Where’s the Beef? Ken Burns’s “The War”

WarI watched just about all of last night’s opening segment of Ken Burns’s The War and have to say that I am a little disappointed and doubt that the rest of the series will hold my attention.  What struck me as a glaring oversight was the absence of any internal debate within the country about war before the attack at Pearl Harbor.  Where was Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee?  It’s surprising because Burns addressed the long- and short-term causes of the Civil War even if the interpretation was at times convoluted.  Apart from a few short clips of Axis aggression there is no sense of what the war is about beyond those interviewed who attempt to convey some sense of immediacy to what is transpiring far away.  There has to be some balance between the localized perspective of participants from around the country and a more sophisticated (however difficult it may be to convey in a documentary) understanding of world affairs. 

At times I felt I was watching the film version of "The Greatest Generation".  Perhaps the concern is that the introduction of political debate will minimize the theme of sacrifice and heroism that Burns so clearly hopes to convey.  Yes, Burns does address the racial divide and it will be interesting to see how this theme is followed through the war and beyond.  After all, the "Greatest Generation" was also the generation that expected black Americans to return to the status quo following Japan’s surrender in 1945.   

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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15 comments… add one
  • Ken Noe Sep 26, 2007 @ 14:26


    VOICE WITH SOUTHERN ACCENT: To be honest, I just can’t watch Burns anymore. All of his documentaries look the same, sound the same, are the same. Worse, after 1990, everyone else made their’s look the same way.

    Ken Noe, Auburn University.

    FILM CLIP: SHELBY FOOTE: It’s clear that Ken Noe was no Nathan Bedford Forrest.


  • Larry Cebula Sep 25, 2007 @ 15:45

    My impression from the first episode was that Burns had dug up some really unusual footage. During the Pearl Harbor sequence for instance we saw a few moments of what appeared to be footage from a Japanese bomber’s film camera recording where the bombs struck. I saw that and it triggered a half-assed memory that some Japanese footage or Pearl Harbor was discovered a few years ago. If that was what we saw, it is pretty interesting and Burns should make a point of it.

  • Michaela Sep 25, 2007 @ 14:39

    Having partially slept through 2 nights of Ken Burns’ WW2 documentary I cannot make a completely educated statement about all of it. However, the argument that contemporary accounts would be more helpful rings true on a very personal level. My German aunts have changed their accounts of the war to various degrees over the last 62 years. And I know this as I had the privilege to read some of their letters as well as those of my grandparents (written in the 40s). What I noticed most was that their memories fall “victim” to current politics and the media. A few examples are accounts of Americans entering their little town and dividing German homes into military quarters as well as the release of my grandfather as a POW. While these come out fairly positive for Americans (as my family is very pro-America) I only found out through their letters from 1946 that, in fact, the Americans my relatives dealt with showed rather weakness in organizing issues concerning the Red Cross and civilian needs (surprise, Mr. Rumsfeld). To make my point very clear to those who are already typing away thinking how ungrateful it is to say this as a German, I am merely pointing out how memory can change over time.
    Another concern should be that the media has re-told the story in images and words that were not their’s hundreds of times, something that Civil War soldiers were not exposed to and something that certainly has changed our views of 20th century history. Another well made point in a previous comment is the misleading emphasize on American suffering, while many other nations that fought in WW2 suffered immensely under German atrocities, too. I just cannot see “the great generation” being American, only. If we do not tell the story in full, then we will never come close to the truth. Last, but not least I hope to see more on POW in the US. Maybe it will surprise many viewers that POWs were often treated better than African Americans in the US. And yes, I have eyewitness accounts and documentation on that. But my lunch break is coming to a close.
    It would be more honorable to celebrate the American soldier by telling a complex story than petit-four wrapped in Burns chocolate plus Harry Potter sound effects. And I am closing this with a tribute to our friend Joe W. from Ventnor, NJ whose service on D-Day this great country has forgotten as he is fighting the battle against cancer. Thank you for liberating my country, Joe!

  • Bruce Miller Sep 25, 2007 @ 2:48

    I had much the same impression, even more so after seeing the second episode. I’ve blogged about my gripes at some length. But the very short version would be that I think a lot of people are going to take away particular impressions of the Second World War from this series. How many days or hours will it be before a reference to it appears in a Dick Cheney or George Bush speech? Unfortunately, so far it’s coming off more as light entertainment than as substantial history.

