Blogs > Cliopatria > You've Seen a Few Hours of Ken Burns's WW II Series: What Do You Think?

Oct 10, 2007 10:50 am

You've Seen a Few Hours of Ken Burns's WW II Series: What Do You Think?

HNN welcomes your comments.

You do not have to register to participate in this poll for the first two weeks; after that, registration is required. We do ask all readers to abide by our civility guidelines whether they register or not.

To participate in our poll simply drop down to the bottom of this page and click on the word"Comments."

From a Story in Newsweek

"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.

Related Links

  • Ken Burns Returns to War

  • Latinos plan protests of"The War"

  • Subtext of WW II series, says Newsweek, is the Iraq War

  • Salon gives Ken Burns's series a big thumbs up

  • New Yorker pans WW II series as dull

  • $10 million spent to promote his WW II series

  • Latino WWII Veterans Needed Another Kind of Courage at Home

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Stephen Cipolla - 10/13/2007

    To support your argument with quotations from one of the most despised judicial opinions in American history is leading with your chin. Koramatsu, Plessy, Dred Scott, McKlesky. There are lots of Supreme Court sound bites in those three cases to keep you going for paragraphs.

    Every one of those decisions is regarded by most, if not all, lawyers and judges, to to be shameful decisions in the history of the US.

    It's bad enough that the Court makes its decisions in the abstract, without regard to the implications for the real men, women and children
    who have to live the consequences of those decisions.

    Bad facts are the source material for bad law. Bad law is the source material of bad history. Never assume that the reasoning of the Court is correct because it has access to the historical truth, it almost never does.

    William Hopwood - 10/6/2007

    Sorry, Mr. Horn's understanding is wrong. Instances of Japanese and Japanese-American disloyalties before and after Pearl Harbor ran
    in the thousands, present-day conventional wisdom and politically-correct hype to the contrary notwithstanding.

    Pre-Pearl Harbor there were a number of West Coast Japanese patriotic organizations whose memberhips contained both Japanese nationals and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry with
    Japanese military backgrounds, dedicated to the success of the then ongoing Japanese war effort in Asia, A U.S. Military Intelligence Division document dated October 14, 1941 told of
    several such groups having formulated plans for conducting sabotage of U.S. railroads and harbor installtions in the event of war between Japan and the U.S. Broken Japanese codes by U.S. Intellgence agencies revealed a similar potential for sabotage and espionage by such organizations.

    After the war started, over 5,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry renounced their U.S. citizenship and requested expatriation to fight for Japan. Hundreds more held "Banzai" military drills in support of the Empire of Japan while residents of the Tule Lake Segregation Center for disloyals in which some 18,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans considered the most dangerous security threats where detained.

    Many supporting documents pertaining to the above and other aspects of the resident Japanese problem in WWII may be viewed in an excellent book by the late David D. Lowman, former Special Asst. to the Director of the National Security Agency. The book, stocked by, is titled "MAGIC--The Untold Story of U.S. Intelligence and the Evacuation of Japanese Residents from the West Coast During WWII"--Athena Press First Edition 2001,

    Robert Lee Gaston - 10/4/2007

    Quite a few German nationals were interned in the same camps. These included the leadership of the North American Bund.

    Howard Lewis Binstock - 10/3/2007

    It was brought to the attention of Mr. Burns and PBS that Latino members of the Armed Services were very noticeably absent in the telling of the story. Despite the attention being brought not only by Latino groups but also by members of Congress (PBS referred them to their Charter outlining editorial freedom), Mr. Burns refused to edit 'his' documentary saying to Matt Lauer on the "Today" Show; no Latinos came forward to indicate that they wanted to be included when the filming was about to commence. I think the word to describe that sort of argument is 'specious'. In other words, it was up to each group to come forward and edify Mr. Burns regarding there involvement in the war - I think not!
    In sum, one could infer that they knew were Mr. Burn's 'head was at', so to speak when in Part Four the narrator and a participant referred to one Abe Goldman as if represented all the Jews that there were that were necessary to represent.
    I think beyond what was said in the NY Times that there were additional and sometimes very obvious problems with this mega, mega documentary.

    Steven Horn - 10/3/2007

    It is my understanding that there were absolutely zero instances of domestic Japanese disloyalty before or during WWII. Anyone have something to the contrary on that?

    Steven Horn - 10/3/2007

    I was disappointed with Burns treatment of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. The closest he came to offering judgment on dropping the bombs was from the woman from Mobile, who simply asserted that they were (paraphrasing) the most wonderful things ever invented.

    Nothing serious is offered in the way of assessing whether dropping either bomb was truly problematic.

    Susan Cohen - 10/2/2007

    Okay, so some Japanese weren't loyal. How many Germans were interned when it was discovered what American Bund meetings really were?

