Ken Burns' The War reviewed.

What we're watching.
Sept. 20 2007 3:53 PM

Old Soldiers Never Lie

Ken Burns' The War tells great stories, but is it great history?

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This tendency to view the home front through the gauzy lens of nostalgia is one of the film's weakest points. Burns addresses racial segregation and Japanese internment at some length, condemning both as great contradictions in a war for democracy. Even here, though, the sins of the past are filtered and softened for the present. Everyone interviewed laments such practices as moral errors—an admirable consensus suited to 2007. More dubiously, they almost all remember feeling that way in the 1940s. This is where a few more expert voices might have come in handy. Burns often mocks historians as dry, unimaginative hacks, people who would prefer to hand you a phone book filled with raw data than to compose an engaging narrative. Leaving aside the general merits of this criticism, in the case of The War, a touch of big-picture expertise might have made the narrative more interesting, rather than less.

Historian John Dower, for instance, has written eloquently of the differences between the Pacific and European theaters, describing how Americans' racialized ideas of Oriental savagery sanctioned battlefield practices—cutting off the ears of enemy dead, for instance—mostly lacking in the campaign against Germany. The War portrays the brutality of the Pacific War—in one scene, the film quotes late memoirist Eugene Sledge as he describes a fellow American chopping out the gold teeth of a wounded, but still living, Japanese soldier. Without more context, though, we're left to understand such actions merely as evidence of war's generic degradation.

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With choices like this, The War, despite its graphic footage and remarkable personal testimony, is a relatively safe film, unlikely to offend anyone's political sensibility. Although Burns successfully undermines the bloodless "good war" myth—after 14 hours, he amply demonstrates that World War II was, in his words, "the worst war ever"—he happily affirms the popular image of a selfless and unsurpassed "Greatest Generation." At times, Burns seems almost envious of that generation's opportunities for heroism and sacrifice. After 9/11, he pointed out during a preview screening in Waterbury, "we were asked to do nothing. We were asked to go shopping."

The film ends rather incongruously, not with an assessment of how those sacrifices shaped the global balance of power in the 1940s but with the somber declaration, "A thousand veterans of The War die everyday." The effect is vaguely guilt-inducing: After all they've done for us, now we're just going to let them die? The intent, however, is more practical. Among their other goals, Burns and PBS hope to encourage Americans to interview their grandparents and great-grandparents and to send the recollections to the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project to be stored for posterity.

It's here, in the intimacies of family dynamics and generational memory, that The War is likely to have its greatest impact. Even the most innocuous relative or neighbor, the film reminds us, may contain untold depths: Perhaps that retired trucker survived the Bataan Death March, perhaps that insurance man was shot down over France.

The film shows just how deep the trauma of war penetrated into the lives of these men and women, and how little most of them have ever said about it. Some 60 years later, Olga Ciarlo still cries while reading the letter she composed to her brother Babe for his 21st birthday. Even Paul Fussell, who dedicated his life to writing about the subject of war and memory, breaks down when recalling what it was like to confront the Holocaust for the first time.

Undoubtedly, there are many more such memories to be recorded: stories of violence and death and loss subsequently covered over with the thin veneer of civilization. If The War inspires a new generation to set out in search of these tales, it has done more than most films will ever do. Then again, those who go looking for stories of battlefield heroism and sacrifice may be surprised at what they find. During a trip to the beach this past summer, my 90-year-old father and I slipped into conversation about his Army years, spent in such exotic places as Colorado and California. He recalled, chuckling, that he wrangled his way out of a post as a drill instructor by offering up his accounting services to a beleaguered office manager on base. Now as then, he was perfectly happy to have had a desk job when so many men were fighting and dying overseas. He knew that combat was hell, he said, and he wanted no part of it.

Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.