Web Letters | The Nation

Ken Burns's War > Letters

Web Letter

Although Ken Burns's effort to make real the face of war and combat American ignorance about WW II is laudable, in so doing he contributes to an underlying ignorance. His treatment of the US role in the war supports the popular misconception that it was the central one when, although important, our battlefield role was a minor one. Three quarters of the German forces were fighting the Soviet Union when allied forces hit the Omaha Beach and the major battles of the war had already been fought, including the battle of Stalingrad, a German defeat and the turning point of the war.

Although the 400,000 US WWII deaths is a large and tragic number, at Stalingrad alone the Soviet Union lost almost 100,000 more than that. About 10.7 million military and 11.9 million Soviet civilians were killed during the war, about 13.44 percent of the total population. (Recently released Russian figures put Russian deaths at the Battle of Moscow at 1.6 million, with German deaths there at 600,000.)

Burns also accepts and repeats the notion that the use of the atomic bomb was necessary to save American lives because the Japanese refused to accept unconditional surrender. In fact, it is now generally known that the only condition they held to was that the life of their emperor be spared (something that was done anyway). Our refusal to agree to this did not save American lives, it cost them, to say nothing of the death and destruction rained on Japan!

Finally, we used the bomb because we had it, and we used the second one because that's all we had.

Steve Juniper

Berkeley, CA

Oct 12 2007 - 10:59pm

Web Letter

I became a little annoyed when Ken Burns said, over and over, that he had to hurry to complete his film because 1,000 of us World War II veterans were dying every day. (Stop pushing, stop pushing!) And although impressed as usual by the quality of his filmed interviews, I thought he accepted, unquestioningly, the usual explanation for our entrance into the war--the "unprovoked" Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor--when, as we shall see, we had become entangled in a series of tragedies that went back a generation or more.

Burns's film presented a picture of a determined nation flocking to the colors in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Altogether, 16 million Americans put on a uniform during the war, but most of them did so only at the behest of Gen. Lewis Hershey and his neighborhood draft boards. (I volunteered, and as a bonus got an all-expenses-paid trip to a Normandy beach on June 6, 1944.) In one awesome statistic, Burns noted that only 14 percent of those in uniform went into the infantry, but that that group suffered 70 percent of all our casualties. (I spent many hours on the rifle range at prewar military-training camps, but never handled a weapon at all during four years of wartime naval service.) In a word, most of us spent several years in uniform, simply holding the coats of the actual trigger-pullers. After the dismal 1930s, the only decade in the nation's history when the economy actually declined, we were all desperately grateful for a paycheck. And we happy survivors prospered mightily in later decades with the help of the free higher education and nothing-down home loans created by the GI Bill.

Burns of course felt compelled to note that there were some problems on the home front during the war. Anyone who witnessed German POWs being served in restaurants that refused service to African-American servicemen could not help but notice the contradiction. On my own small ship, I certainly noticed the four black sailors, living in segregated quarters, whose primary duty was to serve as personal servants to the ship's half-dozen white officers. And during the summer of 1943, we all knew of the white mobs attacking Hispanic zoot-suiters in Los Angeles and of the deadly Detroit race riots (23 dead; over 700 injured.)

To give meaning to his horrific battlefield scenes, Burns interviewed survivors from the four American cities that he highlighted throughout the series. But in addition, he interviewed two men who had nothing to do with those communities but who were identified on the screen simply as "Infantry." One was Daniel Inouye, Congressional Medal of Honor winner and currently eight-term senator from Hawaii. (Recuperating in hospital with his shattered right arm, Inouye got some useful career advice from another patient with a shattered right arm, a Kansan named Bob Dole, who advised going into politics.) In Inouye's native Hawaii, home of Pearl Harbor, 200,000 Japanese Americans were left untouched during the war years because they were essential to the islands' economy. But in West Coast states, 100,000 other Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, while ghoulish neighbors swept in and took over homes, farms and businesses with little or no compensation.

The other "Infantry" veteran interviewed in the film deserves special mention because he, although otherwise unidentified by Burns, helps to provide the special link we need to follow the long string of tragedies that eventually culminated in the Second World War. Literature professor Paul Fussell, author of the magisterial study of British war poets, The Great War and Modern Memory, didn't provide any specific links in that volume, but in an opening chapter devoted to (prewar) poems by Thomas Hardy, he argued that--"as if by uncanny foresight"--Hardy's volume offered a medium for understanding the war just getting underway. As Fussell says, "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends."

