Ken Burns’s “War” aim: to make Americans feel bad

(Note: See Paul Cella’s enthusiastic praise for “The War,” below.)

Here, slightly edited for the sake of maintaining decent language at this website, is a series of e-mails I wrote in quick succession to two correspondents over the weekend as I was half-watching Ken Burns’ “The War” while working at my computer:

LA wrote:

I have a bit of it on PBS. It’s downbeat. The main narrator sounds like a black man, and has a downbeat voice. It’s a bit like “Frontline,” suggesting some pervasive sense of something sinister and bad. It’s like WWII is something we’re all supposed to be depressed about.

LA continued:

Even as the U.S. is closing in on Japan and Germany, it sounds downbeat. AS though we had lost the war rather than won it.

Burns is terrible. He did one worthwhile thing, 15 years ago.

LA continued:

And all the other voice-over voices, all sound depressed and sad.

This is the “Private Ryan” version of WWII, all about guilt.

LA continued:

The music that comes on with the credits is sad, depressed. You’d think America was Ireland or something, telling the story about its long history of disasters and oppression.

- end of initial entry -

Steven Warshawsky writes:

Great post. My wife and I started watching the first episode of Ken Burns’ World War Two documentary, but turned it off after 45 minutes. It was terrible. Dull, superficial narration. Completely inappropriate musical score. Idiotic emphasis on selected individuals (and their street addresses—why?), with almost no discussion of the larger events of history. Then there was the de rigueur multicultural slant that portrayed America as a deeply flawed, bigoted nation.

What convinced me the show was not worth watching (and we never watched another episode): After the sequence about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the narrator talked over FDR’s famous “date which will live in infamy” speech. Surely this speech, or at least the main parts of it, deserved to be heard by the audience. This was a deliberate “artistic” decision, which can only reflect the filmmakers’ desire to downplay the significance of the Japanese attack. And the righteouness of the American reaction. Of course, the narrator implied that we somehow were to blame for the attack because the United States stopped selling oil and other resources to Japan in protest of Japan’s ongoing atrocities in China. The whole thing was a disgusting example of how liberals do not love this country.

A reader writes:

Really good point from Warshawsky. Probably they wanted to downplay the Pearl Harbor attack so they can focus on the internment of the Japanese Americans without anything getting in the way. Good example of how liberals do not love this country, as Warshawsky says.

N. writes:

It doesn’t resemble anything that I was told by people who were there. The narrative attempts to be first-person, focusing on those who remember, but the constant down-beat overtones are just wearying. As someone who grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of WW II vets, I couldn’t stand more than a few minutes of it before turning it off.

It’s just more political correct junk from PBS.

Alan Levine writes:

Since WWII is one of the fields where I claim professional expertise, I hate to have to admit that I only watched about 30 minutes of the first episode of the Burns’s piece. I did not have the sense that those making the film wanted everyone to feel bad, just that they were approaching matters with proper solemnity.

I might have changed my mind about that, but decided not to waste my time because it was slow as molasses, and seemed to have not one original thing to say. In fact, it was entirely orthodox in its aversion to original thought. The approach was that the US entered the war with the Pearl Harbor attack, without the slightest awareness that we were in an (undeclared) war with Germany for three months before that, with ships sunk and men killed.

That Burns would be an orthodox liberal does not surprise me, as that was the approach of his “documentary” about New York, which entirely avoided discussing the reasons for either the city’s decline from the 1950s on or its relative recovery.

Paul K. writes:

While visiting my father, a WW II veteran, I sat with him and watched about 45 minutes of one episode. It focused heavily on the Japanese internment camps. American Renaissance published a lengthy article revealing that much of what we hear about these camps is false. For example, as long as Japanese citizens left the exclusion zone on the West Coast, they were free to live and work elsewhere in the country. The camps were for those who had nowhere else to go. Ken Burns, of course, presents only the accepted liberal mythology.

I recently looked through a stack of WW II era magazines and realized that in 1942 there was a very real fear of a Japanese landing on the West Coast. The articles about civilian militias and underground resistance may appear funny now, but there was no way to know then that the war would go as it did. The Japanese citizens in the Ken Burns documentary talk about how unfairly they were treated. I don’t deny that, but at the same time I admire the America that was willing to do what it had to to preserve its civilization. The obsession with fairness will be the end of us.

Boyce W. writes:

I watched the entire series for the purpose of how the subject of internment was going to be handled. “Magic” was almost never mentioned as an influencing factor in the decision process and nothing about Imperial Japan’s plans to appeal to second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans to subvert this country’s war aims. The time to weed out the truly troublesome from the population would likely be cost-prohibitive and likely tipped-off the enemy that we can read their mail.

If it hadn’t been for Michelle Malkin’s book “In Defense of Interment,” my takeaway from this series would be as you stated. Sadly, this series will be around for decades on PBS re-runs and on DVD with little to counter it’s negative message.

Paul Cella writes:

I clearly thought more highly of the documentary than you or your correspondents. I did find the segments focusing on the four American cities tiresome, and the repeated emphasis on the Japanese internment camps plainly disproportionate; but the battle footage—especially in the Pacific—was astonishing. Two examples may suffice: (1) a group of American fighter planes strafe a Japanese battleship, and the latter literally explodes, right there on screen in full color. It was the most staggering piece of war footage I’ve ever seen from the Second World War. My wife and I both involuntarily gasped at it. (2) There were several amazing clips of American planes crash-landing on aircraft carriers, with the pilots jumping out as the broken machine, its innards dangling out like steel gore, shuddered to a stop. Again, it took your breath away.

I can see how the solemn tones may have put some people off, but there was no ambiguity about the justice of the war; and the segment on the liberation of Paris was suitably thrilling, with ample footage of the vast crowds, the Frenchmen waving Old Glory, the French girls kissing GIs, and the general jubilation of that great day. In the Pacific the whole narrative was much darker and grimmer, as indeed that part of the war was much darker. The unspeakable and intransigent savagery of the Japanese was hardly downplayed: the viewer was not at a loss to perceive how this savagery drove American marines to cruelties of their own—a corruption that particularly galls. The Japanese, in their ceaseless wickedness, turned many of our fighting men into monsters.

Also, the interviews with the war’s participants were moving and profound. Several veterans, like Paul Fussell, were naturally eloquent; others were earthy, like the guy who mentioned that when he arrived home from the war, he spent weeks basically silent—not because of post-traumatic stress or whatever, but because he had spent three years using nothing but four-letter words, and had to take that time to reassemble his vocabulary. One airman who fought in Europe concluded the series with a riveting discussion of how even now, 60 years later, he still finds himself “drawn back into memories of the war.” The intensity of those experiences was so great that nothing in his remaining years of life—which he described as ideal—could really compare.

There was liberalism in the series alright, but it was utterly overpowered by the astounding drama of that most awesome of all wars.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 09, 2007 02:17 PM | Send

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