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Ken Burns' Arithmetic of War: 'The War' Premieres Tonight

Normandy, France [Photo: National Archives]

To its credit, The War considers the terrible effects of difference. But even as it argues that representations can make differences, it also exemplifies how limited vision can reinforce them.

Ken Burns' latest epic 'The War'

Airtime: Sunday, 8pm ET
Cast: Quentin Aanenson, Joe Medicine Crow, Glenn Frazier, Paul Fussell, John Gray, Tom Hanks, Sam Hynes, Daniel Inouye, Robert Kashiwagi, Ray Leopold, Josh Lucas, Katherine Phillips, Sid Phillips, Walter Thompson, Asako Tokuno
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: PBS
US release date: 2007-09-23

Eugene Sledge looks young and strikingly handsome in The War. Leaning slightly toward the camera, he's frozen in a black and white photo that appears repeatedly, face weary and shoulders slender. His words resonate throughout the film, diary entries he turned into a memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, here read by Josh Lucas. "To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of the action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement," he wrote. "But to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a netherworld of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning. Life had no meaning. The fierce struggle eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all."

Such erosion is made visible during this passage: the camera pulls out from a photo of a couple of soldiers walking past a jeep, barely glancing over at it. Smoke rises from the vehicle, and as the men seem unbothered by the body that lies next to it, missing its lower half, burned to a black crisp and still smoldering. The photo is at once horrifying and tremendously sad, framed by Sledge's language. Background wreckage suggests this is a battle's aftermath, and the men passing no doubt are on their way somewhere else. And yet the mere act of walking by seems somehow savage.

This image appears in Episode Five of The War, Ken Burns' latest epic documentary project for PBS, produced with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein (the first episode premieres tonight). The episode is titled "FUBAR," after the troops' shorthand for "fucked up beyond all recognition," and that is pretty much its focus, the many ways that civilization erodes in war, and the ways that the theaters of World War II especially resembled "meat grinders." Sledge's experience in the Pacific was specific and he describes it in poetic detail, but combat scenes recalled by other interviewees are equally dreadful, filled with fear and pain.

The War means to show the bad in the Good War -- "the greatest cataclysm in history." It tells stories that are mostly taken from four American towns, Waterbury, Connecticut, Mobile, Alabama, Sacramento, California, and Luverne, Minnesota, and if the film's sheer length (14 and half hours) is enough to make it sound "definitive," the elaborate promotional campaign has made it seem unmissable. It does touch on most famous battles and events -- Schweinfurt, Bataan, Ardennes, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, crossing the Rapido, firebombing the cities of Japan, the Japanese 442nd, who lost 400 men to save 230 members of the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forrest ("What a terrible price we paid," says 442nd infantry member Robert Kashiwagi). The footage is incredible, the stories moving, and yet, the film is, inevitably, incomplete.

It is also often frustrating, slow and sentimental in the Burnsian mode, disjointed and overtly selective. Still, it keeps a focus on its stated objective. As narrator Keith David reads, "The second world war brought out the best and the worst in a generation and blurred the two so that they became at times almost indistinguishable." In part this has to do with a familiar sort of numbers, the many years of combat and rebuilding, the accounting of the dead (between 50 and 60 million, mostly civilians), the financial costs (over $2000 billion). But it also has to do with a more "meta" concept, what the film terms "the arithmetic of war." This would be the self-preserving and necessarily reductive tendency to talk about war in exactly these terms.

Hartford, Connecticut [Photo: Library of Congress]

To make the war less "good", the film focuses on many forms of loss and damage. While its attention to "shell shock" is startlingly negligible (about two minutes of Episode Six, "Ghost Front," leading jarringly to a brief section on "pin-up girls"), most interviewees speak to the psychic and other tolls of war. And the film means to make these visible, with many shots of corpses of multiple nationalities, floating, burned, ravaged, broken, buried in sand and snow, in all sorts of contortions and states of distress. These images are disturbing and -- shown in newsreels at the time -- inevitably underscoring the current efforts by the U.S. administration and media not to show dead bodies.

The documentary shows and tells. In Episode Six, "The Ghost Front," David describes the bombing of Dresden: "At least 35,000 civilians were burned, or blown apart, or asphyxiated as they huddled in basements and bomb shelters," a sentence designed to underscore the lives lost even as they are reduced to numbers of casualties, recitations of weapons, and names of cities. And in Episode Three, "A Deadly Calling," a Life magazine photo shows "three Americans." A narrator reads the editorial copy as the camera pans over the details of men with faces down in the beach on Buna: "What shall we say of them? Shall we say that this is a fine thing for them to give their lives for their country? Why print this picture anyway, of three American boys dead on an alien shore? The reason is that words are never enough. The eye sees, the mind knows, the heart feels. But the words do not exist to make us see or know or feel what it is like. What actually happens."

