'The War' a
for the ages
February 20, 2008
Recently I finished watching Ken Burns' documentary about World War II simply called 'The War.' Like his previous documentary about the Civil War, Burns latest epic changed my view of World War II from the image of the countless John Wayne films about World War II that I had grown up with and was barely aware of since it took place for the most part during the first five years of my life.
The focus of the film centered on four American towns, Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut and Luverne, Minnesota, as well as several of the young men and women that comprised Tom Brokaw's 'Greatest Generation' as they, along with the rest of America, were thrust into the greatest cataclysm in our history.
Over 15 hours Burns takes the viewer through the lives of individuals from each of the communities to view the war through their personal and quite often devastating experiences. It's a vivid personal portrait as to how the war altered their lives and those of their neighbors and the nation itself in a worldwide conflict that was to forever transform the country for generations to come.
Through actual war footage, personal letters and interviews, Burns is able to personalize World War II in a way that no history of the period can possibly present. To those of my generation that largely learned of the war through Hollywood's view of the conflict, Burns' document-ary personalized it so that the sense of loss, fear, anger and frustration felt by the participants became our own in a way that even such great World War II films as '12 O'clock High' and 'Saving Private Ryan' could not do.
Six years in the mak-ing, 'The War' takes such familiar names as Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, Okinawa, and the Ardennes Forest, and shows us through the eyes of men who fought in these places the terrible costs of winning what was not so much a good war as it was a necessary one.
Be advised the battle sequences, the scenes in the Nazi concentration camps, and the atomic bombing of Japan are extremely graphic and should not be seen by younger viewers. Even adults will find them difficult to watch, but such is the case with any film which is as brutally honest as this one, and brings home the consequences of even a necessary war.
The Burns' documentary not only tells the story of the war itself but its effect on those on the home front. The attack on Pearl Harbor forced America out of its isolationism and the film shows how the nation mobilized for total war at home and overseas.
United against a common enemy and for a just cause, Americans everywhere dedicated themselves to the war effort, whether it was growing a victory garden or working in factories to produce the weapons needed to win the war.
Burns' film does not skip over the mistakes we made, whether it was sending Japanese Americans to relocation camps or such ill planned missions as Operation Market Garden, illustrating the timeless lesson of all wars, that when generals make plans sometimes they go wrong and soldiers die.
Above all the Burns' documentary tells the story of a generation of Americans that did their duty in a modest and unassuming way because they knew it was the right thing to do.
All too soon there will no longer be any veterans of the war. It is not that World War II has become history; it's been history for sometime now. The war will become a different kind of history, the kind we cannot quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just somehow beyond our grasp.
We can't stop that from happening but future generations will have such films as Burns' documentary to recall something of the extent of the experience, from which we can only hope the next generation can learn.
Email Eric at