I could binge-watch old WWII newsreels for days. Not only were many of them masterpieces of cinematography and combat correspondence, but the idea of America’s only visual access to the war coming through these shorts is a far cry from the information-riddled world we live in now.
Imagine it’s 1944. You have two brothers off in the war and you only have a general idea of where they’re at. The Allies’ push into Europe and Asia is ramping up, and communication with your loved ones has become increasingly scarce. Aside from the sacrifices abroad, like most Americans, you’re having to make more sacrifices at home. Rationing has become the norm. There’s less help to tend to the family farm, so you’re having to put in more time out in the fields just to make up for the absence of your brothers.
One of your only reprieves from the grind of an embattled country just coming out of the Great Depression is to head into town on Sunday to catch a movie at the local theater.
There’s a new John Wayne flick you’ve been wanting to see. But above all else, you know they’re going to be running a five-minute war reel before the feature starts. Like most Americans, you don’t have a television. This reel is your only real opportunity to see what’s going on overseas.
The carnivorous side of you wants to see Germans and Japanese getting mowed down by Allied guns. You want to see the action that most young men crave. And this isn’t the manufactured film kind you’re about to watch. This is the real thing: a visual and audio play-by-play narrative of every battle happening in every corner of the world. Unbeknownst to you, these little shorts are carefully crafted propaganda that skillfully hide the true horrors of war while showing just enough battlefield exploits to keep Americans supporting the war.
But there’s also a deeper reason you want to see these shorts. It’s something that the local paper or radio can’t give you. When you attentively sit there and go over the footage, what you’re really wanting is to catch just one glimpse of your brothers.
You haven’t seen either of them in two years. Minus some sporadic mail that shows up, you don’t know how they’re doing at all. You’re yearning to see them as one of those smiling faces the camera profiles. You know that, other than them magically showing back up at your parent’s doorstep, the small hope of seeing them on the screen is all the satisfaction you’ll get in the near future.
My, how the times have changed. Sat phones, Skype, social media, and other platforms have many deployed service members in constant contact with their loved ones. In many ways, they’re able to live in both worlds at once, because of their access to these platforms.
A young Marine who just got into a firefight is able to rip the footage from his GoPro and have it uploaded to YouTube within minutes of getting back to his base — footage that every person in the world will have immediate access to.
The allure of combat isn’t the same as it used to be. There’s little censorship or handpicked footage. It’s simply all out there.
With the exception of a few notable journalists, documentarians, and photographers, nobody in the 21st century has done as good of a job showing the war as the troops themselves. It’s a far contrast from 1944, when the only visual information you were getting was from professional filmmakers.
We’ll see what the world of combat documentation brings in the next 70 years.