Ken Burns’ Cold War The War

Ken Burns The WarAfter suffering through little bits of The World Wars, I picked up Ken Burns’ documentary, The War. I’d heard great things about it, but I didn’t even get half way through the first episode. Maybe it’s just that I’m in a bad mood. Or it could be that it is so much not what I expected. I mean, the thing is something like 14 hours long. I thought it was a history of World War II. But it isn’t. It isn’t that at all.

To begin with, I was shocked that it started in the Fall of 1941. Really?! I mean, Burns didn’t start his documentary The Civil War with the attack on Fort Sumter. And then the narrator said something that made me so angry. I won’t find the exact quote, but it was more or less this: the country was finally climbing out of the decade of the Great Depression. While that’s true, there is no context here. The reason the economy was coming back was because of military Keynesianism. For the few years before that, the federal government was building up its military because of the threat of war in Europe and Asia. So the improving economy was due to the Second World War that was already going on, even if America was not yet fighting in it.

There was also a moment in what I watched that talked about how during the war we were never really attacked, so we basically had no civilian casualties. And even our military casualties were relatively small compared to the other great powers involved in the war. But then it added that we were critically important in the war. I wondered, “Really?” I know we were important in the war. Because we were not under attack, our industry was really important. And almost a half million soldiers were killed. But would Germany and Japan have won the war without us being in it? I really don’t know, and I didn’t like the line thrown out there. It just seemed like pandering to the worst instincts of Americans.

The documentary itself looks at the effect of the war on four towns in the United States. And it is what it is. On its own terms, I suppose it is as good as anything that Ken Burns has ever done. But there is a problem from my perspective: I don’t care. My entire life I’ve had this kind of America-centered vision of World War II fed to me. I hardly need more of it. The parts of the war that are most interesting to me are the parts that I don’t know as much about: Japan and the Soviet Union. Growing up in our Cold War infused public education system, it wasn’t until I was in college that I had much more than the vaguest of ideas that the Soviet Union had been an important part of the war—much less a more important part of the war than we were.

So it just seems weird to spend all the time and money and energy on making a documentary that tells America the same old myth that it has always told itself. By focusing on these four towns and the men who went to war there, the series will necessary avoid, just like grammar school history class, the efforts of the Soviets. And there is absolutely no discussion of why the Japanese bombed us or why Hitler came to power and why he did what he did with that power. Neville Chamberlain, obviously will never be mentioned, since he had been dead a year by the time this documentary started. Really, I don’t see why I should care to see this story told from this prospective yet again.

But I’m not surprised that people were so impressed with the series when it came out in 2007. For one thing, we were fighting two wars at that time with none of the clarity of The War. And of course, Burns does good work. And he’s very good at determining what it is Americans want to hear. But in the same why that the Iron Man franchise is bad for American children, I’m afraid that The War is bad for American adults. Regardless, I don’t have the time to spend wallowing in a 14 hour discussion of a war that we were an important, but small part of. And that is to take nothing away from the people who struggled through it.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Ken Burns’ Cold War The War

  1. Burns is good at interviewing, and his army of collaborators is good at finding the right archival clips/photos. That said, I found "The War" one of his weakest efforts, mostly for the reasons you mentioned. I guess you just can’t do WWII without it being a hagiography to America these days, people would get mad. Then Burns should have skipped it (but I imagine he thinks of himself as our Great Historical Documentarian and couldn’t skip it.) There are so many angles to WWII that haven’t been done as much in documentaries (how the war spurred the civil rights and feminist movements, for example.)

    My take on America’s military involvement in WWII is that we saved more of Europe from becoming communist satellite states. Stalin probably wouldn’t have insisted on France, but Russia did have valid historical reasons for wanting more buffer zones, and it’s possible all of Germany and Scandinavia would have become part of the USSR. And as we know the communist satellite states had crappier standards of living the further out they were from Russia, while the capitalist countries closest to the Soviet bloc eventually enacted the best social welfare programs capitalism has yet come up with. Essentially, D-Day was really good for Finland. (With no small irony, capitalism is now attempting to undermine the social welfare systems in Europe it once supported for making communism seem less attractive.)

    As for the Pacific, Indochina was getting screwed by the colonial powers before the war, Japan planned to screw it if they could, and we screwed it after we beat Japan. So that probably wouldn’t have worked out well no matter what.

  2. @JMF – It has made me rethink everything else that he’s done. At least he should have given it a better title like, "America’s World War II."

    Excellent point about the Soviets and Japan.

  3. Hmm… I’d not be so harsh; granted it’s an incomplete story, but it’s worth recording what Americans saw/thought of WW II a they lived through the experience.

    And if you want something more complete … I recommend TOTAL WAR by Guy Wint and Peter Calvocoressi. I read this as 2 pb volumes about twenty years ago; there’s been a 2nd edition, with a third author, which Amazon now sells for about 6 bucks (used), so its affordable again. The authors were British journalists attempting to explain the war, its causes and effects, to Europeans in the 1980s who were too young to have experienced the war (and too badly educated to grasp the details). Quite well written, and it seems to have covered just about everything.

    Also, there are a zillion books about particular battles and campaigns and biographies and the like, which appeal to military history buffs. If you’re one of those people … I can give more recommendations. If you’re among the sane, let me give a shout out to Max Hastings’ RETRIBUTION, which is a fairly high level account of the last two years of the American war against Japan, and which tries to explain precisely how that
    conflict became so soul-crushingly brutal. If you want to recreate the emotions of the time, as experienced by people trying to be "decent". it’s the place to go.

  4. @mike shupp – Thanks for the recommendations. I gave [i]The War[/i] its due: it is what it is. It just isn’t something I’m that interested in. It also seems to me that PBS ought to be doing more than just creating comfortable programming. But we’re talking about the network that last night featured a lecture by pseudo-scientist Mark Hyman about his 10-day detox. Anything Ken Burns does is infinitely better than that.

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