    Susan Cohen - 10/2/2007

    Couldn't agree with you more, Raymond Frey. It's a magnificent piece, that gives BOTH the overwhelming scope of the war as well as the personal tragedies. It's brilliant.

    Jeremy Greene - 10/2/2007

    Ok with one episode left, I'll admit
    it has gotten better.

    But I still don't think I would show it to kids. I can watch it with
    interest, but I'm a regular viewer
    of C-Span Book TV - I can get watch
    things that don't move or don't move
    much. This is war, it should move and
    move us more.

    That said, I'll admit there is great
    footage in every episode that I have
    never seen and I think has never been
    seen before on video.

    And the Pacific scenes could be put
    together to make something useful.
    But hate to say it to make this useful
    to students would take too much work
    on my part.

    Scenes from Patton, Saving Private
    Ryan, Band of Brothers, Thin Red Line,
    American Experience's Battle of the
    Bulge will still have to do.

    Howard N Meyer - 9/30/2007


    William Hopwood - 9/29/2007

    As a WWII veteran I was most disappointed. This was not Burn's best work. Certainly not up to his Civil War series. That's too bad.

    On the home front issues, I thought he imposed too much of his own contemporary judgement and ideological perspective on the realities of the past, particularly as regards race and ethnicicty, and it made for bad history. Too much political correctness.

    One example was his America-bashing with regard to the wartime Japanese-American problem. Many were loyal but some were not and the problem was to sort them out.

    Also, Burns refers to all ethnic Japanese who were moved away from West Coast military areas as being American ciizens. This was not so by a long shot. Two-thirds of the ADULTS were Japanese citizens subject to internment as enemy aliens under long-standing law. Broken Japanese codes had revealed espionage and potential for sabotage among them, One important spy ring was broken just before Pearl Harbor and there
    was evidence that others existed. Burns also omits mention of the fact that those Japanese living outside of specific miliitary zones were not required to move, or that more than 30,000 left the relocation camps during the war after having received security clearances.

    The vast majority of American citizens among the ethnic Japanese were minor children, their average age was only 15. Most American citizens who were over age 17 were also Japanese citizens (dual citizen status.) More than 5,000 adult ethnic Japanese American renouncee their U.S. citizenship to fight for Japan.

    The Supreme Court put the problem well in their 1944 decision upholding FDR's E.O. 9066 which authorized the Japanese evacuation/internment orders. Said the Court:

    "...There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short. We cannot -- by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight -- now say that at that time these actions were unjustified..."

    Joe - 9/27/2007

    I surfed in on the third episode, and listened to a discussion about the Schweinfurt-Regensburg raid of August, 1943 and the Black Thursday Schweinfurt raid of October, 1943. (Martin Caidin did both subjects better). Then, in the same epsiode, a discussion of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of June, 1944. It was kind of jarring, to me. But, I was only half listening. Maybe it will make sense after I view a bootleg copy.

    Robert Lee Gaston - 9/26/2007

    The Second World War as it is now being taught in our schools seems to consist of the Tuskegee airmen, Japanese internment and using the atomic bomb. This version is a little more politically correct, and a lot duller than its predecessors.

    I read there was pressure to add more about Latinos, and their contribution to the war effort. I suppose any expansion of knowledge is good. However, the NPR series is looking a lot like the History Channel with a large dose of political correctness tossed in for good measure.

    I think PBS missed a great opportunity because WWII brings up some questions still needing serious historical analysis. Not the least among these is what was it about twentieth century European culture that produced the monsters that governed Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy.

    While we are at it maybe exploring what it is in Japanese culture that would lead to their army's behavior toward civilian populations and prisoners of war. It could be that NPR may better serve our understanding of history if they had a four hour discussion of the rape of Nanjing.

    A serious discussion of how Croat Nazis allied themselves with Germany in killing off huge numbers of their Serb neighbors, and how this may have influenced some of the things currently taking place in the Balkans is another World War Two topic that could use some discussion.

    We should be able to go to PBS for programming that for commercial reasons will not be seen on other television outlets. I think Burns made this series for syndication.

    Steve B. - 9/26/2007

    I completely agree. This project is a massive disappointment to people who wish to see the young take an interest in the history of the 'ancient' world of 60-70 years ago. This series totally lacks the spark of inspiration in approach that would be necessary to attract the attention of the average American who is not already predisposed to fascination with WWII.

    What strikes one is how many much better docs on the war pass by on the history channel, A&E , etc. without anywhere near the hype Burns' bomb has received.

    Steve B. - 9/26/2007

    I completely agree. This project is a massive disappointment to people who wish to see the young take an interest in the history of the 'ancient' world of 60-70 years ago. This series totally lacks the spark of inspiration in approach that would be necessary to attract the attention of the average American who is not already predisposed to fascination with WWII.

