The War: A Film By Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

[25 October 2007]

By Marco Lanzagorta

According to military legend, when the illustrious General George S. Patton saw the massive deployment of his troops across Sicily during World War II, he said: “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificancy”. And oh boy was he right. Just think about it: over the course of mankind’s history, and in spite of its obvious costs, war is the powerful force that most dramatically has changed, expanded, and redefined cultural and national boundaries, political ideologies, and even science and technology.

In this regard, perhaps no other war has been as brutal, costly, and influential as WWII. The scope of this conflict was truly staggering, with the involvement of the most technologically and economically advanced nations in the globe. To a lesser or greater degree, over 50 countries were affected by this war, including the US, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, Egypt, Libya, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Finland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and Poland. The battles took place across Europe, Africa, Asia, America, and on and under the surface of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Thus, it should not be surprising that the outcome of WWII critically defined and shaped the world in which we live today.

Furthermore, from ballistic missiles and jet propulsion to radar and atomic weapons, WWII also witnessed the development of novel technologies that were used to more efficiently annihilate the enemy than ever before. Experts estimate that the total military spending on this war was well over $3,000 billion (adjusted to 1994 dollars). But even pricier, WWII was the deadliest conflict in the history of warfare: about 22 millions soldiers lost their lives in combat, and because most of the fighting took place in cities and other densely populated areas, over seven million private homes were destroyed and more than 40 millions civilians perished.

The many political, cultural, social, ideological, and strategic complexities that surround WWII have often presented a challenge to writers and filmmakers that try to disseminate such historical intricacies to the general public. To date, perhaps the most popular documentaries on the subject are Victory at Sea (1952) and The World at War (1974), which feature enlightening historical narrations and harrowing footage from the conflict. In spite of their age, these two landmark documentaries remain the most insightful chronological discussions of the major battles that characterized WWII. However, besides being slightly outdated, Victory at Sea and The World at War have a serious shortcoming in their approach. That is, they tend to ignore the human and cultural side of the conflict, often reducing history to a series of dramatic events promoted by the firm decisions of a handful of generals and national leaders.

In this regard, The War has to be considered as a truly groundbreaking documentary, focusing on the impact of WWII on low ranking American combatants and the many economical and social repercussions of the conflict back home. Specifically, the series concentrates on those soldiers and civilians from four geographically distributed American towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota. Arguably, the experiences and attitudes of the people from these humble communities are emblematic to the entire nation.

The brainchild of acclaimed director and producer Ken Burns, The War is divided in seven episodes of about two hours each, chronologically covering the American perspective of the conflict between December 1941, with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and December 1945, shortly after the capitulation of Japan. The War features extensive footage and still images from the conflict, several of which have rarely been seen elsewhere. In addition, this documentary presents candid interviews with veterans, features the exceptional voice talent of Tom Hanks and Samuel L. Jackson, while Keith David provides an ominous, but informative, narration.

The War also relies on Burns’ trademark narrative technique which is often known as The Ken Burns Effect. That is, the embedding of a still photograph into a moving picture by using zooming and panning effects. The movement over the photograph can be designed in such a way to give special emphasis to a particular feature, face or a landmark. Therefore, the result is a very dynamic presentation of the still content, which is especially valuable in those situations where actual film footage is not available. It is important to remark, however, that even though Burns is the one that popularized this narrative method, he is not its inventor. Indeed, this technique was extensively used in the classic Canadian documentary City of Gold (1957) and the BBC production of The Great War (1964), and appears to have been originally conceived by American photographer Jerome Liebling.

Clocking over 14 hours in total, The War never feels slow, boring, superfluous, or redundant. On the contrary, it is impossible not to feel some disappointment because some crucial battles and events are shown in a rather brief way. For instance, the discussion of the Battle of Midway, which marked the turning point in the war in the Pacific, is reduced to a minute or so. Also, an iconic moment such as the rising of the American flag in Iwo Jima, it happens so fast that if you blink you may miss it. Nevertheless, considering the huge scope of the conflict, it is understandable that some important moments had to be shortened to keep the length of the series to a manageable time.

In any event, the objective of The War is not to present a detailed and exhaustive chronology of WWII, but to show its effects and consequences on regular people from across America. Thus we listen to dozens of harrowing stories of courage, heroism, sacrifice, endurance, and suffering from those who fought in Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Bataan, Anzio, Normandy, Monte Cassino, and many other places. In addition, we also hear about those who fought the war at home, supporting the defense industrial complex in its unprecedented task of manufacturing massive amounts of armaments with tight deadlines. We are told about the terrible loses of human lives on the battlefield, and also about the sorrow and worry felt by relatives and friends who remained in their home towns. Therefore, The War reminds us that those who fight a war are ordinary folk, performing extraordinary feats, and whose names most likely will remain forgotten by the history textbooks.

At the same time, The War also comments on the extraordinary effectiveness of those great military leaders such as General Patton, General Dwight David Eisenhower, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. For instance, we learn about the careful strategic and tactical planning that was necessary to implement the invasion of France on D-Day. The series equally offers a tribute to beloved President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who rescued the country from the depression and was the inspirational force that gave cohesion to the nation during WWII. Arguably, the terrible stress to his health caused by this world conflict ultimately claimed his life.

However, The War is not afraid to also talk about the poor decisions that were taken by some military leaders, which eventually led to unnecessary losses of life. The veterans interviewed bashed on operations which did not have a realistic objective, such as Operation Market Garden, a massive airborne and armored vehicle mobilization that had the Allied forces to occupy the bridges over the main rivers in Germany-occupied Netherlands. We also learn about the costly amphibious takeover of the Island of Peleliu in the Pacific, which happened to be a completely useless target from a strategic point of view. But in these cases, rather than condemning those in charge, The War exposes how armed conflict and strategic planning are difficult and complex endeavors.

