There was, of course, the overall story of the war’s course, including such personalities as Roosevelt, Patton, Eisenhower, et al, but the bulk of the film’s time was spent telling the story from the point of view of people from four different American towns. A surprising number of these folks are still alive to give first-hand accounts, and some of them are riveting in their eloquence. We hear details of what happened in the trenches, hillsides, forests, and bomber planes, as well as what was going on back home, from people who become one’s new adoptive family over the course of the 15 hours. For example, we hear early on of a fellow from Mobile, Alabama who enlists just before Pearl Harbor because he believes the woman he loves doesn’t love him back. He goes on to spend three years as a prisoner of the Japanese, sustained in part by the hope that he will be reunited with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, she has decided that she does love him after all and decides to wait for his return. And then, his dog tags are discovered in a mass grave and he is declared dead back home. He survives the war against overwhelming odds and returns to Mobile after the war… but I’m not going to tell you how it ends; you really ought to see for yourself!
One of the impressive things about The War is that they have found people who are willing to talk about some of the most brutal aspects of it from a first-hand perspective. I’ve known a few WWII veterans who would never talk about it to anyone. In fact, the father of one friend of mine was among the first soldiers who liberated the Nazi death camps. He has only said that he and his fellow soldiers had no idea what they were walking into, and their commanding officers didn’t know either. Beyond that, he has never spoken to anyone, not even his wife, in any detail about what he saw and did over there. So it is a great achievement that Ken Burns has either convinced people to talk, or perhaps just had the good fortune to find people willing to do so. Their stories are an absolutely vital part of American history. We all owe them an incalculable debt; first, for serving their country so bravely, and finally, for allowing their names, faces, and stories to become part of this historical record. Burns & company have done their country a great service in creating this film. Burns has said that one of the motivating factors in producing this was the realization that these remaining voices will be silenced in the not-too-distant future, as old age accomplishes what the Axis powers could not.
I must close with something that fills me with equal measures of pity and anger. It’s the attitude of one particular fellow I know (and by extension, the attitude of many other people). I asked him several days ago if he was watching The War. He said no, which was not all that surprising; after all, there’s plenty of competition for one’s viewing attention these days. But it was his reasoning that saddened me – the reason he was not watching it was simply that it was being presented on PBS. For him, that closed the book on any consideration of it as worthwhile viewing. In his world, PBS is nothing more that an outlet for far left-wing propaganda, and everything shown there is designed to further a left-wing agenda. Here he is, a college-educated, reasonably articulate man; yet he damns himself to a lifetime of ignorance with attitudes such as this.
This acquaintance also stated his firm belief that the film undoubtedly presented a pacifistic viewpoint that would contribute to the “softening” of America. In fact, the film formally referred to our involvement in WWII as “necessary,” with no hint of ambiguity. The horror and revulsion expressed by many of the veterans toward what they saw and did over there was clearly irrespective of political persuasion. I hope this fellow I know is not simply afraid of the truth becoming more widely know – that wars are hellish experiences for their participants, because if that’s his attitude, then it’s highly suggestive of a person who wants to send hordes of ignorant people out to fight wars they don’t understand, though he has no intention of picking up a rifle himself. But I will speculate no more on his thought processes.
If one watches much PBS, as I do, one quickly realizes that there are programs on it that report their stories from a relatively liberal point of view, just as there are reports on some other media outlets that are told from a noticeably conservative point of view. But to characterize PBS as having a liberal agenda that “infects” all of their work – well, I would call the notion laughably wacky were it not so deaf, blind, and sad. The fact is, PBS is a source of much of the programming in this country that could be called intelligent. And a quick surf through the channels with your remote will tell you what a rare commodity that can be! As far as I’m concerned, Ken Burns’ The War is a film that should be embraced and valued by anyone, regardless of their political orientation, who cares about America, and should be seen by anyone who wants a better understanding of why wars may be fought, what they may give to us, and what they may take from us.
One more thought: Education is (or should be) a non-partisan issue. And part of that education ought to be the mental task of sorting through multiple partisan viewpoints. If someone watches The War and has issues with its points of view, my fondest hope is that they would produce a World War II documentary of their own; I would relish the educational opportunity!