    What strikes one is how many much better docs on the war pass by on the history channel, A&E , etc. without anywhere near the hype Burns' bomb has received.

    Jeremy Greene - 9/26/2007

    0 for 3.

    If the first two episodes were fouled
    off the third was a strike down the

    I didn't think it would get worse.

    Anyways, I was thinking last night how
    much I would have rather PBS spent its
    $ on 10-15 American Experience episodes. Anyone with me?

    Jeremy Greene - 9/25/2007

    Tell it to Pauline Kael.

    I've loved some of Burns's docs this, so far, isn't
    one of them. It won't hold the attention of those
    you think it's educating.

    Jeremy Greene - 9/25/2007

    Part 2 - D/D+

    Some in my department are liking the program,
    but I don't see it - this seem more and more
    like a miniseries that could have been spliced
    together from the History Channel.

    And yes the lady from Mobile is a boring Jarjar

    Grant Jones - 9/25/2007

    The first episode of the film also just mentioned the Buna Campaign in passing. The film also stated that the Guadalcanal Campaign was a part of Nimitz's Central Pacific thrust. Actually, both Buna and Guadalcanal were part of Task 1 of Operation WATCHTOWER, the objective of which was Rabaul. Rabaul has also not been mentioned in the film as yet.

    It appears that the Central Pacific campaign will get a great deal more airtime versus MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Theater. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the rest of the series.

    Raymond Frey - 9/25/2007

    I can't believe this. Ken Burns brings the war alive for a generation of Americans who badly need to know what happened back then, and all the commenters can do is moan, nitpick, and criticize. No good deed goes unpunished in the history community. This film will stand as a lasting tribute to the men and women who served and gave their lives--long after you critics have moved on to seek other sheep to shear.

    Ryan - 9/24/2007

    Has any one noticed that with many of the Japanese-American profiles in the first episode, the music score struck a Kabuki, traditional tone? Otherwise, the soundtrack had the same drone of either heavy strings or jazz numbers. Does that not strike anyone as racial categorizing? Why don't Japanese-Americans merit a jazz or classical soundtrack? Perhaps in future episodes interviews with African-Americans will feature rythmic drum beats and with the Irish a happy little jig number?
    Honestly, Burns can't see a world that isn't black or white. As it's clear from his choice to exclude Latinos (which as consistent trait of all of his major works), he can't quite figure out a world that isn't bipolar.

    Vernon Clayson - 9/24/2007

    This may come as a surprise to you but this program covers an era, it is not Private Ryan or Forest Gump, movies played out over two hours for entertainment. All you saw of MacArthur was a few minutes of history, yes, some called him Dugout Doug and questioned his leaving Corregidor but his execution of the war in the Pacific was masterful and his handling of Japan after the war was genius. We do not have such men today, he was so resolute and strong that mere congressmen did not question him. Can anyone imagine Senators Reid, Clinton or Webb questioning MacArthur? He was Olympian in stature, he wouldn't have brooked their BS, a glance would have been his answer to their petty remarks.

    - 9/24/2007

    Last night's program on the war in the Pacific missed no opportunity to knock Macarthur while excusing and ignoring the failures of the Roosevelt administration.

    Maarja - 9/24/2007

    The series is, of course, very focused on Americans. Little mention of the origins and no mention thus far (and I don't anticipate any in future episodes) of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or anything of that nature.

    Several people commenting have mentioned the woman from Alabama. Perhaps she is intended to remind viewers of what the members of the public back home did and did not know about hardships and battles abroad in a period before CNN, the Internet and embedded reporters. Information about some such issues obviously was quite restricted. For example, the woman from Alabama mentioned in the first episode that "we had no idea" about some of the horrific casualties. Burns may be using her simply to show how things looked to ordinary people back home. I've read quite a bit about the home front, both in the U.S. and in Britain (mostly Britain) as well as some books about some of the air and land battles. For me, the most interesting interviews in the Burns series are with the veterans.

    I agree with everyone who has praised the BBC's series, World At War. That certainly was an outstanding series.

    Silent Observer - 9/24/2007

    I faintly remember a bit of the controversy following the previews of The War, and criticism by the Latino community of a lack of representation within the film. I couldn't help but notice how "tacked on" the Latino segment seemed. Basically, you had the end of Segment one...then...oh..wait a minute...[insert Latino segment]. From what I remember, I think Burns noted that the film was already complete when he received these criticisms and I can understand the problem of integrating new material into what he thought was an already completed film. However, I think the Latino representation can be read as a jab by Burns, not toward the Latino community, but perhaps to the notion of political correctness and "outside" authorities controlling his art. The "flow" of the piece, artistically, certainly seemed out of kilter.

    Jim Hamann - 9/24/2007

    I thought the first episode was riverting. Unfortunately, without editing, the series is too long for classroom use. My cousin died on the Death March of Bataan and Ken Burns presented some of the best footage of the march that I have seen.