* * *

The terrible chain of ironies culminating in the Second World War began a generation earlier, near the end of the First World War. Russia, a key participant in the Allied struggle against the Central Powers--capable of matching France in munitions production--fell into a political crisis in February 1917, when a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky forced Czar Nicholas to abdicate. Under heavy pressure from the French General Staff, Kerensky ordered an attack on the southeastern (Galician) front, but with supplies short the attack failed, and the 6 million-man army began to disintegrate. Power lay in the streets, and Vladimir Lenin's single-minded band of adventurers picked it up. In late October, while the huge Petrograd garrison stood idly by, a few thousand of Lenin's followers took over the strategic points in the city, and Kerensky's "government" could only muster a single woman's battalion in its defense.

With the disintegration of the huge Russian army, two small foreign contingents--about 40,000 men each--fought over the nation's corpse. A Communist force under Leon Trotsky, who had hurried back from New York for this purpose, consisted mostly of Latvians plus some Poles and Finns. Against them stood the Czech Legion, which had originally been drafted into the Austrian army but had then switched sides in Russian prison camps. The Czechs originally had hoped to leave the country via the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, but after some clashes with Trotsky's force they changed direction and headed for Moscow, only to be stopped at the town of Kazan. The Western Allies, anxious to re-establish an Eastern front against the Germans, meanwhile landed troops in Murmansk and Vladivostok, but their intervention became meaningless with the defeat of the Czech Legion in Russia and the collapse of the German army in France. But Russian armies, Red and White, continued struggling for several years until Lenin and eventually Stalin gained control.

Another set of ironic circumstances followed the collapse of the German army in France. With the Kaiser's abdication, the democratic parties of the Weimar republic took control, only to be faced by demands for territorial concessions and reparation payments from the vindictive Allies. In January 1923 the French army moved into the Rhineland to collect unpaid reparations, and thereby helped cause the hyperinflation that destroyed the German middle class and sent it searching for saviors. (At the worst, 4 billion marks would buy only one dollar's worth of goods.) But the Germans found a financial savior in the person of the enchantingly named Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht. American and British bankers, ever fearful of a Bolshevik takeover, supported Reichsbank President Schacht's efforts to curtail credit, cut government spending and, above all, institute a new currency based solidly on Germany's stock of real assets.

Germany then experienced a half-decade of relative prosperity, financed partly by large inflows of American capital. But with the onset of the Great Depression and the flight of those foreign funds, Germany's coalition parties handed power to the "Hunger Chancellor," Heinrich Bruening, who zealously imposed harsh deflationary policies that only aggravated the crisis. Losing his parliamentary majority, Bruening began to issue emergency decrees requiring only President Hindenburg's signature, under the Weimar constitution's Article 48 (Germany's version of the Patriot Act).

Democratic parties continued to hold control of the Reichstag even in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, although the Nazi vote soared at that time to more than one-third of the total vote. But the existence of Article 48 made it possible for the small palace guard surrounding Hindenburg to ignore the parliamentary majority. They persuaded Hindenburg to dismiss Bruening, a true democrat, and eventually to hand the post to someone they were sure they could control--the "Bohemian corporal" (Hitler) that the senile old man personally detested. Hitler moved quickly, imposing dictatorial rule under cover of the phony Reichstag fire, and meanwhile enlisted the help of the ever-resourceful Schacht to create an armaments boom that ensured the longevity of the Thousand Year Reich (twelve years, to be exact).

American anti-immigrant atitudes unfortunately peaked during the period of Hitler's pogroms. Over the entire 1933-44 decade, fewer that 250,000 immigrants of all nationalities gained admittance--a smaller number than in any other decade of the preceding century, and only a fraction of the number now admitted every single year. FDR even appointed an avowed anti-Semite to head the State Department's refugee office, and Congress in 1939 rejected plans to admit 20,000 Jewish children, thereby ensuring their doom.

* * *During the 1930s, when Hitler and Stalin were preparing for their rendezvous with history, one of their major wartime rivals was in the wilderness, ironically trying to live down a half-century of political misadventures. Most of those who worked closely with Winston Churchill over the preceding decades described him then as a drunken incompetent demagogue. Still, he managed to obtain high office in a number of Cabinets over the years, shifting allegiance from one party to another as his needs required. Despite his Conservative background, Churchill joined the rising Liberal Party in 1903 and was rewarded with the Board of Trade, where he pushed a number of social-reform policies. Promoted to the Home Office, he became a law-and-order man, supervising (with photographer in tow) the harsh repression of striking miners, anarchists and militant suffragettes. (He approved the forced feeding, Guantánamo-style, of hunger strikers who had been arrested for advocating votes for women.) Promoted to the Admiralty, he ordered massive spending on battleships, which were almost useless during the First World War--and became the architect of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, which failed with the loss of more than half the 489,000 men committed to the campaign.

