Film Review – Ken Burns’s The War


review-cover1 Ken Burns has produced some remarkable documentaries, my personal favorites focusing on baseball, the civil war, Mark Twain, and the politics/friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. To each of these works he brought a storyteller’s sensibility, personalizing great themes or de-hagiografying the lives of great people. 

Further, he has shown a tendency to stretch our understanding of oft-told histories exposing little-known but important ignored facts. Baseball dealt not only with the shame and glory of the negro leagues and with Ty Cobb’s virulent racism, but also with both sides of the Black Sox scandal, and kept track of the players’ generations-long efforts to organize a union. The Civil War went into (although perhaps not enough) Northern anti-war sentiment and Abraham Lincoln’s politically calculated tardiness to the cause of abolition. None of these angles were news to professional historians, of course, or to baseball or civil war buffs, but given the mass marketing of Burns’s work—most have been viewership windfalls for PBS—these truths found, for the first time, a much wider audience. No one who watched those two particular series, for instance, could ever again simply idolize Cobb or even Lincoln. 

In The War, his latest and most ballyhooed production, Burns tackles WWII, the defining moment for what is popularly, and thus commercially, called “the Greatest Generation.” Burns deserves praise for spending a decent amount of time on the issue of Japanese-American internment, although the obscene exploitation and swindling that accompanied that displacement are downplayed, as are the protests and the overt racism that allowed neighbors to go along with this. You come away with the feeling that Executive Order 9066 was a rotten shame, alright, but it was unique to its time—never happened before or, goodness knows, since—when in fact this nation was built on forced relocation. 

Where Burns remains strong is in presenting the picture of the small individual placed in a hellish situation, reluctantly but inescapably playing his/her part in the great drama. Near the end of the series, we hear a veteran relate how, nearly mad with exhaustion and terror and wishing beyond all things for sleep, he silently urges a wounded, moaning, but unreachable comrade to die—not for an end to that person’s misery, but to his own sleeplessness—only later to discover that the now-dead man was his close friend. 

All that having been said, I must report my severe disappointment with The War. This film is below standard in both form and content. Watching it, I had feelings of déjà vu, of Saturday afternoons spent watching old WWII documentaries heavy on chronology, skimming the captions out of the history texts, history as a catalog of battles and generals and twice-told tales; history where the only “forces” are in uniforms. Britain miraculously withstood the Luftwaffe solely because of the pluck of its pilots (and God’s favor), not because they had a working radar system that told them when enemy planes were coming. To his credit, there are themes that would not have appeared on my old TV—most startlingly, an admission that U.S. soldiers at times acted brutally and criminally against enemy soldiers. But even these specific instances are framed as payback for earlier enemy atrocities, rather than phenomena inherent to war and the inescapable result of the brutalization and dehumanization of  military training. 

True to his political bent, Burns feels obligated, early in his nine-hour opus, to make the case for WWII “being a necessary [and therefore good, by some lights] war.” Herein lay the first of many traditionalist traps. All histories have to deal with the problem of origin and at the risk of adding another hour to the work, WWII’s necessity, and therefore its goodness, are seriously compromised if its roots are not traced back at least to the dishonest and cruelly punitive Versailles Treaty, the Depression (which is mentioned only in a U.S. context, and briefly) and its catastrophic effects in Germany, the League of Nations’ failure (significantly the U.S.’s fault), and Spain. 

A WWII history that does not trace the politics and technologies (at the very least) to the Spanish revolution of 1936-39 is worthless. Burns spends less than a minute on it. Militarily, the new style of warfare known as the Blitzkrieg was honed in Spain, as well as the practice of carpet-bombing civilians. Perhaps Burns didn’t dwell on that last because we “good guys” employed the bombing of civilian targets on an even more extensive, strategic basis than our enemies (and promptly outlawed it after we won). 

Politically, Hitler was again raising the ante. Having gotten away with re-occupying the Rhineland in 1935, in express violation of the Versailles Treaty—by which the Allies were pre-authorized to expel him by force—he was pushing the war-weary West to see how far they would let him go. (The universal opinion of Hitler’s general staff, and even Hitler himself, admitted later that the Germans would’ve had to “crawl back with our tails between our legs” had the allies intervened.) It is no longer considered radical to suggest that Spain, erupting a year later, presented the West’s last good chance to stop fascism without a worldwide conflagration. Seen in this context, WWII was arguably a “necessary” war only if world history begins in 1939. 

Spain demonstrates the danger of Burns’s trying to steer a good war story away from politics. The rest of the capitalist world had been living fairly comfortably with fascism since 1922 when Mussolini took over Italy. Il Duce’s imperial ambitions in Africa went unresponded to also, except verbally. But when Franco’s Spanish fascists revolted against the legitimately elected liberal government and the popular defensive reaction morphed into a true revolution, so frightened were Western elites by “the threat of a good example” that, not only did the “democracies” fail to defend a modern, European democracy against a coup d’etat, but they quickly and uniformly instituted a so-called “neutrality” policy, effectively blocking any significant material aid passing through Western ports. The sight of industrial workers not only temporarily “taking over” or “occupying” their workplaces—as was happening on the tumultuous 1930s labor scene elsewhere—and then running them as the new rightful owners gave Wall Street and its global partners nightmares. 

