Ken Burns’s War

Ken Burns’s War

His nostalgic PBS series casts WWII as acrucible of meaning. Too bad it lacked a tighter focus on the moral failure of combat.


It seems a bit strange to think of it now, but just less than a decade ago, before Everything Changed, America went through a strange, sentimental obsession with World War II and the men who had fought it. In just a few years, box offices and bookstores were filled with Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, various Stephen Ambrose vehicles and Tom Brokaw’s wildly successful Greatest Generation franchise. We even decided to build and consecrate a memorial to commemorate the fallen–sixty years after the war itself had ended.

With the country mired in the trivinalia of scandals and stock markets, the public seemed to be longing for some capital-H History. And since no one does capital-H History quite like celebrated documentarian Ken Burns, it was really only a matter of time until he would bring his somber and much imitated brand of storytelling to bear on World War II. He even enlisted Tom Hanks–who, ever since Saving Private Ryan, has opened up a sideline in WWII nostalgia–to do some of the series’ voiceovers.

But in the six years that it took Burns to create The War (which debuted this week on PBS), quite a bit has changed. History has arrived. If we were longing for an epic struggle, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have tried their darnedest to give us one. That leaves The War as a strangely anachronistic document even before it aired. And while it is generally engaging and informative, it ultimately suffers from a kind of double nostalgia: suffused with both a longing for the wartime days of national solidarity and the placid, trivial days of the late 1990s when that very longing itself was uncomplicated by the reality of actual, in-the-present war.

Burns’s documentary is ordered around the experiences of civilians and combatants from four different American towns: Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama. Burns has tracked down hundreds of interviewees, some of whom are quite poignant and engaging, and hours of incredible battlefield footage (to which he has, action-movie-style, added a soundtrack of gunfire and explosions). We track the men who went away to fight and the women they left behind; life on the homefront with its rationing and scrap metal drives and gold stars in the windows of grieving mothers, and life on the front lines, with its unceasing cycle of violence and boredom, horror and discomfort, cruelty and camaraderie.

The bottom-up point of view can serve Burns well–there’s a fascinating segment in Episode Two about the race riots that broke out in Mobile, Alabama, as an influx of black workers moved to town to work in the segregated shipyards, and the harrowing tale of a family of American civilians trapped in the Japanese POW camp in Manila. As one would expect from any Burns production, there are more than few moments of genuine pathos: the look on the face of Ray Leopold, a Jewish medic from Waterbury, as he describes coming upon a concentration camp; the stoic way Quentin Aanenson describes a panic attack in the cockpit of his shot-up airplane that paralyzed his right arm and the nightmares about the incident that have plagued him his whole life. They are so powerful he occasionally awakes to find his right arm paralyzed. Or the story of a Japanese American soldier tells of going to visit his family in an interment camp before he ships out, and being barred by the soldiers guarding the camp from bringing his parents a fifth of whiskey. “Hell of a war, isn’t it?” the guard tells him by way of apology.

So as both a video textbook and a story of human suffering and drama, The War is on the whole well executed (though Burns has a weakness for glacial pacing and stretched-out pauses meant to hammer home Important Realizations). But it doesn’t seem too much to ask of a film airing now, in the midst of caterwauling about “World War IV” and an “End to Evil,” and a War on Terror, not to mention the daily horror and violence that our troops endure and inflict in Iraq, that it do more than offer us a Burns-style telling of the Good War mythology with which the late 90s made us so familiar. It must tear down the trappings of grandeur that adorn even the grisliest catalogs of war.

Early in Slaughterhouse Five, the wife of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s war buddies confronts him when she hears he’s writing about the war. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

In some senses this is the moral challenge for all art about war, and it is a challenge that by and large the 1990s Greatest Generation cultural production failed to meet. For all the blood and gore and searing violence of Saving Private Ryan, war still emerges as a test of courage and a crucible of meaning. There is little mention of the moral degradation that war engenders or of the cruelty and sadism it provokes. Of its nihilistic seductiveness.

To Burns’s credit, there are scattered moments where he manages to transcend the Greatest Generation clichés. He quotes, at length, the diary of a soldier present at the storming of Peleliu in the South Pacific, who watches with horror as Marines sift through the belongings of the Japanese corpses that line the beach, looking for tokens of conquest. One Marine drags a still-breathing Japanese soldier by the hair and begins to extract his gold teeth from his mouth using his dagger. In jamming the knife blade into the mouth, he slips, slashing open the man’s cheeks, which spill blood. Another Marine comes over to shoot the Japanese soldier and put him out of his misery. The Marine shrugs and continues his extraction.

This is not the kind of story one is used to hearing about The Good War. It’s to Burns credit that it is included here, and it is one of a few dozen times in fifteen hours of narration that our expectations are upset, our understanding of the war made fuller. But time and time again, any novel fact, or surprising revelation that doesn’t fit into the grander preconceived notion of What the War Meant is quickly abandoned in favor of a tale of young sweethearts writing each other letters, or a brave young soldiers storming a beach in the South Pacific. We hear, for instance, of the Air Force printing up handbills to convince skeptical pilots that it was morally acceptable to firebomb Japanese civilians, since the Japanese had organized the entirety of the nation into civilian defense corps. “For us,” the handbill chillingly read, “there are no civilians.” But we never get to hear from a pilot who had such reservations, or hear them explain how they reasoned through their orders. We’re quickly onto the next slow pan of a black-and-white photograph.

In the end, The War is a prisoner of its own iconography. That fact was probably evident months ago when Latino groups protested the complete exclusion of Latino veterans in the preliminary version of the series. Our expectations of the Greatest Generation revolve around old white men telling their stories, with some sops to diversity thrown in: Rosie the Riveter, Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo Code-talkers. Despite the fact that Latinos were very much a part of the war effort, they don’t figure in its mythology, and Burns initial elision (corrected in the final version) seems the result of operating within the confines of a mythology that he, himself, doesn’t even explicitly recognize.

A very real war wages on, day by day, thousands of miles away. It appears to have no end and no purpose. One would think it would force us to reconsider the mythos of combat, and our preconceptions about war. And if The War is any indication, it has. But not nearly enough.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy