At first, Ken Burns’ monumental new work, “The War,” looks and sounds familiar, and because of that, is almost comforting.
There are recognizable Burns touches everywhere. The light, emotive background music; the black-and-white photography; the thoughtful quotes from eloquent people, their faces filmed up close and framed in muted light. We’ve seen this before, in “Baseball,” in “Jazz,” and, of course, in “The Civil War.”
That’s first of many sly tricks this film plays. Through the documentary, viewers are smoothly moved into the time, into the mood and feel of the moment on screen, and as “The War” opens, America is wary of events in Europe, but still comfortable with a seemingly familiar world.
When it is all over, seven episodes and nearly 15 hours later, viewers will have traveled through four horrific years and watched that world nearly destroyed and then changed forever. They will see and hear about 60 million deaths, watch cities bombed and burned to the ground, learn of unimaginable misery, and cruelty, and bravery.
And, then, “The War” will leave viewers where it should: haunted by the agonizing truth of what it calls “the greatest cataclysm in history.” It will leave you dumbstruck by what the heroes—the millions of men who went to war—endured and by how much they suffered. And it will leave you feeling small in the face of the deeds and the price paid by the generation that fought World War II.
If this film achieves anything—though in truth, it achieves much—it is to help the rest of us grasp all that, and to give voice to the only people who truly understood the horror of this war: the members of the Allied forces who saved the world.
“The War” starts its two-week run on PBS tonight (at 8 EDT) with a 2 ½-hour episode. It will run for four straight nights, and then finish its last three episodes nightly starting next Sunday. It is epic television.
WWII has morphed in America’s collective memory over half a century, to the point our societal consciousness has nearly forgotten there was such pain and desperation. It has, as Burns says, become draped in a “bloodless, gallant myth.” It has become the Good War.
But if you listen to the men who fought it, the pain and desperation are as real now as they ever were.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a good war,” says former Marine pilot Sam Hynes early in the film. But there are, he says, “sometimes necessary wars.”
Burns gets to the necessity of the war, and that pain and desperation of it, by discarding the usual focus on generals and military tactics. Instead, this film is resolutely personal, told by focusing on the people in, and the soldiers from, four varied American cities—Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Sacramento, Calif.—from 1941 through the war’s end.
That doesn’t mean the stories come without context. Actually, that’s another of “The War’s” sly tricks. It tells the story broadly, too, moving its narrative simultaneously across the Pacific and European fronts and back in on those American cities.
The result is a whole, textured view of the war and the world. We see the defeats or slogging progress of battles, the trauma of combat, and the building stress on civilians, the families and communities coping back home. We see America change from a once-isolated, insular country to a superpower in the center of the world’s affairs. But with that change came penetrating sorrow.
Burt Wilson was still a boy in Sacramento at the time. He says the war had felt unreal and far away, but that changed the day neighbors put a gold star in their window, which meant their oldest son, a boy down the block, had been killed.
“The way you dealt with something like that was pulling all the shades down and never coming out,” he says in the film. “Every time you walked past that house, the whole idea of death was brought back to you.”
On the home front, there is also an unsparing view of America’s racial prejudices—as there is in every serious Burns film—and its blindness to the contradiction of fighting a war for freedom yet mistreating and persecuting its own citizens.
African Americans were fighting and dying for their country, but were treated as second-class soldiers by the military, and as barely human in a segregated, bigoted South. More than 110,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast were forced to abandon their homes, businesses and lives, and move to distant, hard internment camps, where they were watched by armed guards. And almost no one in the U.S. protested.
Robert Kashiwagi of Sacramento was 23 and a native-born American citizen. He spoke no Japanese, and knew no other Japanese people outside his family. He was dumbfounded by his internment.
“I thought, `It can’t be,’” he says in the film. “How could they do that to an American citizen?”
Hartford, Connecticut [Photo: Library of Congress]
As the film progresses, those stories, about racial torment and about loss, become more and more bracing as the number of dead rises. The river of telegrams pouring into American cities seemed endless and unendurable, as the film says. For their sons overseas, it was far worse. That is a notion that permeates this film, that there was so much sadness, so much death on an incredibly massive scale.
But it doesn’t come through a sudden, sensory onslaught as in films like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers.” Instead, it comes through a slow, steady, heartbreaking build that saturates viewers. You’re left with an intellectual and emotional grasp of just how awful, how grisly and inhuman it was to fight this war, or any war.
Burns stays with a battle, Tarawa or Guadalcanal in the Pacific, Anzio or the Hurtgen Forest in Europe, as the fighting grinds forward foot by foot, or not at all. You begin to sense the terror of massive shells exploding indiscriminately, of tracers streaking through the night, of the sound of tank engines that might not be yours. You begin to feel the heat and the mud, or the cold and the snow, and the sheer, staggering, inconceivable number of dead.
You also begin to understand, as the film calls it, the arithmetic of war and those immense totals of dead—2,500 Americans to land at Omaha Beach in Normandy; 60,000 Allied men to hold the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge that killed more than 100,000 Germans—because it took immense numbers versus immense numbers to win a world war.
And you begin to understand the total, terrifying randomness of it.
“You couldn’t be careful, you could only be lucky,” says Paul Fussell, an infantryman from Southern California, in the film. “There is no way to escape it by technique or care or attitude or fast movement or athletic skills. You’re just lucky if a shell hits someone that’s not yourself.”
The ghastly experiences piled up for soldiers, day building on day, horror building on horror. It is unfathomable to think that humans could digest much of that and stay whole.
“You get hardened,” says Burnett Miller, a former Sacramento mayor, who was barely in his 20s and a private in the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion during the Battle of the Bulge. “You’re seeing a lot of gruesome sights and you get hardened to it, and that worries you as much as anything.”
“We all changed,” says Quentin Aanenson, a fighter pilot from Luverne.
When it was over, Aanenson and Miller and Fussell and all the men who survived the war came home to an America that had grown up and hardened, too. America was done with war and wanted to move on. It greeted the returning soldiers with joy and with love, but it gave them no outlet, no room to vent or simply process what they had endured.
“Inside, we were different,” Aanenson says. “Nobody else knows, nobody understands, and I’m not good enough with words to tell them.”
That became Burns’ aspiration. “The War” is Aanenson’s story, and it’s Miller’s and it’s the story of so many veterans who fought the war but could not convey its toll. They are fading from our view now, dying at the rate of 1,000 a day, as the film reminds us.
The documentary ends with a handful of tales of how some men suffered through the years, and how some men moved on and lived happy lives, and it reminds viewers of the innocence and optimism of the post-war times. But there is a deeper, profound melancholy, too, and that is gently woven into a final scene that’s a snowball fight with a background narration of a tender Christmas prayer.
But what echoes most are the haunting words of Paul Fussell. “To forget the war,” he says, “is not only impossible, it would be immoral.”
With a work like “The War,” with its power, its graceful storytelling and its genuine, sad heart, forgetting will be a bit harder.