Review: Ken Burns’s The War

The latest Ken Burns’s epic The War aired on PBS over the last two weeks. The fifteen-hour program tells about America’s involvement in in the Second World War by focusing on four towns: Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. In choosing this device, Burns his made a film both richer and narrower than some would like it to be.

The most visible and earliest criticism of The War came from Hispanic and Native American groups, disappointed by their absence from the film. Having already cut the final version, Burns tried to remedy this problem by cutting add-on parts for local PBS station to air after each of the seven sections. This method has a least one obvious problem: it feels tacked on. The stories told in these additions are no better or worse than those told within the 15-hour epic, but they feel separate from the America explored in the film–a symptom of the very problem they were intended to fix.

Despite this flaw, Burns’s team does a good job dealing with the issues that both Japanese-American and African-American faced in fighting for their country. They show a willingness to admit that the United States’s policies during this era were at best questionable, at worst despicable and hypocritical.

We should also make clear that The War does not tell the story of World War Two, merely America’s involvement. The causes of the war are ignored completely, it’s course before US involvement largely absent, and the travails of the fighting men of this country’s allies are never mentioned. The Holocaust and nuclear weapons are mentioned, but are essentially footnotes to the story that The War aims to tell.

What could be seen as a grave oversight is not. Burns’s story is as interesting and compelling as it is long. I suggested earlier that Burns had made a documentary about America’s involvement in “the War,” but I think more accurately he tells the story of Americans’ involvement.

Burns intentionally focuses on a few stories and people, both military men are civilians, at home and abroad, and endeavors to tell their stories. The tactics and personalities that fill most war stories are missing, supplanted by people like Pfc. Babe Ciarlo, an Italian-American who writes home the most heartbreakingly cheery letters anyone ever received from any front in any war.

By focusing on people who are often dismissed in war documentaries, Burns robs the war of much of its valor and rationality. His story is a simpler and uglier one, full of terror and hardship. The message is–pardon the lack of restraint–“War is Hell.” I have no doubt that Burns intended this, and though he doesn’t deny that “the war” was necessary and perhaps even good, the film does little work in pursuit of such ideas.

Some have observed that there is a very real contrast between The War and America’s current war. After all, where all Americans were impacted in the 1940s, the current “war” has left the vast majority of this country convinced that if something’s happening, it’s not about them.

But regardless of possible feelings about current context, The War is a great look at the Second World War. It’s by no means comprehensive or especially historical in any traditional sense; but failing at something that’s not a goal is hardly a flaw. The story of Americans’ involvement in the war in Europe and the Pacific is told well, by compelling soldiers who don’t shirk their responsibility for some of the barbarous aspects of what occurred. Their stories, as the film iterates before and after every one of its seven parts, are not the only ones. But they and The War tells their stories so well, fifteen hours doesn’t seem so long.

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