Ken Burns: What he missed
[Mr. Kaye is a professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (2005).]
Ken Burns, America's premier documentary filmmaker, clearly recognizes the profound political character of his work. Introducing the companion volume to his new PBS television series The War, he observes: "How fortunate it is that we in the United States are stitched together [not only] by words and ideas, but also by memory."
And yet, as he also recognizes, at times of crisis, America's social fabric comes undone, and we find ourselves gazing back "uneasily into the void that has ... destroyed so many other promising experiments." With those crises in mind, he essentially proclaims his calling: "In those moments, it becomes necessary to reinvigorate what we share in common, and to ignore those polarizing impulses that inevitably afflict us all. ... One antidote to this misery of misunderstanding and division is memory."
A fine sentiment. How unfortunate it is, then, that Burns ignores the democratic political ideals, the social movements of working people and the New Deal initiatives that encouraged Americans - in spite of the injustices that marked the nation's life and war effort - to join with the British and the Soviets to pursue the long, terrible war against Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan. In doing so, he undermines his professed task and obscures his protagonists' most critical legacy.
America's foremost "public remembrancer," Burns has produced a host of critically acclaimed films for public television, most notably The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. Underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and the Bank of America, and promoted by every means imaginable, including community events and preview screenings coast to coast, The War is his most powerful work yet.
Emotionally drained after doing The Civil War and worried about getting pegged as a producer of military documentaries, Burns says he resisted making The War. But moved by the Greatest Generation phenomenon of the late 1990s and the accelerating passage of those who constituted that generation (among them his own father) - as well as the reported ignorance of high school students about the second world war - Burns took it on.
He resolved to tell the story not from the vantage point of the statesmen and generals, but "from the bottom up," from the perspective of those who did the actual fighting and of those on the home front who provided them with food and materiel and anxiously awaited their return.
Focusing on four towns - Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; and Sacramento, California - Burns spent six years collecting film footage and newspaper stories, securing personal correspondence and diaries, and taping interviews with veterans or their survivors. The visuals are extraordinary, the personal histories are moving and the editing and narration deftly connect the intimate recollections and the "progress" of the global conflict.
The selected communities not only allowed Burns to capture America's regional and ethnic diversity (though somehow he failed originally to involve any Mexican Americans); it also enabled him to explore the racism that dictated a segregated military, erupted in mob violence in the nation's leading industrial centers and propelled the Roosevelt administration to issue Executive Order 9066, which "transferred" all Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps in the country's interior (while young Japanese-American men, born in the US, patriotically enlisted to serve in a segregated - and in time, most highly decorated - army combat regiment!).
Burns pulls no punches. His narrator, actor Keith David (who happens to be the current voice of US Navy recruiting ads), regularly reports the number of casualties on both sides of every battle (which, including civilian deaths, globally totaled 60 million, more than 400,000 of them Americans) and his storytellers, the veteran soldiers, sailors and airmen, testify to the death, destruction and utter brutality of the war - brutality that brutalized the finest of men. Atrocities by Japanese and German troops instigated atrocities by Americans, though on a far lesser scale. And a generation of young Americans would carry not only the physical damage of war through the remainder of their lives, but also the mental and spiritual damage.
Still, framed by the imperial army's slaughter of Chinese civilians and the Nazis' grand scheme to wipe out European Jewry - and Hitler's plans to attack and occupy the United States, which The War also details - Burns's work gives ample testimony to the fact that while it was no more a "good" war than any other was, it was definitely a "necessary war."
In every media interview he gives, Burns preempts the inevitable questions about the current war in Iraq by pointing out that he began his project before the 2003 invasion. And diplomatically refusing to make any comparisons, he insists that "there's not a political bone in this film."
One can understand Burns's need to not alienate his sponsors. Yet one cannot help but wonder if his desire to avoid the politics of the present did not also severely shape his telling of the past, for, as much as he attends to America's racial injustices, he drains America's second world war generation of any real political commitments or aspirations.
Burns's narrator appreciatively states that Roosevelt redirected the energy of the New Deal to the war effort, and Burns's now-elderly storytellers recall how FDR's voice inspired them. Yet we hear nothing about what the New Deal entailed and why it mattered. We also never hear FDR pronounce the "four freedoms" or call for a second bill of rights for all Americans.
We never hear about the hundreds of thousands of housewives who volunteered to police local businesses in support of wartime price controls. And we never hear about labor unions, whose membership during the Depression grew from three to nine million, and during the war to 15 million. Burns makes no reference to A. Philip Randolph's AFL Pullman Porters and the March on Washington Movement that pushed FDR to integrate the war industries, or the CIO's policy of biracial unionism.
We need to know about those things to better comprehend how, in the wake of a devastating and in critical ways persistent depression, Americans - of every colour and ethnicity - were both ready and eager to fight not only imperial Japan, the country that attacked them at Pearl Harbor, but equally and, all the more aggressively at the outset, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. ....
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