D-Day: As it Happens (Channel 4) was part of the spate of programming that, as usual, accompanied the anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy on 6th June, 1944. Described on its website as a ‘completely new way’ to tell the story of this World War II campaign, the programme ran on terrestrial television over two instalments on the 5th and 6th June, but also ‘popp[ed] up’ (as the website describes it) in ad breaks through other programming on Channel 4 and More4 over the two days, whilst simultaneously spreading out on the website and into ‘live’ Twitter feeds. As Producer/Director Joe Myerscough puts it, ‘we wanted people to be able to switch on their phones whilst they were having their breakfast and see our characters running up the beaches.’ In order to generate the sense that the events were unfolding in ‘real time’, any quotations used by the programme, according to the website, were ‘simply converted . . . into the present tense’ and in a sense, this is what the entire project sets out to do – to ‘simply convert’ the past into the present. D-Day: As it Happens therefore brings into focus some of the issues associated with representing the past on television in general, and some of those associated with the mediation of World War II in particular.
The programme is constructed around the experiences of seven people involved in the operation – six men and one woman, all members of either the British, French or U.S. military forces. As one of the most intensely covered events in World War II, the landings in Normandy generated a vast amount of archival material. Traces of all seven participants can be found throughout these mediated remains and were identified largely through the efforts of an amateur historian, Colin Henderson, who meticulously connected shipping manifests, photographs, films, maps, plans and orders, amongst other things, to plot out a timeline for each individual, accounting for where they were and what they were doing at what point during the two days.
The visual configuration of this ‘giant, 24 hour timeline’, which forms the backbone of the programme, with its amalgamation of photographs and quotes all ‘pinned’ to the times they were recorded, will be familiar to anyone who uses Facebook. Each of the seven also has an individual Twitter feed, which, together with the timeline, is designed to create a sense of ‘liveness’, of events unfolding in the present. The attempt to haul World War II into the present as ‘breaking news’ is further enhanced by mimicking the style of a live newsroom broadcast in the programme itself, with presenter Peter Snow asking for moments on the timeline to be ‘paused’ and by cutting away to footage of the landings as if they were live events significant enough to interrupt the flow of the studio broadcast.
But resurrecting the visual remains of the past in the present is not quite as simple as changing the tense in a sentence. Perhaps because of the association with black and white and an aesthetic of ‘pastness’, to borrow a term from Paul Grainge (2002:138), the grainy photographs and film footage seem oddly resistant to the programme’s attempts to integrate them with slick computer graphics, intertitles and displays, resulting in a forced juxtaposition between past and present that highlights, rather than erases, the temporal gulf between then and now. But that is only the start of the problems with the programme’s treatment of visual material from World War II.
In the numerous documentaries and series on World War II, it has become standard practice to treat the vast visual archive generated by the conflict as historical material. D-Day: As it Happens goes one step further and situates its visual footage as a direct, and unmediated, window to the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussion of Robert Capa’s D-Day photographs. As I discuss in more detail elsewhere, Capa’s photographs are the perfect example of the factors shaping the nature of images that made it back from the frontline and of how they were subsequently framed according to wartime needs and practices (Ramsay, 2012: 71-73).
Capa spent a terrified hour on Omaha beach taking photographs under conditions that made it difficult to raise his head, never mind his camera, above the sand. In his biography of Capa, Alex Kershaw describes the tortuous route taken by Capa’s film from Normandy to Life magazine’s London offices, where they were developed before being transported to New York in time for the next deadline (Kershaw, 2004, 126-130). During the course of this process, all but a handful of around a hundred images were inadvertently ruined in a mishap in the developing room. The surviving photographs were described by Life magazine, which incorrectly attributed the smeared and indistinct quality of the photographs to Capa’s ‘immense excitement in the moment’, as ‘acutely real’ (19th June, 1944: p30). In line with the conventions of the time, Life plays down the danger of the landings and emphasises excitement. The photospread also reflects a pervasive perspective at the time of visual footage offering access to the ‘real’ war, as well as a developing association between hypermediation and realism.
Geoffrey Klingsporn identifies a persistent ‘impulse’ to associate images of war with ideas of ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’, despite widespread acknowledgement in visual studies that the relationship between filmic media and ‘indexicality’ has always been troubled (Klingsporn, 2006: 39-40). Just as Life did sixty-nine years ago, D-Day: As it Happens demonstrates this impulse by suggesting that the visual footage of World War II allows the viewer, as the trailer puts it, to ‘see it as they saw it’ – a position that ignores not only the factors governing what images made it back from the war front, but also the strategies involved in framing such material for the wartime generation. These included instructions to both civilian and military photographers to concentrate on combat above all else, creating an impression of a total war as predominantly consisting of fighting between soldiers and effectively marginalizing the enormous impact the war had on the civilian population – an impression that D-Day: As it Happens faithfully replicates.
