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Old Soldiers Never Lie

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

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The War

In the final moments of The War, the new miniseries by Ken Burns, the camera gazes out over a country horizon at sunset. Lilting in the background are the soft chords of a solo piano, accompanied by the murmur of crickets. Then, the husky voice of pop stylist Norah Jones eases in. “For those who think they have nothing to share,” she sings as the faces of World War II veterans and their families begin to flash across the screen, “Who feel there are no heroes there …” After some two minutes of plaintive photographs, the film closes with Jones in a last patriotic refrain. “America, America,” she sobs, “I gave my best for you.”

This is fantastically sentimental stuff—filmmaker Ken Burns at his most indulgent. Even worse, it’s pretty effective. Since his triumph in 1990 with The Civil War, Burns has a made an art out of wringing tears and sighs from a nation whose lack of interest in history ranks among its most salient characteristics. Now, 17 years to the day since PBS broadcast The Civil War, he returns this Sunday night with The War, a sprawling account of the American experience in World War II. At 14 and a half hours, The War is a whopper of a film, and often revelatory. It is also manipulative, nostalgic, and nationalistic. Imagine that Burns had narrated The Civil War solely from the Union perspective, and you’ll have a sense of both what’s right and what’s wrong with this latest epic: It’s rousing and meaningful and not technically inaccurate, but not exactly the whole truth.

Burns readily admits that The War is neither a complete nor balanced account of World War II. “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting,” reads the opening screen of each episode. “This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.” He means this quite literally. The War showcases a handful of lively, eloquent Americans from four disparate towns—Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn. The series contains no identifiable historical experts. (Though cultural historians Paul Fussell and Sam Hynes appear frequently, they are also veterans and are identified only as “infantry” and “Marine pilot.”) The War offers no commentary from the German or Japanese side, or even from the British or Canadians. Indeed, apart from a few necessary mentions to move the plot along, the filmsays little about Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito, Churchill, FDR, or any of the other national leaders who presided over the worst catastrophe of the 20th century.

What The War provides instead is a harrowing portrait of war from the bottom up, as described by worried siblings, imprisoned civilians, and others who had little control over its direction. Burns focuses on the experiences of front-line soldiers—”our boys,” in the anxious words of home front observers—who found themselves caught up in the “meat grinder” of national service. The filmopens with the story of Glenn Frazier, an Alabama teenager who joined the Army after a fight with his girlfriend but just before the attack at Pearl Harbor. In vignettes scattered throughout the next seven episodes, The War follows Frazier through defeat in the Philippines, the horror of the Bataan Death March, and three unspeakable years as a prisoner of war in Japan.

Burns and his team show a particular knack for finding stories that highlight the disjuncture between battlefield wretchedness and the relatively normal lives of Americans at home. Among the most affecting is that of “Babe” Ciarlo, an Italian-American draftee who wrote cheerful notes home while battling for his life in the Anzio campaign. True to form, Burns milks Ciarlo’s story for all it’s worth, juxtaposing letter after letter (“We are having beautiful weather”; “I’m glad that you’re going down to the beach with the babies”; “I’m all right—nothing ever happens here”) with graphic footage of rifle fire whizzing through the Italian countryside, mortars blowing farmhouse-sized holes in the fields, corpses decomposing in ditches, and medics binding up awful wounds.

In its fascination with the blood and guts of combat, The War is like a nonfiction Saving Private Ryan:a sickening run of violence leavened by tales of individual heroism and courage. (Lest we fail to draw the connection, Tom Hanks himself reads the words of Al McIntosh, a small-town Minnesota newspaper editor who serves as the film’s Greek chorus.) The War is less interested in parsing geopolitics than in exploring this experience of battle as window into the human soul. “The greatest cataclysm in history grew out of ancient and ordinary human emotions: anger and arrogance and bigotry, victimhood and the lust for power,” the film’s narrator explains of the war’s origins. “And it ended because other human qualities: courage and perseverance and selflessness, faith, leadership and the hunger for freedom combined with unimaginable brutality to change the course of human events.”

As to which social and political systems might lead people to choose one set of actions over another, The War is decidedly mum. This emphasis on feeling, rather than analysis, is the key to Burns’ style. Though often described as a historian, or documentarian, Burns prefers to call himself an “emotional archaeologist”; he wants to know how the past felt, not how it happened. His approach often makes for great viewing: Who wouldn’t be devastated to learn that Ciarlo’s mother, believing his promises that “I’m doing good, and always happy,” spent years fruitlessly scanning the newspapers for evidence that he had, in fact, survived? “Emotional archaeology” does not, however, always make for unimpeachable history.

The problem with relying so heavily on memory and emotion is that they are often unreliable guides to the past. When asked to recount what their hometowns were like before the war, the residents of Waterbury, Mobile, Sacramento, and Luverne describe idylls free from social conflict: “Everybody knew pretty much everybody,” “we had a wonderful neighborhood,” “all ethnic groups were just perfect,” “it was a wonderful way to grow up.” In the world of The War, there are no Democrats and Republicans, everyone stood loyally behind FDR, and the Depression barely put a dent in American optimism.

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.

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.