Thursday, October 04, 2007


Those who don't learn from history...

By Edward Copeland
While The War, the latest epic documentary by Ken Burns (along with his co-director and co-producer Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward) has garnered mostly (and deservedly) rhapsodic reviews, I noticed a recurring theme in much of the criticism. Many writers keep pointing out how much of the material in his look back at America's involvement in World War II has been covered before, both in fiction and nonfiction forms. That is true, but a lot of The War is fresh and, more importantly, informative. While I'm no WWII expert, I do know a lot of what happened through various sources, yet I still learned a lot from this seven-part, nearly 16 hours-long work. What's tragic is that the people who probably most need to see it probably never will and while The War reminded me of things I knew (or had forgotten) and informed me of things I didn't, most often I kept thinking about how many Americans are ignorant of the facts about this and many other parts of history that they should know about. In an interview, Burns said one of the things that prompted him to embark on this project was learning that a sizable number of American students believed the U.S. fought alongside Germany in WWII against Russia. If only that were an isolated statistic and that sort of stunning misconception were limited to the young.

For example, a co-worker of mine, more than 10 years my junior but with a bachelor's degree, once asked in all seriousness: Which U.S. war came first? Korea or Vietnam? On the other end of the spectrum, an ex-co-worker of mine, who was older and was working on a master's degree, exclaimed in amazement while reading a story about a WWII-era aircraft carrier on display: "No way! They can't land planes on ships, can they?"

My evidence may be anecdotal, but it certainly makes me believe that no age group has a monopoly on being undereducated. For that reason alone, The War should almost be required viewing, whether or not it covers well-tread ground. I've come to find through films and documentaries that World War II is practically a bottomless well as far as stories go and I imagine Burns and his team could have made this series twice as long as it is. (Being the political junkie that I am, I would have loved to know more about how the 1944 presidential campaign played out in the midst of the fighting and with FDR seeking an unprecedented fourth term.)

What is there though, is fascinating. If I'd known about the frequent German u-boat attacks along merchant vessels along the East Coast, I'd forgotten about that. The chilling stories of the civilian prisoners in the Philippines also were new to me. It also serves to remove some of the sugarcoating from the rosier pictures of the homefront, showing racial tensions that still existed even among people who were united to help the war effort.

In fact, the homefront is its strength, by focusing on four American towns and their citizens overseas and at home. It's also interesting to hear criticism of some military leaders' tactics (Douglas MacArthur, I'm looking in your corn cob pipe's general direction), especially in light of all the gnashing of teeth over an ad with a silly pun attacking Gen. David Petraeus over the current disastrous policy in Iraq.

Of course, even with the mistakes in World War II, the West still prevailed in the end and it was a necessary war, unlike the quagmire we find ourselves stuck in today. It's interesting though to hear diaries from soldiers fighting that war complaining about politicians who never served making decisions about war. Some things never change.

Perhaps what's most inspiring about The War is to be reminded once again how the entire country seemed to pull together and sacrifice. Listening to how much rapt attention the public paid to events, marking their own maps at home to follow progress and setbacks. Today, unless you personally know someone involved in the fighting, you can wall yourself off from Iraq and all the president has asked of people is to go shopping. I guess Bush is someone else who could have learned something by watching this series (or studying history in general).

The War truly is remarkable and works much like the current Iraq documentary No End in Sight, assembling things many already know in a way that makes it all the more clear and insightful. Still, what really comes through is once again showing how that generation earned the title of the Greatest Generation. They fought a bloody, horrible war, but one that had to be done and the accomplished it, but most of the survivors still resist the term heroes, saying that label should go to countless troops who didn't make it back alive.

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This series fell pretty flat for me. Maybe because I've been reading about WW2 since I was a child (I'm 41 now).

And I really hate to come off as snarky in a way that makes it sound like I'm defending Bush, because it pains me to seem like I am. But he may have some acquaitance with WW2 because his father was a Navy pilot. And some of the senior Bush's comrades were murdered (beheaded) and cannabilized by the Japanese. Bush may have shirked his opportunity to serve in Vietnam, but his father certainly knew what it was like to fight against a savage enemy who had no regard for their own lives, much less anyone elses. And for me, Ken Burns drew an unintended parallel to the situation our Armed Forces are in today.

By the way, I've enjoyed your blog for quite awhile, I sometimes spend time reading it when I have watch on my ship. So thank you for helping me pass the time, and I hope you know I'm not trying to offend you with what I posted.
I'm still catching up on my viewing of "The War," but I'm really captivated by it so far. I had never heard about the racial tensions that existed during the war effort on the home front, and Burns is able to convey it powerfully without spending too much time on it (the bus driver who shot a black Private for not moving to the back? Unbelievable!).

