Eric Alterman: Burns's War ... What Is It Good For?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also"The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow and"Altercation" weblogger for Media Matters for America, (formerly at in Washington, DC, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the"Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a history consultant to HBO Films.]

The War, directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is a strange, lumbering beast. In the past few weeks, it has consumed more than fourteen hours of PBS programming--in both G-rated versions and with a few curse words left in--and has generated discussions, promos, localized versions, web material, a coffee-table book and who knows what else. Burns has said that he devoted six years and untold millions to this story because he hears that students think we fought with Germany against Russia and because the World War II veterans who could tell the story were dying off at such a rate that it had to be done now or not at all.

Whether it should have been done at all is a more complicated question. Of course, all people of good will support a focus on history in our public discourse; and though he has no professional academic training and decided to include no military experts or historians in his Greek chorus, Burns is a reasonably reliable narrator. His team, moreover, scouted out previously unseen footage of the war that is largely compelling and occasionally riveting. But because Burns is unwilling to advance any overall argument, or even contextualize his rich material within the many historical disputes that continue to swirl around these events, he essentially passes up a unique opportunity to help Americans understand the complexity that accompanies even a "good" war fought by a "greatest generation." Watching these programs, you'd be hard pressed to make a judgment on whether it was necessary to drop the atom bomb, or even firebomb Tokyo and Dresden. Whether the deals FDR cut at Yalta were heroic, a sellout, neither or both, well, Burns doesn't say.

Again, this would all be unremarkable were it not for the fact that Burns has somehow been designated America's official historian. (It is fitting that in this country, our historian makes TV shows instead of writing books.) This means that tens of millions of dollars dedicated to educating this nation about its own history are sucked into the vortex of his fundraising machine. Employing a romantic Wynton Marsalis score alongside historically insupportable, showbiz-style assertions such as "Nothing anywhere would ever be the same," Burns clearly considers it his mandate to engage as much in mythmaking as in documentation and disquisition. Because of this, though I am usually unsympathetic to any form of political pressure on scholars or artists, regardless of funding sources, when Hispanic leaders called for protest marches and Congressional pressure to get Latinos included in Burns's program, I felt they had a point. Burns initially resisted, insisting that re-editing the film would be "destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child." But with so much corporate good will and PBS funding riding on the program, he was moved to change his mind. As The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin pointed out, "It turns out that not reëditing the film was also like grafting an arm onto your child." And so Burns, whose PBS contract runs through 2022, tacked on about a half-hour of Hispanic history.

What I found most salutary about The War was not the program itself but the vivacious and intelligent discussion it has inspired. The New York Times's Alessandra Stanley offered up a little gem of an essay in which she noted that because "public television is too often in a defensive crouch, fending off attacks by right-wing groups that accuse it of liberal bias," its programmers have developed a degree of "insecurity [that] has perhaps driven PBS to underestimate its audience's appetite for widened horizons." This is a simple truth, albeit one rarely stated so matter-of-factly in the mainstream media, which perpetuate the opposite stereotype. Stanley also compares Burns's US-centric interpretation of the war with PBS's 1974 broadcast of the twenty-six-episode, British-made The World at War. Told from a British point of view but including German, Japanese and American witnesses and respectful of the controversies that continue to preoccupy historians today, the documentary included interviews with controversial historical players like Alger Hiss, who attended Yalta with FDR, and Paul Tibbets, an Enola Gay pilot. "Networks give viewers the stories they want to see," Stanley concluded. "The mission of public television is also to provide the history people ought to know."

In Newsweek, David Gates noted that Burns took pains to prevent The War from serving as jingoistic propaganda. "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," Burns explained. But Gates observes that "Burns may be overestimating the capacities of a populace so unacquainted with its own history, so accustomed to being spun--in plain English, lied to--and so conditioned by the disposability of all 'content,' from popular music to movies to celebrities to events in the news, that facts go in one ear and out the other."

