The War as Memory and as Theater
Because I am who I am, I had certain expectations of The War--it met some of them. War is not a vehicle of hope, it is not enobling, it is full of disaster and death and compromises of the soul. Ken Burns more-or-less gets this across, sometimes powerfully. But other times the film dithered in a kind of nostalgia that drove me nuts. It happened, however, that my expectations in this regard were tempered when I met a woman who had grown up in Worthington, MN--right next door to Luverne--when I was half-way through the series. She had been old enough during World War Two to remember her afternoons carting scrap metal around in her Radio Flyer, her mother collecting maps on the kitchen wall, the conversations her father--the football coach at Worthington--had with his best friend, who happened to be the football coach at Luverne. "I remember paying twelve cents every Saturday to go see the movies, the thrill of seeing the newsreels of the war," she said. "To see it come back now, after all these years, was very powerful." I nodded and she continued, "I guess we didn't really know how horrible the war really was--they showed a very little bit of the shocking stuff in the newsreels. I was only a little girl, but even after that, after the war and after everyone came home, I never really knew. We didn't talk about it."
The implication, and the sadness on her face, was that Ken Burns had done a kind of national service in bringing to The War a brand new kind of honesty about war, even the Good War. I asked he whether she'd seen William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives or William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe or Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun or John Ford's They Were Expendable--all films that came out during or immediately after the war, and all classics that portrayed the brutal struggle of the war and its aftermath. Nope and nope and nope and nope. And so there was little hope that she had also seen, say, John Huston's devastating documentary The Battle of San Pietro1. Huston's film was shot during the 1943 battle but held up by the Army until 1945 because it was considered too anti-war--an accusation that caused Huston to remark, "If I ever made a pro-war film, I'd be shot."
There are a dozen other films to mention and many more books.
It's hard to imagine that anyone with a half-acquaintance with, tuned
to the cultural resonances of, the film and literature of the Second
World War could be unfamiliar with its ambiguities and horrors. If I were to make a World War Two documentary it would be a mash-up of propaganda films, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, J.G. Ballard and Eugene Sledge, Betty Page's S&M pin-ups (the 50s, I know--but you know where the impulse originated) and the Atom Bomb, homosexual geniuses cracking Enigma and the ovens at Auschwitz... something fucked-up and wild and weird and a vision of a world gone mad. But I guess pan-and-scan and nostalgia and violins will have to do for now...
But maybe this is too much to ask: after all, few Americans are connoisseurs of war films & I am, as a war veteran and writer about war, professionally obligated to know about these things--and more than a little weird at the extremes. PBS and General Motors are not funding Ken Burns so that he can shove a red-hot poker up America's ass. Furthermore, there's only so much you can do in even 14 hours when you're trying to cover what was the most intense, widespread disaster ever visited by and upon human civilization. If he's gone some distance (which he has) towards telling stories about World War Two that stir his viewers to question their assumptions about that war, to face its horrors, and even to question the righteousness (and it was, as many of the veterans rightly point out in the final episode--when the arrival of U.S. and Russian troops at the German concentration camps is portrayed, a just cause) that somehow also included the internment of the Japanese, the racism and segregation of the African-American, the wholesale slaughter of German and French and Japanese and Filipino civilians in our bombing raids, then Burns has done an admirable thing.
The memories, the sensations of theater at its boldest imagination, in Ken Burns' The War are incomplete--not as severe as the actual experience, or as haunted. But they push about as far as possible given their constraints of audience and funding & it's not likely that we Americans are about to incorporate into our civic life a theater as terrible (or, in the comedies, as darkly funny) as the Greeks. Hell, even the Greeks only tolerated it once a year and for a short time in Athens.
Note: there are three ways, that I know of, to get Huston's essential film: the recently-released stand-alone edition--or the two better ways: the War Classics 50 Movie Pack or the Treasures from American Film Archives, Encore Edition. Both of the latter sets are must-buys if you're a film fan & the War Classics set also contains the full set of Capra's Why We Fight.
The Music of War
Burns fell down flat here. His use of music was sometimes very good, as when he used it diegetically or near-diagetically: the music Soldiers and Marines would have heard when and where they heard it, how it shaped or its meaning was shaped by the circumstances of its hearing. But the base soundtrack was so far from either the core musical sound of its period or the emotional content of the scenes over which it has been laid that it amounted to a kind of pure distraction. What's more, the true music of war consists of the beat of boots on asphalt, the dirty jodie, the slap of a hand against rifle or a shovel against dirt and rock, the whir and ping of bullets and the rumbling blasts of bombs. There's some of this in The War, but usually only the munitions' song and hardly any at all of the forced march, the dark joke sung at twilight, the percussion of exhaustion beat out upon rifles and entrenching tools.
Burns' Instincts: Narrative, History and The Soldiers' Tale
This is where I'm on shakiest ground--and feel like to say what I'd need or want to say could take several thousand words on its own. Short version? The War stands up pretty well as a narrative--but could have been so much more. Burns' instinct toward the personal works pretty well, especially given his overall outstanding choice of narrative subjects. But it's too bad that Burns didn't disclose that two of his frequent on-screen presences are famous historians of the war narrative & marvelous memoirists of war as well: Paul Fussell and Sam Hynes. Hynes and Fussell and Daniel Inouye and Quentin Aanenson2 and Ray Leopold were, for me, the highlights of this film--but anyone who read Hynes' The Soldiers' Tale or Fussell's Wartime knows just how much was left out of this film. Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa is widely recognized as the memoir of World War Two (equaled in my mind only by Guy Sajer's Forgotten Soldier) and I thought Burns' use of Sledge's memoir was very good.