This is the problem of photography in such circumstances and most documentaries, the desire to show "what actually happens." The problem is that no representation -- witness interviews, memories transcribed, images taken at the time or culled from archives -- can be absolutely accurate or complete. History is thus ever shaped and reshaped, a function of shifting needs and lenses. "History is a set of questions we in the present ask about the past," Burns has said more than once. It's a useful gesture toward definition, acknowledging the process by which history is reconstructed daily. History today is different than history yesterday, and history assembled by Burns has particular inflections and tells certain stories, based on the questions he asks.

Near Hurtgen, Germany

These questions provide for some familiar answers: Pearl Harbor made this "A Necessary War" (the title of Episode One). Boys enlisted or were drafted (10,110,104 were conscripted between 1940 and 1946), hoping to become men (Marine pilot Sam Hynes recalls, "It had nothing to do with patriotism, it has nothing to do really with who the enemy is; it's the opportunity to be somebody more exciting than the kid you are"). The "entire nation" committed to the war effort, making sacrifices, working in factories, dreading telegrams (Luverne's Jim Sherman says, "If we were sacrificing, you would feel closer to the war effort"). Negro units were segregated from Caucasians ("We thought that one day our country would be better for everybody," says Willie Rushton of Mobile). And Japanese Americans were stripped of their belongings and sent to internment camps ("How can they do that to an American family?" asks Robert Kashiwagi in Episode Two, "When Things Get Tough").

But the film is also revealing in the questions it leaves unasked -- or asked late, after prompting. As is well known by now, Latino veterans and other groups protested the omission of Latino experiences from the documentary. Though Burns has added segments showing two Hispanic and one Native American veterans, these remain unintegrated into the documentary's fabric, appearing at the ends of three episodes. The initial omission remains striking, however, as Cecilia Alvear notes, for a filmmaker who professes to be concerned with race and racism in American history (a half-million Latinos served in U.S. forces, and returned home to face continuing discrimination, much like black troops and support workers). Perhaps most troubling is the sequence scrabbled together to accompany an interview with Joe Medicine Crow that comes at the end of Episode Five. The clips consist of generic combat footage and a shot of horses galloping in slow motion, as he narrates his great grandfather training him to become a warrior. No matter how noble, compelling, and specific his story may be, the imagery underlines that its addition is an afterthought.

Such structural and ideological concerns can't help but inform the rest of the film, which is, like all of Burns' epic projects, uneven. The War is sometimes excellent (the Sledge sections, as well as interviews with Hynes and glider pilot Quentin Aanenson, are especially so) and other times repetitive and sentimental. This has to do as much with archival choices, like Ernie Pyle's reporting in Episode Two. Over shots of troops smoking cigarettes and awaiting the next crisis, the narrator reads, "The most vivid change in our men is the casual and workshop manner with which they talk about killing. They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking a human life is sinful over to a new professional outlook, where killing is a craft. To them now, there is nothing morally wrong about killing."

Okinawa [Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration]

Pyle describes a common condition that permits survival and leads to what we call "victory" in war. But he also laments the men's loss here, their necessary toughening that in fact suggests no victory is ever possible. The War makes this point again and again, in the fear inspired by unspeakable carnage and the terrible intimacy of battle. Senator Daniel Inouye, a young sergeant and former Sunday school teacher in Europe, describes finding an incident "so bad that I had to see the chaplain." Finding a wounded German soldier in a farmhouse, he was unable to understand him. When the man reached into his jacket, Inouye reacted defensively: "I hit his face with the butt of my rifle." And then he saw what the man was reaching for, "pictures of his wife and his children." Inouye sighs, "That's war." And you know such summation, while familiar, is hardly enough to convey the memory or the guilt.

This war, like every war, was premised on difference. At its best, the film exposes the ways that difference is manipulated to create support for an experience that makes its participants different. "We thought of the Japanese as mysteriously unlike us," says Hynes. "We knew they were capable of cruelty and sadism in a way that we hoped our people weren't, though I've never been quite sure what Americans would do in the exact same situation." Asako Tokuno recalls another kind of cruelty, in California. A student at Berkeley in 1942, she still tears up today when she remembers the difference in white bus riders after Pearl Harbor: "I would get this terrible feeling that people were watching looking at me. That was the first time I really felt you know, this is not good."

John Gray remembers not being able to eat at the counter at Woolworth's, and his first visit to the induction center in Mobile. He was categorized in every check-off box on the initial form as "Negro, except height and weight," and then heard that General Patton had said, "I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches." And Tim Tokuno, a member of the 442nd, remembers liberating the Lost Battalion: "A Caucasian fellow came out and said, 'I was never so glad to see a Jap in my life.' Huh. That's the first thing he said."

To its credit, The War considers the terrible effects of difference. But even as it argues that representations can make differences, it also exemplifies how limited vision can reinforce them.


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