But such excellent commentaries do make one regret that this type of discussion occurs so rarely, and that it takes a Ken Burns extravaganza--one that has been denuded of almost all point of view save its misplaced emphasis on the specialness of all things American--to inspire it. Newspapers and newsmagazines are decimating their books pages, where most mass cultural commentary and debate take place. Cable TV and talk-radio are an ever more polluted cesspool of conservative bile and tabloid trash. There are exceptions, and the blogosphere is picking up some of the slack, but American public discourse in an increasingly bookless universe is fast becoming the wasteland that so many have long feared. If our society cared about its future as well as its past, instead of the Limbaughs, O'Reillys and Hannitys poisoning the airwaves, we'd have many more Ken Burnses expressing a multiplicity of viewpoints.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at

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Maarja Krusten - 10/18/2007

I’m very interested in the issue of context and given the opportunities that seem to be passed up each week, wish there were more dialogue about it here on HNN. Here’s why. As a federal employee, I was struck recently by assertions made in a column in the Washington Post by Steve Barr, who covers civil service issues. (For those of you registered to read WaPo, the column is available at

Barr noted of Generation Y that “They are the up-and-coming generation. Smart. Capable. And uncertain about working for Uncle Sam after they graduate from college.” I did a double take when I read the comments from an expert on workforce demographics who said of Gen Y job seekers, "They don't understand why it takes two hours to get back to them with an answer. They don't understand why we schedule meetings.”

If true, perhaps some of it simply is due to youth and lack of exposure to the complex issues with which senior executives must grapple. As a child, I learned a lot from listening to my Mom and Dad talk about his office with colleagues who came to visit us. It gave me interesting insights into the working world which I slowly built on once I entered the workforce. I’ve always been interested in how people interact and what affects those interactions. However, I recognize that as someone born in 1951, I belong to the Boomer Generation, some members of which still have memories of the entire family gathering at the dinner table most nights.

Because I hunger for context on many issues, I wish more academics read HNN and were willing to engage with those of us who work for the government. (I still remember the well-meaning suggestion someone made instead to me a few years ago, telling me that if I sought engagement, I might turn to a closed listserv just for government employees.) Professors have more contact with Generation Y than I do. I’d like to know whether context – explaining factors that affect other people -- is more of a hard sell these days than it once was. (I remember Thomas Reeves noted in a blog entry a couple of years ago that a student once told him he hated “old stuff.”) Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to find an answer here on HNN, which, as many other venues do, often illustrates the extent to which people are “bowling alone” these days.

As to reading: If anyone is looking for a good book to illustrate how skilled historians deal with recent events, I recommend one that I’m reading now: _Pentagon 9/11_ published by the DOD history office. (My former boss once worked there.) See
Most striking in the narrative is the extent to which people were saved in the immediate aftermath of the impact due to the courageous efforts of military and civilian employees, rather than rescue personnel, who, although they arrived quickly, were not able to find many survivors. There are many good people who work for the federal government in civilian and military service.

Sadly, as I read the book about the attack on the Pentagon, my mind flashed back to what Dave Livingston once said here on HNN. In a posting on September 21, 2003, Dave Livingston wrote:

"Our paper masde the point that if D.C. & all its parasites were wiped out in a single blow, so what? The states independently governed could simply call a Constitutional convention to re-establih the federal gov't. Not so?

Of course, the paper didn't say if D.C. were wiped out the result just as probably would be a birth of several nations in lieu of the U.S. of A., especially us Westerners not too fond of the urban near city-states on the two coasts."

As someone who works in Washington, his words still haunt me and probably will for a long time. In a way I hadn't anticipated, I then did learn something from HNN.

Maarja Krusten - 10/18/2007

In his series on World War II, Ken Burns missed an opportunity to provide context on a number of issues. As he describes in his memoir, _Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All_, former television foreign correspondent Tom Fenton believes the same problem affects evening news broadcasts. Fenton recounts in his book how during the 1990s, broadcast TV news divisions cut back on the amount of foreign news covered, closed bureaus, and relied increasingly on freelancers. Fenton touched on the resulting lack of context in an interview on NPR at

As to books, didn't a recent poll show that nearly a quarter of adult Americans read no books at all during the last year? From what I've seen in news stories about poll data, the number of people in the United States who read books has been declining over the last decade or two. I give credit to Burns for trying to reach a broad audience through his televised series but am one of those who believes that the BBC's World at War series, televised in the 1970s, was far superior. The BBC took a much less broad brush approach and tackled more issues.