But what makes The War truly unique is its take on the difficult racial and moral issues that took place during WWII. For instance, The War presents the almost paradoxical character of America’s stand against Germany: while President Roosevelt encouraged citizens to enlist in the military to oppose Nazi’s racial ideologies, African Americans continued to suffer segregation in their home towns, and Americans of Japanese descent suffered bigotry and incarceration in American concentration camps.

Indeed, during the course of the series, terrible stories of racism in America are exposed. We hear of African Americans that gallantly tried to enlist to fight for their country, only to be rejected because of their skin color. Quite incredibly, during the first years of the conflict, the US military preferred to recruit illiterates rather than African Americans who graduated from Harvard. The Marine Corps, for instance, did not accept minorities until 1942, after suffering substantial loses in the Pacific. Also, those few multi-racial units that existed during the war, like the 442 Regimental Combat Team of Japanese Americans or the Tuskegee Airmen, were completely segregated from the rest of the military. And in towns such as Mobile, armament factories suffered riots and unrest when African Americans were promoted to better jobs.

According to The War, General Patton was one of the few who did not care about the race of his troops. Allegedly, he once told his men: “I don’t care what color you are, as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches”. In addition, The War also puts in evidence how these segregated units shined during the war. The 442, for instance, became so famous for their bravery and combat skills that were often called on to perform difficult and challenging operations.

The War also makes clear how the racial issues that plagued WWII had two important consequences: a profound reform in the policies of the US military and the gestation of the civil rights movements that eventually changed American society during the ‘60s. In any event, the tone of the series’ discussion of this delicate topic does not feel recriminatory or exculpatory. Instead, The War questions the impartiality of traditional history texts and complicates its own political discourse by pointing out that American chauvinism was not very different from German intolerance ideologies. As a result, The War makes evident the intractable complexity of the cultural roots of racism.

In an equally audacious and daring way, The War tackles the issue of morality during the conflict. As most traditional history texts, The War describes in full detail the brutal and savage behavior performed by some German soldiers in the battlefield. For instance, The War reminds us that during the Battle of the Bulge, many American prisoners of war were cruelly executed by the Nazis. Similarly, the series presents how the intense German attack on London during the Blitzkrieg claimed thousands of civilian lives.

While naïve interpretations of the conflict would consider such acts as immoral or evil, The War reveals that allied forces replied in kind to such assaults. Acting on the rightful and justified desire for revenge, some American soldiers mistreated their German counterparts. And the intense Allied bombardment of industrial German cities such as Hamburg and Nuremberg produced a high toll in civilian casualties.

Once more, The War does not try to recriminate or exculpate the offenders. Instead, The War suggests that brutality only generates more brutality, and that morality is a concept that lacks any meaning in the cruel and violent heat of armed conflict. Indeed, to try to reduce the complexity of WWII into a moral opposition between the forces of “good” and “evil” would mean to ignore the many social, economical, and cultural factors that were involved during the conflict. At the same time, The War brings to mind the fact that the moral categorization of any war is often performed by the winner, who ultimately ends up writing the history textbooks.

Such a balanced stand is also used by The War to justify the release of atomic weapons during the fight against Japan. That is, the series makes clear that the decision taken by President Harry S. Trumann to deliver atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be judged in moral terms, as it is often considered by some. By showing how the Japanese intended to fight until every last man, woman, and child were killed, and the bloody outcome of the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, The War reveals that atomic weapons were necessary to stop further carnage on both sides. Furthermore, even though it is never mentioned by The War, it is important to note that the specter of atomic warfare has actually prevented another war on the same global scale as WWII.

After such an elegant discussion of the costs, effects, and legacies of WWII, The War reveals its principal shortcoming. For all our newly acquired understanding of the human and social complexities of the conflict, we never get to hear how the war started in the first place. The War dutifully mentions that the Nazi invasion of Europe and the Japanese attack to Pearl Harbor were the events that motivated the participation of the US in the war. However, we never hear about the ideological, economical, and social reasons that gave rise to Nazism in Germany, or the imperial culture that was embraced by Japan since immemorial times. But then again, perhaps these nontrivial issues deserve an entire documentary completely dedicated to their discussion and analysis.

For those who missed this groundbreaking documentary when it first aired, or for those who wish to revisit its enlightening presentation of WWII, PBS Home Video has released The War in this lavish DVD set. The seven chapters of The War are spread over six discs and include a couple of interesting extra features. Most notably is the audio commentary by Burns on two episodes, where he recalls the genesis and challenges in the making of the series. A making-of documentary and a few deleted scenes nicely round up the package.

Overall, The War is one of the most educational, informative, enlightening, and inspiring documentaries ever made. Equally important, this documentary feels like a well deserved tribute to those who fought WWII, at the battlefront or at home, and had to make immense sacrifices. At the same time, in spite of its obvious costs and horrors, it is distressing to realize that WWII did not inspire mankind to prevent further wars to happen. On the contrary, in a rather intricate and nontrivial manner, the now extinguished Cold War and the current conflicts in Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Afghanistan can be considered as byproducts of the outcome of WWII. Thus, The War makes us think about the many social and cultural complexities that haunt warfare, and are often ignored by books and popular media.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-war-a-film-by-ken-burns-and-lynn-novick/