Ken Burns: Subtext of WW II series, says Newsweek, is the Iraq War

Historians in the News

[HNN: This is a very long feature, running across 6 web pages.]

"The thing that really got me mad," Ken Burns says in explaining why he felt called to begin"The War," his forthcoming documentary series,"was finding out that a huge number of our high-school graduates think that we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the second world war. It's so unbelievable." Now you or I might have set about trying to fix America's broken educational system, but Burns is a practical man—at least a seven-part, 14 and a half film for PBS is doable. All you need is six years, gigabytes of images, a gift for fund-raising, the right inspiration-perspiration quotient and a high tolerance for bad dreams."I had a nightmare about Peleliu last night," he says. (That's the vicious and strategically pointless 1944 battle near the Philippines, in part three of the series, which debuts Sept. 23.)"I was trying to get up this little embankment, and the sand kept giving way. That happened all the time when I was making the film—I'd dream we were trying to figure out a problem in the editing room, and all of a sudden I'd be in the battle."...

While "The War" maintains a studious neutrality, Burns himself—like a lot of people you may know—can't keep the lid on his private outrage over what's currently happening to the country that he's made all his films to celebrate. He veers into The Subject while talking about the new film he's completing, about America's national parks. "Roosevelt thought up the Civilian Conservation Corps, and within three months—good, you're sitting down—within three months, it was employing 300,000 young men, sending back money and helping millions of people. And we couldn't get a f---ing trailer to New Orleans in three months. That's what it's like right now."

"Well," I say, "if you want to go there—"

But he's already there. "We've outsourced our intelligence. Our ability to do things. It's terrifying."

"And our service industry—"

"It's oxymoronic."

"You heard about that paper that's outsourced its local news reporting?"

"It's terrifying. I don't recognize this country."

"Lately I've been wondering if—do you think you'll be able to stick it out and die here?"

"I hope I can die here. But there's a possibility ... I made the films in some ways as a kind of—not bulwark, but just some sort of 'Hey, can't we all get along?' kind of thing. 'Don't you remember why we agreed to cohere?' "

Burns took pains to make "The War" judiciously enough so it won't be put to jingoistic use. "I hope it makes people ask questions about war, and make sure that our governments fight only necessary wars. They'll have to make their own decisions about which those are." But hearing the theme song, "America," an obscure old number sung on the soundtrack by Norah Jones—"America, America, I gave my best to you"—doesn't inspire much confidence. It's all too easy to imagine it emanating from a beribboned SUV, or an underarmored Humvee. Will one listener in a hundred pick up on the misty wistfulness in Jones's voice, suggesting that self-sacrifice in a necessary war has become a thing of the distant past—except arguably in the case of Afghanistan—like a nickel Coke or a deal sealed with a handshake? But Burns is an optimist. He truly believes that a mass audience—if you call PBS viewers a mass audience—will understand a story and its implications, provided you tell it clearly....

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Mike Schoenberg - 9/19/2007

I work in a second hand book store in Denver and one day a high school teacher from Colorado Springs told the story fo how she had mentioned Jesus was born in Palestine and this one boy broke out crying "You mean, Jesus wasn't an American"?