    Sheldon M. Stern - 9/24/2007

    Please explain what you mean by the "hard" historical issues.

    Tom Clark - 9/24/2007

    Although I generally liked the Civil War series, I feared that this would simply be the same cathartic story but with different faces and places plugged in. After seeing the first episode, I would settle for that now. It was just plain boring. But hope springs eternal, so I'll watch the rest nonetheless.

    Marcia Synnott - 9/24/2007

    I thought the narration and depiction of the Guadalcanal campaign was excellent. I am still not certain that focusing on individuals from four communities will work as well for WWII as it did for the Civil War, during which local loyalties were so important. What about telling the war's history from the perspectives of different military units, bomber groups, and ships?

    Jeremy Greene - 9/24/2007

    I agree with the posters - too slow -
    I'm glad I didn't recommend it to my
    high school students.

    That said, I think he is trying to draw us in slowly and that the overall
    effect of the documentary will be more
    emotional than his previous work. At
    least that is what the reviews have

    But part 1 is a D+ - bland, slow,
    but with some good fighting (dare we
    call them action?) scenes.

    I am hoping this will reach high
    school students in a way that _Saving
    Private Ryan_ doesn't.

    edubois - 9/24/2007

    A disappointment. So much nostalgia. I agree, the woman from Mobile has little to say. Some of the other talking heads are quite compelling. But the story line is predictable and sappy.

    William B Rogers - 9/24/2007

    I see much of this criticism as undeserved. A documentary on WWII is much more difficult to produce (to people's satisfaction) than his earlier works, as there are still millions of participants alive whose opinions will differ, there have been a multitude of documentaries, books and series about the War already, and although the availability of film can sometimes help, it is very different from what was done in the Civil War series. Having done WWII oral history work, I find the voices of veterans and others extremely powerful, even if they are only presenting a very small view of an event. I have attempted to help my children understand what my father(who fought at Bougainville and Guam) and my many uncles who served and their families went through during the war, but I think The War in two hours has humanized the experience superbly already--at least my children thought so. Finally, I disagree that this is some whitewash of the tough issues of the War--segregation, internment and racism were all covered and the voices of Japanese Americans, African Americans and women were all featured prominently. No documentary can cover all aspects of such a large event, and there are plenty of books out there for people to immerse themselves in all the various controversies of WWII, but this program may very well increase the number of people to take the time to read those books.

    Stanley N. Katz - 9/24/2007

    So far, more of the same -- a feel-good, filiopietistic account that manages to avoid all of the hard issues, either historical or aesthetic. This is just poor documentary film making, with a voice-over that is shamelessly soft-headed. Burns has not developed a single new documentary technique in more than a decade. A big, but predictable disappointment.

    john morrow - 9/24/2007

    The first 2 and 1/2 hours were rather dull and featured the woman from Mobile far too much. Preliminary assessments state that she is by far the most prominent "talking head" in the entire series, a choice which makes no sense in light of the content of what she has thus far said.
    I was very pleased to see the various Japanese American voices, in particular that of Senator Daniel Inouye, a true American hero and recipient of the Medal of Honor who is often overlooked in the usual focus on Senator Bob Dole.
    Rather than concentrating solely on small cities and towns, Burns needed to include some voices from urban America, from the large cities. The current news coverage of Iraq and Burns's coverage of World War II seem to reflect an aversion to large cities, as if war affects primarily smaller communities.
    Finally, where are the native American voices? They were entirely absent from the first evening's telecast.
    I plan to watch entire series, but the first installment did not seize the imagination as I had anticipated.

    NY - 9/24/2007

    Very sleepy

    G Gogel - 9/24/2007

    So far only two hours have been broacast so any comments that I make will be subject to revision but may general criticism would be that the series seems overlong and rather flat compared to Jeremy Issac's BBC series, "The World at War." The device of telling the story through the experiences of four different small American cities could have worked if the filmakers had stayed with it but, so-far, the film attempts to be both an oral close-up history and still tries to give the broad strategic picture of the war at the same time. The two approaches do not mesh well although the section on the opening phase of the battle of Guadacanal was actually rather well assembled.
    So far, I would say close, but no cigar.

    Steve B - 9/24/2007

    For non-history buffs, or non-WWII buffs, this series may seem a revelation of sorts. As for the rest of us, we've seen it before and frankly, done better (The World At War, 1974 BBC).

    Burns' film is interesting and informative, but probably not worthy of all the hype and buzz it's been given.

    - 9/24/2007

    It's informative for those who don't know history, but it's not on a par with Burns' Civil War work.

    Dennis Peterson - 9/24/2007

    Why did he include no mention of the Doolittle raid, skipping rather to Guadalcanal as America's first offensive action in the Pacific?