    I agree with Larry’s concern about using recent interviews with people who often were kids during the events they are recalling. I really wonder how well their stories were vetted. One guy Monday who was a kid at the time expressed his considered opinion that wartime rationing was just a gubment scheme to make people support the war by having to give up something. Huh?

    I get the impression that Burns tried to tell the stories of individuals and at the same time give an overview of the war. What he wound up with in the first two episodes was kind of the worst of both. The war history was superficial at best; if you listened very carefully you would at least notice that the US had allies during that war. And some of the best narrative from the interview subjects gets overwhelmed.

    The music is painfully sentimental and sometimes seems weirdly at odds with the scenes being shown. The account of Germany’s aggessions in Europe had upbeat, cheerful background music accompanying it.

    The claim in the first episode that Roosvelt approved the North Africa invasion to provide the voters “entertainment” with the 1942 elections looming was like something straight out of the How To Be An Isolationist In Five Easy Lessons handbook.

    One last gripe here. Where is the footage coming from? I assume it’s largely file footage. But in Episode 2, a guy is telling his story at length about a bombing mission in Germany and there is a variety of footage that seems to show what he’s describing moment-by-moment. Even the dramatic effect was screwed up by the loud dubbed-in machine gun sounds drowning out the guy’s own narrative, which was quite good. But how much trouble would it have been to put up at least a caption saying “file footage from various battles” or something like that? For that matter, is any of the footage dramtizations? Or do we have to buy the $85 DVD-book-soundtrack package to find that out?

  • matthew mckeon Sep 24, 2007 @ 20:07

    In “Wartime” Paul Fussell recounts how accounts of the war were bowderlized at the time, and photography and newsreels were censored to specifically exclude images of headless or otherwise dismembered corpses. Fussell called it “Disneyfication” and still frantic with rage about it, at least when “Wartime” was published. These Disneynified images are our collective memory of the Good War.
    So Burns is doing a service, as he did with the “Civil War” of showing that the war was plenty nasty, and seeing plenty nasty is a lot worse than you think its going to be. The aging vets can now presumably tell the unvarnished truth, without editing it for homefront consumption in the 40s.
    The trouble is IMO, when the vets are recounting the bad things they did, it somehow transforms them into good things. One guy last night coolly remarked that his unit, “didn’t take prisoners.” Since he looks like a good guy, killing prisoners becomes, if not good, then somehow justified.

  • wdepner Sep 24, 2007 @ 19:03

    Unfortunately, many viewers will likely treat this documentary as the “definitive” word on the Second World War — what a shame that would be.

    More than sixty years after the fact, leading public figures like Burns and Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson are still finding it hard to admit that the Soviet Union suffered the most in defeating Nazi Germany.

    Russian victories at Stalingrad, Leningrad and countless other locations in Eastern Europe during the second half of the war broke the German army — the Normandy invasion merely confirmed the eventual outcome of the war, nothing more. Skipping over those facts, as Burns has done, is nothing short of rewriting history, erasing the horrible pain and suffering of countless people who did not have the luxury of American citizenship.

    The American experience during the war was rather gentile compared to the hell Europe and Asia endured. Burns concedes this fact himself. So why then should I care about his mammoth documentary about average Americans, who did not have to hide in air raid shelters, flee their homes before advancing armies, slave in underground factories and experience genocide? Burns gives us instead stories about communities rallying to buy war time bonds. Greatest generation, indeed. I do not mean to diminish the stories of those Americans who suffered because of the war, either on the front line or at home. But let us get some perspective, please.

    As the BBC has shown us through its landmark series on the Second World War, you can have a specific perspective, without being exclusive. That documentary had it all — telling details and broad, sweeping context thanks to mix of sources speaking from all sides and perspectives — front-line soldiers, civilians, generals, diplomats and war-time leaders. Why Burns, with his supposed talent, would limit his approach to four small American towns stuns me.

