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Bombing of Germany (American Experience), The (DVD Review)

12 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by Joe Morton.

Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were initially both advocates of “precision” bombing in World War II — that is, exclusively hitting targets that would afflict pain on Germany’s wartime economy and staying away from civilian populations. A sub-theme of this hour-long documentary about how the Allies got from this point to, say, Dresden, is that nothing is forever.

Germany bombed civilians from the get-go, and when it started bombing London, Churchill didn’t take too long to change his mind, especially about targeting Berlin. Americans had their own ideas about the specifics, which initially led to a clash. The Brits thought the Yanks would simply replicate previous Brit mistakes, but the Americans considered themselves to have better bombers and training. Finally, the two countries worked out a system: the British would bomb Germany at night, and the Americans by day. Hamburg, already the largest German port and second largest city, was an easy table-setter call because it was just a short hop across the North Sea.

What we’ve all seen in bomber crew movies from Twelve O’Clock High to Catch-22 is related first-hand here: Americans suffered 77% casualties in the first months, and one veteran tells of looking down and seeing what he thought were burning haystacks, only to realize that they were burning B-17’s.

Much of this story — and it’s one of the documentary’s most interesting features — has to do with the disagreements, infighting or politics (however you want to term it) between those who favored all-out bombing of civilian populations and those who didn’t. Some of it had to do with moral convictions and some with difficult logistics. One bombardier says he kept telling himself the planes were like flocks of geese in that some didn’t make it but most got through.

Historians here debate the bombing or at least present it in skeptical grays. But what’s missing — and maybe this beyond the scope of an American Experience documentary — is a real sense of the devastation’s horror and scope.

The strongest point for advocacy is the last comment we hear, and momentarily, at least, it’s a conversation-stopper. But you could have quite an instructional evening by running this with George Roy Hill’s 1972 movie of Kurt Vonnegut’s Dresden memory Slaughterhouse Five — which, in any event, is one of its era’s most satisfactory book-to-film adaptations and one Vonnegut liked very much.

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