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Ken Burns' The War [TV Documentary Series] (2007)


It’s easy to say ‘war is hell.’ That gets the point across, but being such a shopworn phrase — particularly when invoked by warmongers who follow it up with all the reasons it’s still something to be engaged in whenever possible — it doesn’t nearly capture the magnitude of human suffering it causes. Words will always fail.

But somehow, the men and women whom Ken Burns and co-director Lynn Novick interviewed for his quietly shattering 15-hour World War II documentary series The War convey that sentiment, in all its ugly terror, in a mostly quiet and humble manner that is ultimately more unsettling than all the superlatives and adjectives one could hurl at such a world-engulfing event. The first episode, ‘A Necessary War,’ concludes with a Marine talking about a firefight during which a soldier was hit and spent hours screaming in agony. The Marine wished the man would just die; only to discover later, after the man died, that it was his best friend. ‘It’s the pits’ is all he can manage to say about that moment of devastation, and in his voice you can hear all the pain of those desolate decades of scratching, clawing guilt.

Stretched over seven episodes, The War is quite a different piece of work than Burns’ career-defining and genre-reinventing series The Civil War. One of his motivating purposes for getting the series done was reportedly his desire to get as many of these first-person accounts of the conflict down on film while there were still enough veterans and civilians alive to tell them. This focus on being told what happened by those who were actually there gives the series a wholly different perspective than the Civil War, which by necessity had to utilize historian talking-heads and the narration of first-person accounts. While that series hardly skimped on the grungy details, the soothing voices, gentle music, and sepia-tone feel of the whole thing allowed viewers a little more distance.

There is no such distance in The War, which is one of its saving graces. In Burns and Novick’s simple and effective conceit, the series gathers all his interviewees from four different towns: Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. The interviewees themselves are a mix of military and civilian, those who were called up and those they left behind, and just about none of their experiences are in any way normal. There’s the little girl from California who spent the war in a Japanese prison camp near Manila; the soldier in Guadalcanal who recalls with cold precision the moment he and his men just stopped taking prisoners; the bomber pilots watching their chances of survival dropping dramatically with each doomed mission; and the insane heroics of the Japanese-American soldiers cutting through one Nazi unit after another while their families are imprisoned in internment camps back home.

By presenting these experiences in such a cold and unadorned light, The War slices all ‘Greatest Generation’ fanfare out of rendering a conflagration that took at least 50 million lives. Nostalgic Stephen Ambrose-style WWII histories tend to deemphasize the essential truths of war, namely that it is a disgusting bloody catastrophe where people die horribly in large numbers, frequently for no purpose. So instead of getting spoon-fed another serving of History Channel chestnuts like Patton’s breakout drive across France, Burns and Novick concern themselves with events on the ground.

The grunts talk of idiot generals and plans gone wrong, what it was like to be in combat for weeks and weeks on end, and the nerve-shattering hell that shell-shocked soldiers experienced (this series should be required viewing for those who harbor any notion that PTSD is a recent invention). They talk of things that concern foot soldiers: being wet, cold, exhausted, hungry, and without a change of clothes. The disgusting racism experienced by African-American, Hispanic, and Japanese American soldiers is dealt with at a depth here that raised a few hackles among those who prefer their military history clean, uncomplicated, and guilt-free.

The War is also expert at folding all its narratives into a mammoth contextual backdrop that never loses its intimacy. While that feeling is helped along by Wynton Marsalis’ plaintive score and Keith David’s buttery narration (some accounts are read by an evocative selection of actors from Samuel L. Jackson to Bobby Cannavale to Tom Hanks), it’s also due to Burns and Novick’s careful tying together of disparate experiences. Everything that happens to the soldiers interviewed reverberates back home with the civilians, agonizing over what was happening to ‘the boys’ overseas. While the events of Okinawa and Anzio are seemingly paramount, the series keeps returning to the home front, what was in the paper, whose boys had been killed, and everyone’s worry over when the damn thing was going to be over. The result is a documentary that feels about as close as one could get to definitive.

War is hell. What The War makes crystal clear is that this truth is never any less mitigated by how just or necessary the war itself might be. Going through hell on earth for a good cause doesn’t necessarily make it any better to experience, or to relive.

The six-disc DVD set of The War includes multiple commentary tracks, and a wealth of deleted scenes and interview outtakes, as well as a making-of documentary. The sound and picture quality is nothing less than superb, and the widescreen presentation a blessing.