Of course, there were also some fantastic individual moments:
- The single issue of LIFE that I own from World War Two happens to be the one from September 20, 1943--which Burns used to open Episode III and which contained the first image of dead soldiers shown to the U.S. public. It's a powerful picture and the adjoining essay is great and Burns showed great sense in opening an episode with this: the contrast with our own current sensibilities vis. Iraq couldn't be more damning.
- "God Help Us. Come down yourself. Don't send Jesus. This is no place for children."
- Quentin Aanenson's story about how his revulsion toward killing in a turkey shoot made his right hand freeze up not only in battle, but many years later, was subtle and well-played. Especially when he described how his wife learned to time her delivery of his coffee cup to the status of said hand.
- Earl Burke: "We learned to pick up cigarettes, paint anything that didn't move, and salute anything that did." Right on--and still true today.
- John Hope Franklin's account of being turned away at the recruiting office for having every qualification except the right color was searing.
- Burnett Miller's account of retribution following the Malmedy Massacre was a disturbing reminder that atrocity knows no nationality or religion or other distinction: war awakes the darkest passions in all men.
- Story at Iwo Jima (or was it Okinawa?) about Marine flamethrower who left the line of battle, stripped naked, then went for a half-hour swim before returning to the line was priceless: a beautiful little story about the madness of war. Burns earned a big exclamation point, too, on my legal pad when he pointed out that in World War Two infantry units one of three things happened to you: you were injured, you were killed, or you went crazy. This is why they only forced soldiers and Marines to serve one mandatory tour in Vietnam--and why we're insane to be sending our current troops over to Iraq again and again and again, on tours as long as 22 months.
- Patton pissing in the Rhine. Classic--but not nearly as classic as the fact that his son, Col. George S. Patton III, sent out a Christmas Card in 1968 which read: "From Colonel and Mrs. George S. Patton III--Peace on Earth." The photo on the face of the card was one of stacked Vietnamese corpses.
- Sam Hynes: "No evil, no God. Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals." Graham Greene smiles from beyond the grave...
I point these out by way of saying: there's a lot of great stuff in Burns' The War. Powerful moments, well-told, that nevertheless don't quite add up to the story I'd like to have seen. Part of this is no doubt a consequence of Burns' reliance (not strictly maintained) on 50 voices from 4 towns; part of it is the mere fact that, with the exception of the occasional narrative aside, you don't really get a sense of what the war was all about--how it flowed, what was at stake--when you restrict yourself to the memories of soldiers and the occasional commentary by small townspeople.
A case in point of something Burns missed: it would have been nice, during the first episode, to have worked in at least 15 or 20 minutes about the vigor of American isolationism prior to our entry into the war: America First had an all-star roster--and wasn't even founded until 1940, long after Europe and China had been overrun. When you hear the reticence of many of the men regarding issues ranging from patriotism to killing, it's roots are the same as those that fed America First.
Other cases include: the complete disregard of the Pacific naval campaign, from the Coral Sea and Midway to the Battle of Leyte Gulf--the largest naval battle in modern history (and, incidentally, the origin of the Kamikaze attack). One repeated historical stretch is that the Germans would never have been defeated if the U.S. had not attacked in North Africa, Italy and France. Variants of this included frequent comments such as, "The American attack held up German divisions that could have been sent to to Russia." I know I pointed this out in a previous post: but this emphasis is just plain wrong, wrong, wrong as far as the war in Europe goes. By the time the U.S. got its snot knocked out of it at Kasserine Pass, our first major engagement with the Nazis, the Soviets had already defeated the entire Sixth Army at Stalingrad--at a cost of three-quarters of a million troops on each side: or about twice the number of U.S. casualties for the entire Second World War, each... in one battle. Personal stories are very important--even crucial--but to tell them at the almost total expense of the overall ebb and flow, cause and consequence of the largest event in human history seems a little obtuse: especially when World War Two is used again and again as a rallying cry for our current misadventures.
Note: Quentin Aanenson, the fighter pilot from Luverne, MN also made a well-received documentary about his experience--sadly now out-of-print on DVD, which means I have no idea how it compares to Burns' work.
We'll All Have to See This Again...
I think Burns' The War is, for all my complaints, an essential document. I'll surely see it again--and again. It's out on DVD now, so that helps. It's also on re-run on PBS. After the famous BBC-Olivier World at War series, it's the best World War Two documentary out there. It incorporates the voices and wisdom of some of the best and the brightest writers about the personal experience of the soldier and Marine in World War Two. Burns' eye for photos and footage, the juxtaposition of the little moment and the momentous, his skill at working all this together in the editing room (while nowhere near as good as, say, Errol Morris's), is considerable: there's fantastic stuff here, used in amazing ways. If I have the time and inclination to write about it again next time I see it, I will: for like Burns, I've only scratched the surface with this little post.