He paid a political price for that misadventure, but a decade later, after reconversion to Conservatism, he was awarded the Exchequer, where he supervised the return of the pound to the gold standard at the prewar valuation. That turned out to be an economic Gallipoli, as the export trade collapsed and the British economy sank into a decade-long depression, with considerable labor unrest for which Churchill advocated only repression. Out of office during the 1930s, he briefly flirted with European fascist regimes, but then became an enemy of appeasement, especially appeasement of the rising Indian nationalist movement. He later broadened his anti-appeasement stance to Hitler's regime, and after war came he was again rewarded with the Admiralty--and soon thereafter staged the Narvik campaign, which except in scale was a repeat of the Gallipoli disaster. But inexplicably, that disaster created the government crisis that led to his promotion to Prime Minister.

Throughout the next two years, Churchill kept the nation's spirits alive with magnificent oratory while the Germans rampaged throughout Europe and the Japanese ran roughshod over Asia. And no one could dismiss his splendid Rudy Giuliani imitation at the time, striding purposefully through devastated city streets with entourage in tow--a performamce that has earned his bust a place of honor in our own Oval Office. But one wonders about his 1942 quote, "I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," which of course is exactly what he did.

* * *

Ironic circumstances extended to the other end of the world as well. The road to Pearl Harbor, and to Hiroshima, actually began in Berlin in 1918, when seemingly unbeatable Imperial Germany suddenly felt the weight of wartime shortages and collapsed into a state of chaos and famine. Japan's political and military leaders, who had built their state on the German model, suddenly felt very vulnerable, and vowed to follow a policy of self-sufficiency at all costs. But they believed they could obtain self-sufficiency only through economic and/or political contrrol over the resource-rich Asian mainland. Japanese armies thus spent the 1930s rampaging through North China and organizing the puppet state of Manchukuo. But in the summer of 1939 they suffered a setback when they encountered a superior Russian force at the Mongolian border town of Nomonhan. Staggering away with 17,000 casualties from that encounter, the Japanese turned their eyes to more tempting opportunities to the south--the orphaned French and Dutch colonies set adrift by Hitler's European conquests.

Japan's leaders failed to see, however, that the military buildup associated with their self-sufficiency drive made Japan economically dependent on the one country that was bound to contest that buildup, the United States. In the late 1930s, the US provided practically all of Japan's imports of critical materials--75 percent of its scrap iron, 60 percent of its machine tools, 93 percent of its copper and, above all, 80 percent of its petroleum imports. In addition to being oblivious to America's strong support for the beleaguered Chinese government, Japan failed to see the conflict between her ever-greater dependence on American supplies and America's ever-growing need to bolster its own rearmament program begun in response to Hitler's European triumphs. At a July 1941 Cabinet meeting, FDR agreed to impose export controls and to freeze all Japanese assets in this country. The system supposedly had some flexibility, but it soon hardened into a full-scale embargo on all trade with Japan. To the targeted nation, that was a casus belli. American editorialists, who had cheered plucky little Japan's surprise attack on Russia's Port Arthur base in 1904, had a somewhat different response when the target was Pearl Harbor in 1941.

* * *

The manifold tangle of ironic circumstance, Paul Fussell's catch-all description of wartime, can be seen at work in the several decades preceding Ken Burns's portrayal of the Second World War. But Burns's film, despite its fourteen-hour length, somehow underestimates two major parts of our wartime story.

Consider the history of the European war. To his credit, Ken Burns does not mention Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, which airbrushed out of the picture the wartime efforts of our allies in the British Empire and (especially) the Soviet Union. Even worse was Stephen Ambrose's fiftieth-anniversary volume, D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II. It was nothing of the sort; the climactic battle was fought a year earlier and 1,500 miles east of Normandy. Indeed; the struggle that began at Kursk on July 5, 1943 was the largest battle in human history. Wielding arsenals of about 6,500 tanks and 23,000 artillery pieces, about 2 million Nazi and Soviet troops fought for days in the Russian countryside, and the result spelled doom for Hitler's empire.