Some of the footage is remarkable, I keep wondering how they got film from the German side on D-Day and it's kind of amazing that some of the allies were brave enough to film Omaha beach during the invasion.

I've thought about the first President Bush a lot and have to wonder, despite the wide knowledge of his WWII experiences, if he was like other vets who tended not to talk about the war to their families so that Dubya missed an opportunity from that first-hand experience as well. I never cared much for the first Bush, but he looks like Churchill now compared to his son. Thanks for the kind words about the blog.
I'm not fond of the Bush's either. And I wasn't trying to make any kind of political point or justify the war in Iraq. And your Churchill remark made me laugh, because I feel the same way.

I guess a blog about movies isn't really the best place to speculate about what kind of conversations the Bush's may have had regarding WW2.
First, abject ignorance (such as the examples you cite) won't be fixed by Ken Burns or any documentary or feature about a war. I am no history buff, but I recognize that the Korean war came first and that airplanes can land on ships.

Second, I'm consistently troubled by Burns' insistence on presenting indigestible masses of stuff with the impossible goal of being definitive. If the goal is to educate, shouldn't there be some effort made to make works that are accessible in length -- that somebody could actually watch in one sitting? And I could be wrong, but 16 hours suggests an author without a thesis statement or an angle.

(Full disclosure: I've never watched more than a few minutes of a Ken Burns work. So, yes, I am speaking of my objection in principle to Burns, ignorantly.)
I think it would be impossible for anything on World War II to be definitive (especially short) because there are far too many angles to it. In this case, I think he achieves it to some extent by focusing mainly on four American cities and individuals from those cities who were in the crucial spots at the crucial times. It does lend it a bit more of a personal touch (or at least it did for me).

A fair point, but Burns always seems to be swinging for the fences -- yearning for posterity rather than for an audience.

I think the form he chooses diminishes his reach and his impact.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is actually the first Ken Burns documentary I've watched. I never got around to the Civil War and didn't really have a lot of interest in Baseball.
Interesting piece, and comments. Having grown up in an environment where history (particularly this era) was discussed, and raised with the stern edict that just because something happened before you were born is no excuse for you not to know about it, I am also amazed and disgusted by the inexplicable ignorance that makes this documentary a revelation for many.

I knew a woman some years ago, who came upon her boyfriend watching TV. They were both in their 30s at the time, and would be in their early 40s now. He had been flicking channels, bored, when he came upon a documentary of the Holocaust. She found him with tears in his eyes, horrified at what he was witnessing and did not know that it happened.

While I can't help empathizing with his shock and gratified that he felt some human emotion of this long ago issue, nevertheless my main feeling at the time was anger. Anger that this presumably sensible adult had no knowledge of this most well-documented and heinous event.

Thinking back, I realized I'd never heard about it in school. Like most of us, a lot of what I've ever learned, I've learned on my own. Schools can do only so much. There's a lot of education on TV and in libraries that's free. One needs to look beyond all the junk to find it. It's there. Fortunately, with Burns' excellent new documentary, we have yet another piece of education, but those who want to know need to make the effort to learn. It's not the definitive source. It's just another well-put together aspect.
Despite the fact that I find the subject and approach really intriguing -- though probably not 16 hours worth or intriguing -- I was actually hoping this thing would get ho-hum reviews. Now I feel like I've got this giant piece of really tedious housecleaning I'm going to have to do sometime this decade, because now I'm going to have watch it. The problem is, that while I can appreciate his achievements, I can't stand Ken Burns. There I said it.

I did kind of force myself to watch every moment of "The Civil War," and even some of the DVD extras, and I did learn a lot from it. It's just that I find Burns' style, those endless tracking shots across stills, those often overly dramatized readings from letters, that dreary, use of music, tedious and pretentious in the extreme. At least, I take it, "The War," doesn't have that. What a relief that he can use actual breathing people who were really there. But it's still a Ken Burns film.

I probably shouldn't say this, but the guy himself kind of bugs me, too. I don't know why, but every time I hear him talk I find myself thinking of Peggy Noonan, and that's not pleasant for me.

Still, anyone who can make so many AMERICANS, of all people, interested in history, of all things, must be doing something right. Sadly, Ed, you're stories do not surprise me one bit.

Remember, we are the land of "history is bunk." As someone who actually claims to care a lot about history, I really am going to have to watch this at some point. I just wish Burns was, I don't know, Errol Morris.
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