The War is swell

Ken Burns captures reflections in ‘Hell’s own cesspool’
September 18, 2007 1:00:45 PM

VIDEO: A preview of The War

The War: An Intimate History | WGBH: September 23-26, 30 + October 1-2 At 8 PM

1_“A Necessary War”: September 23: 8-10:30 pm
2_“When Things Get Tough”: September 24: 8-10 pm
3_“A Deadly Calling”: September 25: 8-10 pm
4_“Pride of Our Nation”: September 26: 8-10:30 pm
5_“FUBAR”: September 30: 8-10:30 pm
6_“The Ghost Front”: October 1: 8-10 pm
7_“A World Without War”: October 2: 8-10:30 pm

Sometime in the late ’80s, I was sharing some Iron City with my father at the bar of a Pittsburgh American Legion post. My dad served in World War II, on the destroyer escort Roche, in the North Atlantic and South Pacific. Prompted by the predominance of self-absorbed, career-drinking sixtysomethings around us, I asked, “When they let you out of the Navy, did anybody tell you what to say — warn you what you weren’t supposed to talk about?”

“No, they just gave us our discharge papers and told us to go home.”

“So what was it really like aboard ship? Were you afraid all the time?”

“Mostly, it was boring. There was nothing you could do about anything, so you just lived day to day and did your job. Something could happen any time. You never talked about it. We acted like it was normal.”

WW2 made the United States a superpower, but at what price?

You’d expect Ken Burns’s 16-hour PBS mega-documentary, The War (shown in seven installments beginning this Sunday, September 23, at 8 pm on Channel 2), which fixates on the personal wartime experiences of US combat troops who waged the Allied campaigns against Germany and Japan, to make up for vets’ remarkable lack of insightful reminisces about World War II.

It does and it doesn’t.

Through extensive (and extensively edited) interviews with articulate and carefully selected veterans, who happened to take part in most of the war’s major events, and their families, The War does offer fresh, and very human, insights into how awful the experience really was. But also it’s clear that for individual servicemen, WW2’s on-the-ground context was narrow and mystifying. Incredible events took place — victories, defeats, hardships, and blunders — that are now understood in big-picture perspective but that were experienced, and are often recalled, as isolated triumphs and terrors.

By the end of the series, the interview subjects’ increasingly grim personal pictures of the fabled crusade for democracy no longer match the sometimes glib bravado of the film’s narration. It’s as if there had been two wars — one for public consumption (positive and patriotic) and one that was an experience of the soul (puzzling and private).

Production quality is high throughout. The War serves up tons of unfamiliar combat footage — color and black-and-white — and still photos from the homefront and behind the lines. The vintage film is beautifully digitally enhanced, and the battle sequences are artfully dubbed with realistic battle-sound effects — which transform these otherwise chaotic, hard-to-follow scenes into emotion-packed, if slightly dishonest, faux action-movie sequences.

Even at 16 hours, The War can’t cover everything. It dwells on individual trials, weaves in some strategic history, and (quite lucidly) chronicles the war’s trajectory. The ugly side is discussed as well as the victorious; one vet bluntly describes a mission as like being dropped into “Hell’s own cesspool.” We get accounts and film depicting death, filth, shell shock, and mental breakdown. Vets lament the loss of life on both sides. A Pacific Theater vet admits that his unit murdered Japanese POWs. Burns pays attention to the stateside internment camps where Japanese and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned, and to the racism that confronted African-Americans at home and in the services. The Hiroshima footage pulls no punches. And one interview subject, 75-combat-mission pilot Quentin Aanenson, offers brilliantly thoughtful and unsettling commentary on the situation ethics of killing.

But it’s all personal. The War neatly sidesteps politics, diplomacy, dissent, propaganda, and doubt. When it comes to ideology, Burns’s war is black and white: aggressors bad, defenders good. It was a “necessary war,” behind which everyone in America was united. With the exception of one hysterical Gold Star mother who refused to accept her son’s absence, survivors of the conflict’s 405,399 deaths, it seems, took their personal losses in sorrowful stride. We learn about massive homefront scrap-metal drives; what we’re not told is that most of the pots and pans collected were buried in landfills. There’s mention of the black market provoked by food rationing, but everything’s mostly “will sacrifice” and “can do.”

Some of that certainly rings false, but it may well be a reflection of the prevailing wartime ethos, unimaginable though that is today. So if the success of a film is measured by how well it fulfills its self-defined mission, The War, subtitled An Intimate History, is something of a documentary masterpiece. It covers what it covers — perception. Ambivalence is kept out of the frame.

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