. \"In World War II there was a clearly defined bad guy. Even today, Hitler and Nazis are still used as villains in movies and the Japanese were seen as a treacherous enemy for attacking Pearl Harbor,\" says Hsiung, who teaches the course \"20th Century Wars as Social and Personal Experience.\" (Hsiung will teach the course again next year.) \"In wars after World War II the bad guy was less clearly defined.\" \"The War,\" will air on PBS stations starting Sunday, Sept. 23. Hsiung also says World War II was supported much more widely across all socioeconomic classes. \"There was a solid sense that we are all in this together, not only in fighting the war, but on the home front where there was rationing, war bond drives and other activities that brought people together,\" he says. Like his course, which focuses on the personal stories of people who participated in wars, Hsiung sees filmmakers, media and even some historians focusing more on the personal stories of soldiers rather than the grand strategies that led up to wars or plans that helped win battles. \"\'Saving Private Ryan,\' which is a great movie, ignores most of the war to concentrate on a small group of soldiers,\" Hsiung explains. More recent wars, such as the Korean War, the war in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, did not have overwhelming popular support on the home front. As a consequence, Hsiung explains, the \"home front\" population were less interested in why and how battles were won or lost. The World War II documentary \"The War\" by Ken Burns, the award-winning director who directed \"The Civil War,\" \"Baseball\" and \"Jazz.\" is perhaps the culminating event in a wave or renewed interest in World War II. Previously, such books as \"The Greatest Generation\" and \"D-Day,\" as well as films such as \"Private Ryan,\" and the miniseries \"Band of Brothers\" sparked renewed interest in the events of the war. Many authors and filmmakers started media-related projects centered on the war. Juniata also participated in one such project. Donna Weimer, Thornbury Professor of Communication, oversaw a joint project with Penn State\'s Governor\'s School for Information Technology, in which high school students from around Pennsylvania filmed and edited oral histories from World War II veterans and \"home front\" citizens. Several years ago Weimer and several other Juniata representatives accompanied four veterans to the Library of Congress to present nearly 20 filmed histories to the library. This outpouring of interest in World War II, Hsiung explains, can be traced to the nation\'s more ambiguous feelings about subsequent wars. \"World War II set the model for wars, a clear enemy, united allies and very little domestic opposition,\" he says. \"Of course it wasn\'t \'The Good War\' for everyone. African-Americans were segregated in the armed services, Japanese-Americans were interned in camps, censorship was used. \"We don\'t see that kind of support again for a war until the first Gulf War and once again it was a very World War II-like operation, a clear victory and a clear bad guy, we could track very visible progress,\" Hsiung continues. \"It was the anti-Vietnam.\" Hsiung, whose area of expertise is colonial America, says soldiers and others often looked to past wars to get inspiration. Many Civil War soldiers mentioned Revolutionary War battles such as Bunker Hill or Washington\'s ordeal at Valley Forge in letters to spouses or families. \"We all want examples from wiser people to tell us how to live,\" Hsiung says. \"These wars can tell us if we are willing to sacrifice or able to understand events beyond our immediate life. People want that kind of example.\"

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.