The War, directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is a strange, lumbering beast. In the past few weeks, it has consumed more than fourteen hours of PBS programming–in both G-rated versions and with a few curse words left in–and has generated discussions, promos, localized versions, web material, a coffee-table book and who knows what else. Burns has said that he devoted six years and untold millions to this story because he hears that students think we fought with Germany against Russia and because the World War II veterans who could tell the story were dying off at such a rate that it had to be done now or not at all.
Whether it should have been done at all is a more complicated question. Of course, all people of good will support a focus on history in our public discourse; and though he has no professional academic training and decided to include no military experts or historians in his Greek chorus, Burns is a reasonably reliable narrator. His team, moreover, scouted out previously unseen footage of the war that is largely compelling and occasionally riveting. But because Burns is unwilling to advance any overall argument, or even contextualize his rich material within the many historical disputes that continue to swirl around these events, he essentially passes up a unique opportunity to help Americans understand the complexity that accompanies even a “good” war fought by a “greatest generation.” Watching these programs, you’d be hard pressed to make a judgment on whether it was necessary to drop the atom bomb, or even firebomb Tokyo and Dresden. Whether the deals FDR cut at Yalta were heroic, a sellout, neither or both, well, Burns doesn’t say.
Again, this would all be unremarkable were it not for the fact that Burns has somehow been designated America’s official historian. (It is fitting that in this country, our historian makes TV shows instead of writing books.) This means that tens of millions of dollars dedicated to educating this nation about its own history are sucked into the vortex of his fundraising machine. Employing a romantic Wynton Marsalis score alongside historically insupportable, showbiz-style assertions such as “Nothing anywhere would ever be the same,” Burns clearly considers it his mandate to engage as much in mythmaking as in documentation and disquisition. Because of this, though I am usually unsympathetic to any form of political pressure on scholars or artists, regardless of funding sources, when Hispanic leaders called for protest marches and Congressional pressure to get Latinos included in Burns’s program, I felt they had a point. Burns initially resisted, insisting that re-editing the film would be “destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child.” But with so much corporate good will and PBS funding riding on the program, he was moved to change his mind. As The New Yorker‘s Nancy Franklin pointed out, “It turns out that not reëditing the film was also like grafting an arm onto your child.” And so Burns, whose PBS contract runs through 2022, tacked on about a half-hour of Hispanic history.
What I found most salutary about The War was not the program itself but the vivacious and intelligent discussion it has inspired. The New York Times‘s Alessandra Stanley offered up a little gem of an essay in which she noted that because “public television is too often in a defensive crouch, fending off attacks by right-wing groups that accuse it of liberal bias,” its programmers have developed a degree of “insecurity [that] has perhaps driven PBS to underestimate its audience’s appetite for widened horizons.” This is a simple truth, albeit one rarely stated so matter-of-factly in the mainstream media, which perpetuate the opposite stereotype. Stanley also compares Burns’s US-centric interpretation of the war with PBS’s 1974 broadcast of the twenty-six-episode, British-made The World at War. Told from a British point of view but including German, Japanese and American witnesses and respectful of the controversies that continue to preoccupy historians today, the documentary included interviews with controversial historical players like Alger Hiss, who attended Yalta with FDR, and Paul Tibbets, an Enola Gay pilot. “Networks give viewers the stories they want to see,” Stanley concluded. “The mission of public television is also to provide the history people ought to know.”
In Newsweek, David Gates noted that Burns took pains to prevent The War from serving as jingoistic propaganda. “I hope it makes people ask questions about war, and make sure that our governments fight only necessary wars. They’ll have to make their own decisions about which those are,” Burns explained. But Gates observes that “Burns may be overestimating the capacities of a populace so unacquainted with its own history, so accustomed to being spun–in plain English, lied to–and so conditioned by the disposability of all ‘content,’ from popular music to movies to celebrities to events in the news, that facts go in one ear and out the other.”
But such excellent commentaries do make one regret that this type of discussion occurs so rarely, and that it takes a Ken Burns extravaganza–one that has been denuded of almost all point of view save its misplaced emphasis on the specialness of all things American–to inspire it. Newspapers and newsmagazines are decimating their books pages, where most mass cultural commentary and debate take place. Cable TV and talk-radio are an ever more polluted cesspool of conservative bile and tabloid trash. There are exceptions, and the blogosphere is picking up some of the slack, but American public discourse in an increasingly bookless universe is fast becoming the wasteland that so many have long feared. If our society cared about its future as well as its past, instead of the Limbaughs, O’Reillys and Hannitys poisoning the airwaves, we’d have many more Ken Burnses expressing a multiplicity of viewpoints.