The following year, the Soviets slaughtered about 850,000 Nazi troops in the spring and summer of 1944--twice as many as the Wehrmacht lost on the Western front that season. The centerpiece, named the Bagration offensive after the Russian hero of Borodino (1812), coincided with the Normandy landings, and is now cited in military textbooks as the most impressive ground operation of World War II. Still, the Anglo-American allies could boast of one major accomplishment in their drive from Normandy to the Elbe--they gained a seat at the conference table with the tyrant whose generals had given him control over all of Eastern Europe. For the war as a whole, the Soviets lost about twenty-five times more men on the battlefield than the Americans did, and their civilian death toll was roughly twice their military death toll. Unfortunately, Burns shows little of this Soviet accomplishment in his film.

In contrast, Burns shows a considerable amount of footage of the sea battles and island-hopping campaigns of the Great Pacific War. Yet he failed to note the loud argument about the advisability of an invasion of Japan. The most significant source on that subject is (again) Paul Fussell. Several decades after the event, Fussell wrote "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," which described his feelings after being told he would join the Japan invasion force, while still recovering from the severe wounds he'd suffered on a German battlefield. (In his article, Fussell roundly denounced, by name, John Kenneth Galbraith and other civilian pundits who disagreed with him, and loudly praised the combat veteran, Harry Truman, who had to make the final decision on the Bomb.) In this connection, one wonders about the level of instruction in our military staff colleges. Japan was, and is, a resource-poor island nation, unable to survive without access to overseas sources of oil and the other materials. The key to defeating such a nation, as Admiral Doenitz demonstrated so clearly in the Battle of the Atlantic, was to destroy the ships carrying those precious supplies. America's "felt-slipper" navy initially was not up to the task, starved as it was by "black-shoe" (battleship) and "brown-shoe" (carrier) admirals, and hampered as well by poor leadership and useless weaponry. (The inadequacy of its torpedoes wasn't evident because, at $10,000 apiece, they were too expensive to risk in peacetime maneuvers.) But eventually everything came together, and by late 1944 Japan's fate was sealed. Aggressive sub commanders, using wolfpack tactics and effective weaponry, reduced Japan's bulk imports by half and its oil imports to a trickle. Along with the capture of the Marianas and the battle of Leyte Gulf (the largest naval battle in history), the victory of the 140 patrolling submarines, employing only 2 percent of all naval personnel, sealed Japan's fate.

At that point, American policymakers had the option of tightening the submarine blockade and waiting for the defeated and isolated island nation to come to terms. They rejected that option, however, and continued invasion planning under FDR's "unconditional surrender" policy. So the devastation continued. More than half of the 101,000 American battle deaths of the Great Pacific War occurred between the summer of 1944 and the summer of 1945--a figure roughly equal to all American deaths during the decade-long engagement with Vietnam. Japan's death toll was twenty-five times greater, and the great majority of those 2.5 million deaths occurred in the final desperate months. The crucial actors during that period were General Curtis LeMay's bomber crews. A few years earlier, Americans had been outraged when German pilots killed about 1,000 civilians in the Basque town of Guernica (cf. Picasso's painting). But in 1945 they cheered to the rafters when American pilots turned hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians into burning torches with their fire bombs and atom bombs in Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And then? With the Emperor's capitulation, Admiral Halsey signaled the fleet, "The forces of righteousness and decency have triumphed." But as Prime Minister Yoshida noted in his first cabinet meeting, it is possible to lose a war and yet win a peace. The American occupiers, among other achievements, imposed a land-reform program that brought prosperity to the countryside, and thereby helped conservative politicians gain a near-permanent stranglehold over the national government. The occupiers also imposed a pacifist constitution that consistently pleases Japanese taxpayers while enraging Pentagon planners.

The American occupiers, finally, set Japan firmly on the road to postwar prosperity. In 1949, they sent Detroit banker Joseph Dodge to administer a dose of root-canal economics. The following year, with the onset of the Korean War, they flooded Japan with military contracts: "Japan's Marshall Plan." The rest is (economic) history. With its export orientation, Japan has delighted generations of American consumers but brought despair to generations of American manufacturers--and in the process has accumulated hundreds of billions in American IOUs. Irony, indeed.

William M. Burke

San Francisco, CA

Oct 10 2007 - 11:30pm

Web Letter

I saw several hours of the documentary and it was riveting.

The filming, though, showed the heroism of soldiers. It didn't show the behind-the-scenes doings of the rich who profited from the war. Prescott Bush's managing of German funds during the war, and his ability to escape being put up against a wall and shot for treason would have helped to give a better perspective of how capital (and its handlers) operates during wartime.

War. What is it good for? Making money.