An abiding and fanatical anti-communism fueled the malign neglect of Spain, making possible, in the early Cold War years following WWII, the oxymoronic phrase “premature antifascist” applied to individuals and groups who had tried to help Spain. 

This rabid anti-communism also had its effects during the war when a certain senator from Missouri publicly expressed the wish that the USSR and Nazi Germany should be allowed to destroy each other without our interference. I don’t know if this attitude played any part in the Allies’ postponement of the “second front” to relieve Nazi pressure on the USSR—Burns relates the standard Western rationale here—but it would have been nice to explore that possibility, especially considering that the senator was none other than Harry S. Truman. Small wonder that Stalin, certainly aware of the stated opinion of the man who would be across the table from him at Potsdam, should suspect Western motives. 

A much-acclaimed feature of Burns’s previous work has been his attention to sound and music.  In particular, the haunting “Ashokan Farewell” of The Civil War has to be one of the most fitting music themes of all time, so much so that it seemed wrong that it was original music and not a traditional, period tune. In The War, the dirgelike music seems forced, not of the period, and its repetition is distracting rather than enhancing. At times it becomes inappropriately amusing in its predictability. 

Burns also tries to adapt a framing device from The Civil War where he periodically checked in with two common soldiers, one from each side, to keep the “worm’s eye view” alive. In The War the best he can do is to focus on four localities in the U.S. where a few characters pop up now and then. Although perhaps unavoidable, as no one person from each town was seemingly “everywhere”—the way Privates Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins were—our interest is too diffused for us to identify strongly with anyone. More troubling, in establishing a pre-war baseline of the nation’s behavior and ambiance, Burns lets go unchallenged similar statements by a white man in Sacramento and an African American in Mobile, to the effect that “people got along fairly well” back then. Violent labor struggles? Jim Crow? Even with the black man’s hasty qualification of “as long as you knew the rules,” these are astonishing statements to let slide. 

And it is hard not to hear the triumphalism when, at the end of the series, Burns offers us the image of a transformed United States, newly mature and ready to take its rightful place at the head of an empire. As though it were evolution, almost, or perhaps Manifest Destiny. 

The most surprising, even shocking, let down had to do with Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. Scholarship that strongly indicates, if not proves, that its use was political rather than military, is abundant and authoritative. Several works, plus the testimonies of a former president (and WWII general, Eisenhower) and a former CIA director, must be taken into account in any honest history of the war’s end. Burns says absolutely nothing, but lines up veteran after veteran to say how relieved and grateful they were to not have to storm the Japanese home islands with horrendous loss of life all around. Those dire predictions and the consequent pro-bomb conclusion would have been reasonable, save for the (known to Washington) readiness of the Japanese to surrender precisely on the (de facto) terms they later did surrender on. 

The Allies had publicly announced that only “unconditional surrender” was acceptable, but the one condition that the Japanese were holding out for, from mid-1945, was the preservation of the imperial institution. The idea that General McArthur, as occupation proconsul, made a postwar, unilateral decision granting that “tiny” item is absurd. The war could have ended months earlier, without invasion and without nuclear horror. The U.S. wanted to use the bomb to send a postwar anti-valentine to the USSR, announcing its own new imperial role. That Burns passed on this perfect occasion, when he had the sympathetic ear of millions, to correct the record on this seminal decision—or at the very least explore it as an alternative explanation—is a tragic failing for a documentarian. One can only wonder if future funding was on his mind (sadly, an entirely reasonable worry). 

Evidence that Burns’s news was indeed “manufactured” doesn’t stop there. Another major issue Burns neglects hits closer to home. Investigative reporting, starting immediately after the war with an official inquiry by the Army, brought to light illegal business dealings with Hitler by major U.S. corporations, not only late enough to have already been morally questionable, but during the war, which was illegal (to say the least). Only after Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on the U.S. by Germany and Italy four days later—over two years since WWII began—did General Motors, for example, relinquish day-to-day management of their German plants, which had been producing strictly military vehicles for months. GM, along with Ford, today disavows responsibility for arming Hitler and they have fought claims by surviving former slave-laborers used at their plants. 

Of course, that didn’t stop GM from (successfully) suing the U.S. government for bombing damages or from accepting their share of profits, held in escrow for them, as major stockholders, by the Nazis. Before each episode of The War series, a proud voice announces, “For over ten years, General Motors has been the sole corporate sponsor of the films of Ken Burns. We’re proud of our association.” But is Ken Burns? 


Ron Linville is a paralegal (unemployed),  bus driver (disabled), and anarchist (unindicted). He lives in Rochester New York with his lifepartner and their teenage son.