Alessandra Stanley on Ken Burns’s The War

I really appreciate Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times article about The War, the latest PBS series by Ken Burns. It takes a brave critic to say what many of us have felt about the increasing mythologizing of America’s participation in the Second World War. Yes, of course heroism should be celebrated. Yes, of course we as Americans are proud to have fought so resolutely against utter evil. But this was a world war, not just an American war, and to those of us who would like to stand proudly not just as Americans but as citizens of the world it’s disappointing to hear that Ken Burns series tells us nothing new about the broad, complex realities of the global conflict, but instead focuses on the American experience alone. Why tell us yet again about what we’ve already heard so many times before?

Here’s how Stanley puts it:

World War II didn’t happen just to us.

But it would be hard to glean that from Ken Burns’s 7-night, 15-hour tribute to the greatest generation that ever bought war bonds, joined the Marines or tightened rivets on a B-17 Flying Fortress.

The London blitz, Stalingrad, Bergen-Belsen and the Warsaw uprising are parentheses in this respectful, moving and meticulously illustrated anthology of small-town lives turned upside down by what one elderly veteran calls “a necessary war.”

The war was necessary, but is this approach?

She also writes, bravely:

World War II is as fascinating and terrible a subject as we have, but America’s role in defeating Germany and Japan has not been underestimated in this country. And it can hardly be argued that the heroes of Guadalcanal and D-Day remain unheralded.

I recently read Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan in a desparate attempt to understand World War II in a different historical context. It’s a fascinating book, and as all good history books do, it left me hungry to understand more alternative global perspectives on this horrific period. I do understand that Ken Burns specializes in American culture, but it’s still disappointing to hear that this new series stays tight in the pocket of warm, cozy World War II nostalgia and doesn’t attempt to challenge the mythology of angelic America fighting demonic evil in Germany and Japan. Yes, Germany and Japan were evil, but we’ve already heard the bedtime story over and over. Now let’s reach for greater understanding of all the complex issues involved.

The hyperbole that surrounds America’s glory in World War II was really made clear to me when I was recently arguing with a friend about why I should love the American military unquestioningly. “The American military saved your ass in World War II!” he said. “The Jews would have been slaughtered if it wasn’t for us!”

I had to remind him that actually the Jews were slaughtered.

2 Responses to “Alessandra Stanley on Ken Burns’s The War”

  1. Stokely Says:

    I really love these rarities when I can agree wholeheartedly. I was thinking the other day, all us folks bein’ equal, there must have been just as many brave heroic heartbreaking feats performed by German and Japanese soldiers, who, like us, thought they were dying for God country friends and family.

    Though I still don’t think our greatest generation deserves indiscriminate praise. Recall the Pacific air commander saying to McNamara - “if we lose this war, they’ll try us as war criminals.” That because we fire-bombed most of Japan’s major cities, indiscriminately killing any and all civilians who got in the way.

    Of more interest to me is the good and decent people who find themselves running death camps or slaughtering villages full of children and other noncombatants. Some old German fellow said on a documentary about the SS - “these were ordinary people, the baker, the shoemaker, who suddenly found themselves caught up in this heinous mob of bloodthirsty murderers.” Amazing to me, but is it any different from the slaughter of Native Americans, or post-Civil War southern Blacks.

    I don’t think I could kill Anne Frank, or a little Vietnamese kid; but I’ve served in the military. They change you; they effectively re-shape your thinking, your judgment, your willingness to obey and believe whatever you’re told. We regard the Krauts and Nips as evil; but just as easy to raise your kids to believe that about spics, kikes, bucks and squaws, nigrahs, gooks, and diaper heads.

    The real evil was in allowing government officials and the media to perpetrate these myths. Back in ’33, and now in ought 7. It’s Germany’s shame, and America’s shame. Either we run the country, or the country runs us.

  2. mtmynd Says:

    Ms. Stanley’s criticism sounds like sour grapes. The films by Ken Burns, that I’m familiar with, have always been about the American Experience - The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, Lewis & Clark, Thomas Jefferson, The War, etc.. It sounds unreasonable to call him short on not including the personal stories of every other countrymen, OTA (other than American), to please the critics. Would they sit through 42 hours of that?

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