Regardless of its promises to tell the story of the war in a ‘new way’ through modern technology, D-Day: As it Happens reproduces a version of the events of 6th June, 1944 that could quite easily have been broadcast at the time. Capa’s photographs are described in much the same terms as they are in Life’s reproduction of them, with the idea that their blurred and grainy aesthetic represents the ‘excitement’ and difficulty of capturing combat on camera endorsed by combat photographer Lieutenant Colonel Lorna Ward. Despite replicating Life’s error and with it demonstrating a lack of journalistic rigour, at least Ward and the other two guest presenters (Colonel Tim Collins, famous for an eloquent speech to his forces during the invasion of Kuwait in 2003, and ex-Royal Marine Arthur Williams) strike a suitably sombre, if somewhat reverential, tone for the events they are asked to commentate on. Peter Snow, on the other hand, while known for his animated style, here adopts a jolly approach that is at odds with the seriousness of the material, but which would not be out of place in a 1940s newsreel. Troops mounted on bicycles are described as ‘racing inland . . . like it’s the Tour de France!’ (an image immediately followed by horrific footage of a plane being blown out of the sky). ‘Let’s hope George’s oxygen lasts long enough to complete his mission!’ is the cue to cut away from the desperately dangerous and horrendous conditions facing submariners located in tiny vessels off the coast to guide the fleet inshore. Can you imagine a live stream of an operation in Afghanistan being described in the same terms? – ‘let’s hope those reinforcements arrive in time to rescue our soldiers pinned down in Kabul!’ Yes. Let’s.
Snow’s tone feeds into a nostalgic, indulgent view of World War II and its soldiers, who emerge from this programme as innocent, a little naïve and, I would go so far as to say, somehow more ‘pure’ than today’s soldiers. After all, according to Snow, ‘horsecock’, a word used by a group of American soldiers to dismiss Eisenhower’s pre-invasion motivational efforts, is apparently ‘strong’ language for these soldiers. Yet these are the same G.I.s who, according to veteran Paul Fussell, were ‘fertile with insult and cynicism’ and who devised acronyms like SNAFU and FUBAR to describe their situations (Fussell, The Real War, 1989) . With soldiers as innocent as this, who appear to bear the brunt of the war’s impact, it becomes possible to believe that war can be waged honourably; that World War II was indeed a ‘good war’.
And this is where the programme’s deeper issues become apparent. It is of course, completely natural on the anniversary of a particular event to focus on that moment in history, but D-Day: As it Happens not only replicates wartime strategies and attitudes towards reporting conflict, it also perpetuates a narrative that has gradually built up around D-Day in Normandy, particularly in the U.K. and the U.S.A. In the national narratives of these two countries, this battle is positioned as the pivotal moment of World War II, as evidenced by the immediate association of the term ‘D-Day’ with the 6th June, 1944, as if the Normandy invasion were the only D-Day to occur during the war. According to D-Day: As it Happens, this was the day when American and British forces (the programme acknowledges the involvement of other nations, but only in limited terms), ‘gave us all a brighter future’. Vestiges of the story that developed around World War II during the Cold War are thus still very much in evidence here, as by positioning D-Day in Normandy as the pivotal moment of World War II, the significant role played by the Soviets in defeating Germany is simply ignored.
Perhaps even more seriously in the light of current conflicts, the programme strips the liberation of Europe of all the complexities involved in a violent struggle to free a country from occupation. The invasion left Normandy a ‘bloody, unrecognizable mess’ (Hitchcock, 2008: 27). While it is prohibitively difficult to establish precise figures, the figure for civilian casualties incurred over 6th to 7th June in Normandy is estimated at around 3,000 (Hitchcock, 2008:27). To put that in perspective, it is around 500 more than the number of American soldiers killed on D-Day, yet civilian deaths are amongst the facts about the day that Marianna Torgovnick suggest are ‘hiding in plain sight’ – perfectly accessible, but rarely considered in narratives of the invasion (Torgovnick, 2005: 41). Also ‘hiding’ but perhaps not quite in plain sight, is the fact that the behavior of the liberating armies was often far from innocent or ideal. In addition to the violence accompanying the fighting to liberate Europe’s towns and cities, which frequently destroyed, or came close to destroying them in the process of freeing them, crime and looting were endemic from the start of the invasion, leaving one local police commissioner in Belgium to observe that ‘O Lord, deliver us from our liberators’ was a common prayer uttered by the civilians in his jurisdiction (quoted in Hitchcock, 2008: 97). Yet the only mention of the impact of the invasion on civilians in D-Day: As it Happens is when a laughing Peter Snow indulgently remarks over an image of a French couple smiling and waving at the side of the road that ‘it looks like the invasion, by the way, is going down well with the locals!’. The French couple are the only visual trace of the civilian population in D-Day: As it Happens. The programme therefore maintains key absences in narratives of war that perpetuate the idea of a liberating army as an essentially benign force that strikes out only at opposing military forces without posing any threat or causing any damage to civilians.
Of course the actions of the soldiers on this day should be remembered and honoured. But sixty-nine years after the event, and in the light of current conflicts, is it not also time to acknowledge the complexities of warfare and to admit that the cost of war is not just borne by members of the armed forces? That would have been the true innovation. That would have been the ‘completely new way’ of telling the story of the 6th June, 1944.
Debra Ramsay teaches film and media at Leicester University. Her doctoral research examines war, memory and media through contemporary representations of World War II in American film, television and games. She has published articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray technologies on the relationship between history, film and television, and on the First Person Shooter and the memory of World War II.