    But may be I can give Burns too much credit because but every one of this documentaries strikes the same sentimental, nostalgic, even childish tone. The exhausting use of gory footage suggests the mind of a 13-year-old boy who secretly delights in the pornography of war. The Second World War is an inexhaustible subject. A different approach, a different perspective would have infused the subject with relevant urgency.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2007 @ 19:00

    Larry, — Great points. The contemporary accounts would give us a sense of the extent to which those memories have evolved. I want to know how white officers viewed black enlisted men at the time, what the men believed the war was about…

  • Larry Cebula Sep 24, 2007 @ 18:42

    The insistence on so much oral history from ordinary Americans is a huge mistake. Memories are malleable things, to put it mildly. Add 60+ years and you end up with either vague generalities (Like the lady who explained that in her town they really didn’t like Hitler very much) or war stories that have clearly improved in the telling. The thing is that there are tons of contemporary accounts he could have used instead. This program may mark the point at which American binged one time too many on the twin fascinations with the “Greatest Generation” and sloppy oral history.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 24, 2007 @ 18:27

    It was pretty slow moving, but I’ll give it some more time.

    The problem is, he wants to focus tightly on the concerns and experiences of ordinary people, both in the services and at home, and not retell the history of the war, leaders, strategies and so forth. Yet he has to, to put the experiences in context. He was able to do this in “Civil War.” but WWII is a bigger, more diffuse event, so I wonder if he can pull it off.

    By the way, I disagree with Saving Pvt. Ryan as capturing the infantry experience of the war. In the end, the recreation of Omanha was just that, a recreation. I remember being shocked when I first saw it, but I’ve shown the landing sequence a couple of times in class since. The kids love it, plenty of action, gore with cool special effects. I don’t think I’d ever show it to a class again.

  • Larry Cebula Sep 24, 2007 @ 18:16

    God Almighty, it was dreadful! I expected Ken Burns to be simplistic but was surprised at how jingoistic it was. The adjectives were telling. I didn’t take notes but the narrator was forever intoning about Germany’s “unprovoked” aggression and Japan’s “cruel” occupations. Both of which are true of course but the constant repetition of such terms made the program shrill. Is this the post 9-11 Ken Burns?

  • mannie Gentile Sep 24, 2007 @ 13:23

    I fell asleep toward the end of the opening episode. Perhaps its because I’ve been under the weather, more likely though it was because the program wasn’t holding my interest.

    If last nite’s episode is any indication this will be more of a video “coffee table book” providion little in the way of insights or revelations.

    Perhaps I’ve simply become fatigued with Tom Brokaws “Greatest Generation” marketing coup, or that so many of that typically tight-lipped group of WWII veterans now have embraced his myth in a symptomatic stab at immortality as memory and life grow shorter.

    Ken Burns has made some fine contributions, however the “Ken Burns Look” that style of documentary, has begun, in my opinion, to overshadow the content.


  • Kevin Sep 24, 2007 @ 12:17

    Warren, — Thanks for taking the time to write. I certainly do not mean to make a blanket statement about the generation that fought the war; however, the fact is that the civil rights movement was fought every step of the way by state governments and communities throughout the country.

    Brooks, — I think you are absolutely right about this. Private Ryan and Band of Brothers have already captured the soldier’s story. Burns’s first episode is of a nation at rest with little care for what is transpiring elsewhere and all of a sudden they are thrust onto the world stage to save democracy. The fact that Burns agreed to include the additional footage of Hispanic Americans suggests the importance of consensus both in terms of historical interpretation and how it is viewed by the general public.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 24, 2007 @ 11:46

    Burns is late to the party in this one, which seems to be a soldier’s view of the war. He had to adjust the film when Latinos protested their omission. He did so in typically churlish style.

  • The Sanity Inspector Sep 24, 2007 @ 10:15

    The only thing I could think of was, “it’s a Ken Burns film”. Ken Burns can make a Ken Burns film out of anything, it seems.

  • Warren Sep 24, 2007 @ 7:44

    ‘…After all, the “Greatest Generation” was also the generation that expected black Americans to return to the status quo following Japan’s surrender in 1945.’

    Ah, but did they? Doubtless it would be possible to find some young WW2 serviceman who thought segregation was still OK in 1945. They where even brought up to think it was normal.

    By the 60’s plenty of these guys where in higher positions in commerce, industry, politics, journalism, public admninistration- basically, their generation was running things at the height of the civil rights movement. They didn’t seem to get in the way as a group.

    Possibly, the guys who liberated europe came home with a different outlook. Just my two cents….

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