I’ve started watching Ken Burns latest PBS-umentary The War. My verdict? What a waste of tax funded airtime.
Loyal listeners will note that yours truly is as into WWII-pron as much as the next single guy in his mid-’30s that spent too much time playing D&D as a kid. So I can say with all honesty that there’s just nothing here you can’t get from the average History Channel WWII doc.
The show follows the same tired narrative convention that every WWII program since The World at War has followed — a linear narrative focusing first on the mis en scene immediately prior to the war and then tracking the major theaters of war independently. Burns’ focus, of course, is on the U.S., and I think that’s a big part of my problem with this film. Despite what many Americans may think or feel about the war, American contributions to the Allied victory were principally economic — compare the 350,000 U.S. military personal killed during the war to the 20 million plus Russian soldiers and civilians lost. This documentary does nothing to reset American’s fundamental self-centered-ness when it comes to this great conflict, and thereby loses an opportunity to recontextualize that which came after in American life.
Burns of course is also interested in the home front, and it’s here where he truly fails. He makes the rookie historian’s mistake of taking the recollections of many surviving interviewees at face value. Collectively, they paint a halcyon portrait of American life prior to the war that’s simply pedantic — Burns’ fails to note that few of his interviewees were in position to actually understand what was happening to them at the time, and thus the way their frame their memories has been colored by the “official”, propagandized version of events American kids have been taught in school for the last 60 years. It’s maybe not the “wrong” approach, per se, but it’s certainly tired.
It’s really too bad. Given the scope of Burns’ ambition, he truly missed an opportunity to change American’s thinking about the war and their place in it. And there’s been some great revisionist history lately that he might have drawn on, for example Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, which recasts the American effort in North Africa as the first bumbling steps to greatness of what would become the world’s most formidable fighting force.
I guess I shouldn’t have expected much from a program with sponsors like the Lilly Endowment (the conservative private foundation of the Lilly family) and GM (which bills itself as Ken Burns’ personal benefactor since 1987). Still, massive disappointment. Don’t waste your time with this one — watch The World at War and the epic series Band of Brothers for a much more definitive picture of WWII.