Ken Burns, the War in Iraq, and Sacrifice

There has been quite a bit of talk about whether Ken Burns’s documentary on WWII is meant as commentary on the ongoing war in Iraq.  I don’t claim any insight into the intentions of Burns nor do I really care.  That said, it was hard watching last night’s episode and the focus on the home front without thinking of the present situation.  Yes, the images and commentary of rationing and the collecting of grease was predictable, but what did stand out was the close connection between the talk of sacrifice and the corresponding actions.   We’ve heard our own president talk about long-term sacrifice, but apart from the men and women on the ground (some on their third and fourth tours of duty) and their families where have we seen sacrifice on the home front?  How bad is it?  Our president had an opportunity to rally the country and the world in his address at the UN the other day and all he can talk about is the problem in Myanmar. 

3 comments… add one
  • Ken Noe Sep 26, 2007 @ 14:20


    After Pearl Harbor, FDR asked Americans to sacrifice. After 9/11, GWB asked Americans to go out to the malls and spend money. The end result is that a very small percentage of Americans have carried nearly all of the load of this war. I’m starting to get Iraq vets back in my classroom, and I’m struck by both their patriotism and their alienation, their proud sense of having done their duty only to be betrayed by both parties and the rest of us as well. No surprise that they identify with the Civil War soldier, just as many Vietnam vets I know have done over the years.

  • Bruce Miller Sep 26, 2007 @ 14:08

    I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be a commentary on the Iraq War. But that concern gets to one of my problems with his treatment of the subject. It’s very tempting to look at a historical documentary for “lessons”. The military analyst and Air War College professor Jeffrey Record has written two books about how historical analogies can be seriously misleading to decision-makers.

    Burns is offering this up in such a Hallmark package with the nostalgic, sentimental soundtrack and so forth that people will be very tempted to find their own “lessons” that they have long since drawn from the war, or, more commonly, from endless discussions of the real and imagined “lessons” of the war and superficial analogies built around them.

    Supporters of the Bush policy on Iraq will no doubt take it as proving the necessity of national unity behind the war policy.

    I’m hesitant to call it a “lesson”. But American participation in Second World War was not prompted by some missionary impulse to liberate the oppressed and bring democracy to enslaved nations. It’s legitimate to call it a war of liberation. But the United States was drawn into it by German and Japanese aggression (isolationist conspiracy theories notwithstanding).

    Preventing future aggression was a key war aim of the US and its allies. At the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials, high officials of the enemy governments were tried, sentenced, in a number of case executed for the crime of “aggressive war”. Which meant launching a war against countries that were no imminent threat to them. One brand of what was then called “aggressive war” is now known in international law as “preventive war”, which is why the current administration in its national strategy papers is careful to use the term “pre-emptive war”, which is legal under international law.

    But it’s honestly difficult for me to see how anyone who takes seriously the goals and the results of the Second World War from the American side could have supported launching the war against Iraq in 2003, or launching one against Iran now.

    Wesley Clark recently wrote that war should always be a “last, last, last resort”. Because wars always bring tragedy but rarely bring glory. That was also true of the experience of most people who endured the Second World War.

    But will Burns’ romantic, mythical treatment of that war give anyone the information to draw such conclusions? I think it’s likely to reinforce the view promoted by conservative ideologues of war as a purging, liberating force, and a quick and easy way to achieve foreign policy aims.

    The only legitimate goal of war, as Jeffrey Record also writes, it to achieve a better peace. It’s hard to see how viewers could take that from Burns’ Norman Rockwell version of the Second World War, at least in its first three installments.

  • Dave Woodbury Sep 26, 2007 @ 13:50

    Sacrifice? Don’t forget, President Bush DID urge us to go shopping. For frugal people, that must have been quite an ordeal.

    Regarding the Burns documentary, isn’t the first episode entitled, “Necessary War”? If that doesn’t bring to mind the tragedy of the unnecessary elective war in Iraq, nothing will.


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