Bob In Pacifica

Pacifica, CA

Sep 29 2007 - 12:02pm

Web Letter

There is a seductive quality to war, which is only cured by witnessing a war. Viewing the Battlefield of Fredericksburg after an engagement, Robert E.Lee remarked, "It is good that war is so horrible, or we would love it too much." If that horror is experienced second hand through film, than that film may take the glamor away from any war.

It also is true that war is not moral, but World War II, unlike Iraq, was not a war of choice. The Allied countries were attacked, and our entry into the war was not by choice. Any war is horrible, but, we did not chose war, it chose us. In that sense, it was "good" war. By listening to the horrible experiences of both soldiers and civilians in various wars, it should make any sane person look for other alternatives to war, if an alternative exists. However, sometimes there is no alternative, and we must face the horror of war.

Pervis J. Casey

Riverside, CA

Sep 29 2007 - 11:44am

Web Letter

For me, the greatest disappointment in the Burns series on WWII was the music. I found the use of simplistic swing music as background while the troops stormed the beaches irritating as hell. And am I the only one who noticed those crazy string-quartet-like excerpts from the likes of Edgar ("Appalachian Waltz") Mayer were actually more humorous than complementary to the visual and the narration? Good grief, all that Little-Kenny-Funding money floating around, and nobody to tell the man his selection of music was completely inappropriate? Weird world, this.

Eugene Barnes

Dunn Loring, VA

Sep 29 2007 - 12:53am

Web Letter

The War, intentionally or not on the part of Ken Burns, shows us that today's generation, which is to say my generation (while admittedly suffering from a dearth of good leadership), is doing everything wrong. FDR called upon an entire nation to sacrifice, and it did. The astonishing fact related by Burns that only 139 automobiles were sold in America during the war says it all--the WWII generation was a great generation because of the degree to which they sacrificed. Burns's documentary dererves to be lauded on that point alone. Today, we are faced with giant problems--global warming, HIV/AIDS, terrorism, American reactionism etc.--that threaten to overwhelm us. And what is our collective response? What do we do to honor a generation that gave up everything to deal the crisis they faced? We shop.

Chris Castle

Columbus, OH

Sep 28 2007 - 3:37pm

Web Letter

Keep in mind that if the war is justified, which WWII certainly was, then there is no moral failure in combat.

Charles Thornton

Reisterstown, MD

Sep 28 2007 - 9:51am

Web Letter

I have watched some of War. I'm not keeping score, but I believe Burns has allowed many of the interviewees to say how scared they were. Doing this, Burns allows the impact of war to come through the otherwise history-from-a-distance and propaganda about abstact glory and honor that we have been saturated with. When I was a kid in the '50s, I saw plenty of that on CBS's 20th Century, hosted by Walter Cronkite. Yes, they made it seem like a "good" war. I was horrified and repulsed by it nonetheless. Later, I found out that Hitler (making no apologies for him) had convincing arguments for Germans to justify his war-making, as do all war-makers. As I watch War, my mind moves to the US's current war. I conclude that Burns is doing us a service by reminding us that our current war, like all wars, is a brutal destructive and ultimately futile effort--and in contrast to WWII, allows the vast majority of US citizens to be uninvolved and disengaged from it. Because war goes on, War also reminds me that war is failure; never a success, never a victory, and never over--unless, as Lennon observed, "War is over if we want it."

Tom Hardenbergh

Bath, MI

Sep 28 2007 - 7:24am

Web Letter

While our TV screens show us cosmetic ways to glorify the outer flesh to enhance our self-esteem, our distorted dream, demanding a portrayal of total narcissism, the truth of war exposes the true nature of our flesh.

War enlists the other side of flesh, that side which is torn open, that which is maimed, that which is destroyed--as is the soul that it carries. Yes, by all means expose both sides of flesh, the killers and killed, and feel the death of one's soul.

That is the true nature of war, and at present, a war that none of the Bush families or Cheney children embrace enough to serve in the military or fight in Iraq for their country, as do the tragic soldiers that are dying for false ideals, for the sake of a "narcissistic lie.

"War is Hell"--it destroys everything!

Bohdan Yuri

Kennebunk, ME

Sep 27 2007 - 11:36pm

Web Letter

Although Ken Burns War has it's moments, as Hayes describes, I agree with his assessment. It misses the mark for the contemporary audience.

The true horror of war was couched in a nation's struggle to fight the war. War itself, was examined as subject, not as a tragedy. Strategy overwhelms the fog of war.

Today we see the prowar pundits already refighting the Iraq War to rationalize our next war . Burns fails to make the case against them.

Michael McKinlay

Hercules , CA

Sep 27 2007 - 7:08pm

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.