"There’s no such thing as a good war, only necessary wars and just wars," says former Marine Corps torpedo bomber pilot Sam Hynes in the opening minutes of The War, the magisterial Ken Burns documentary that premiered on most PBS stations last night and continues in seven parts and some 14½ hours in all through early next month.
In fact, the first episode is called "A Necessary War" and would seem to be a backhanded reference to
Therein lies a central lesson of Burns' latest mega-documentary, which while not his best is probably the most nuanced treatment of a war that has been written, talked and filmed about endlessly in this era of countless History Channel programs, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a time when World War II veterans are dying at the rate of more than 1,000 a day.
As Burns puts it in debunking the notion that The War was produced because of Iraq, let alone Vietnam:
"When people complain in later episodes about not getting the right equipment -- which is endemic to all wars -- or generals making the wrong decisions, or politicians thinking about the upcoming elections, these are universal realities of war that just happen to be there accidentally. But we're not unmindful that they will engage people with questions about the current situation. That's the only reason why you do history. You're not going to change what happened on June 6, 1944, but you're going to ask questions that are going to help us on Sept. 11, 2007."The War contains substantial never-before-seen film footage, some of it suppressed by the U.S. government at the time, and I sometimes had to remind myself that this was not
Burns uses four American towns –
Quentine Aanenson, a pilot from Laverne, wrote to his sweetheart:
"I live in a world of death."
"And then suddenly you could be a pilot or a submariner or an artilleryman or any damn thing, but it was something exciting and it was something adult. It has nothing to do with patriotism. It has nothing to do, really, with who the enemy is. It's the opportunity to be somebody more exciting than the kid you are."
"I think the horror is still with me. I think there's no apology that can ever atone for what I saw."
"You would think that at that moment, after killing a human being, you would feel a little remorseful. I felt pleasure. And the men applauded. 'You were terrific, Dan.' "
While it is damning with faint praise, it may be the familiarity of the Burns format that is The War's only real detraction. The documentary is, in a sense, a prisoner of its format, which can occasionally have a kind of numbing predictability since we all know who the winners and losers were.
No matter. In the end, The War is a huge achievement and a rare television event – something that families can and should watch together. I hope that you and your loved ones, especially school-age kids who can be prepared for the graphic scenes and occasional obscenity, are able to do so.
And while Ken Burns has taken pains to explain in interviews that The War was not produced with Iraq in mind, comparisons are unavoidable.
While not diminishing the valor of the men and women fighting in Iraq, it makes George Bush even smaller and more petty for a folly that could not be more different than World War II, which make his mangled historical comparisons between the two so obscene.
Click here for more on The War.
Episode 2, "When Things Get Tough," airs at tonight; Episode 3, "A Deadly Calling," tomorrow night; Episode 4, "Pride of Our Nation," Wednesday night; Episode 5, "FUBAR," on September 30; Episode 6, "The Ghost Front," on October 1; and Episode 7, "A World Without War," on October 2.