After 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.