November 18, 2011

Professor Donald L. Miller Helps Fill Historical Holes with HBO Documentary He Has Seen War

Donald Miller, John Henry MacCracken Professor of History, teaches a class in Ramer History House.

Donald Miller, John Henry MacCracken Professor of History, teaches a class in Ramer History House.

We think of them as the Greatest Generation: the World War II soldiers who fought the noble war and came home to usher in an economic boom and the idyllic period of the 1950s. But their stoicism and reluctance to discuss the combat stress they suffered hid a darker side to victory “over there.”

In the new HBO documentary He Has Seen War, surviving veterans and their families explore the years after the war and how the soldiers coming home dealt with the more personal struggle of finding their place in society once again. Donald L. Miller, MacCracken Professor of History, is the associate producer and on-camera expert for the film. Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman are the executive producers. The documentary is packaged with the Band of Brothers/The Pacific Special Edition Gift Set and premiered at the WWII Museum in New Orleans over Veteran’s Day weekend.

“The material itself is different,” explains Miller. “When people study the Civil War, for instance, they study the war and reconstruction, the time right after it. It seems with WWII, the story stops in 1945, so we thought this is a big, black hole in American history, and these guys suffered a lot. There’s all this training that goes into the preparation of war, and there’s not training for the transition. In Okinawa, there were 28,000 guys taken off the field for combat stress, or what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The war transformed them, changed them irrevocably, and the country changed permanently.”

One of the film’s biggest obstacles, Miller says, was getting Easy Company, 101st Airborne veterans like Bill Guarnere, Don Malarkey, and Buck Compton and 1st Marine Division veterans like Sid Phillips and R.V. Burgin to open up about their postwar experiences. The veterans’ families, however, were very forthcoming, sharing memories of their husbands’ and fathers’ nightmares, unwillingness to discuss what they saw, and the atmosphere in the country when they returned home. The producers also interviewed the veterans in groups, allowing them to support and encourage one another in sharing their experiences for the film. The result is a moving tribute to the effect war has on the soldier after the battle is over.

“They’re a very self-enclosed generation; sharing their feelings is just not the thing to do,” says Miller. “The ironic thing is you need love to fight war, and during the war, the [soldiers] had their buddies to help them through, but when they came home, they were alone and had to fight this alone. If you admit you have [post traumatic stress disorder], you might not get a job. It’s the ’40s-’50s idea that you’re really screwed up if you see a psychiatrist.”

Once the film started moving forward, the enthusiasm from veterans and their families only built. Robert Leckie’s daughter recalls reading her father’s memoir Helmet for My Pillow after he passed, finally understanding the screaming she’d hear as a child when her father was having nightmares. When Sid Phillips’ sister, Katharine Phillips Singer, heard the idea for the film, she nearly jumped out of her seat to be part of it, telling the producers that so many returning veterans suffered, but their stories are rarely told.

“The most encouraging thing about the whole film is that I was doing a book signing after [the film’s screening at the WWII Museum], and a lot of ex-military people were saying, ‘You’ve got to get this film out,’” Miller says. “One guy, who was a major, said, ‘My soldiers need to see this, that their grandfathers went through this and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.’ It resonates so strongly with the present.”

One of Miller’s EXCEL Scholars, Tyler Bamford ’12 (Souderton, Pa.), assisted with researching the film. Planning to pursue a graduate degree in military history, Bamford has worked with Miller over the last several years on various projects and served an internship with Lou Reda Productions for the making of WWII in HD, a 10-hour series inspired by Miller’s book The Story of World War II that aired on the History Channel in November 2009. Miller was writer and chief historical consultant for the series.

“Tyler was just a natural for this and really did professional work,” says Miller.

Sharing such high-profile work with his students is an added bonus for Miller, who believes the best way to connect with his students is to work with them rather than grade or lecture at them. But he expects their best efforts.

“There’s a point where they’re students in college and then comes a point when they’re partners in research,” he says. “It’s fun working with them and seeing them mature. This is big-time, big-league work, and I value that partnership, but they have to perform to the highest standards and they usually do.”

Miller, who began his career interested in intellectual history, discovered military history after Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War sparked his interest. In fact, his next book will be on the social history of the Battle of Vicksburg. But it was his four-year-old granddaughter who suggested he tackle WWII history. After his father, a WWII Air Force veteran, passed away in 1995, Miller sorted through his things and found a lot related to the war. His uncle, too, was a veteran serving in the 1st Infantry Division, known as the “Big Red One,” one of the first to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

“Military history is not popular among faculty, but is tremendously popular with students and to readers,” he says. “All war, to my mind, is an indicator of the nature of society. Socrates said, ‘Know yourself.’ War is a great reflection of who we are. Under duress, we really find out who we are, and war is the ultimate stress or distress. It’s the human element of war that I’m interested in.”

Miller is an award-winning author and expert on WWII. Three of his eight books are on the war: Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (2006); D-Days in the Pacific (2005); and The Story of World War II (2001), all published by Simon & Schuster.

Miller also appeared as an on-camera expert on The American Experience program The Bombing of Germany. The one-hour documentary was based in part on Masters of the Air, and Miller served as the production’s principal consultant. He also is chief historical consultant and writer for The Pacific’s ambitious website and is historical consultant and on-camera expert on the DVD and Blu-Ray components of the series.

Miller has won six awards for excellence in teaching, five fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of prestigious book awards. As in many of his projects, students played a key role in the production of his books, including fact checking, proofreading, and critiquing Masters of the Air and The Story of World War II.

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1 Comment

  1. My father was a bombadier instructor, stateside. His trained crews in the Southwest and his plane unloaded practice bombs on the bombing range at Fort Knox before they were allowed to land.

    The emotional effects of war, even in the States, could be surprising. In his eighties, he shared one of his last memories of the war. A decorated fighter pilot got drunk at the bar, took up his plane, buzzed the field and crashed, taking a bunch of sleeping army men with him. “They never had a chance!”, he said. Pilots in training died on the mountainsides of the southern Rocky Mountains in distant wisps of white smoke. Dad kept his uniform in his closet, his officers cap on the shelf and a 45 up there with it. I don’t ever remember him shooting that pistol.

    says John Rehm
    November 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm

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