I’ve finally started to watch Ken Burns’ “The War” and just completed the first episode, “A Necessary War.” It’s an interesting social history to be sure and, not surprisingly, inspires comparisons between how war was perceived then and now, especially on the homefront.
The centerpiece of the first episode was the battle for Guadalcanal and Sidney Phillips, a young Marine at the time, is a focal point. His narrative is compelling as he describes the hell that was Guadalcanal. He also provides glimpses into the mindset of the average Marine or soldier engaged in close combat. In one instance, he talks of finding fellow marines decapitated with their genitals cut-off and stuffed in their mouths. According to Phillips, after seeing that, he and his fellow Marines didn’t take any Japanese prisoners.
Meanwhile, his sister, Katharine Phillips, provides a counterpoint to Sidney’s battle narrative. She talks of how a neighbor down the street would lose a son, and then someone across the street, then the next house over. All the while, her mother would visit and console and they would worry who would be next. Yet the most striking thing she said was that she didn’t know how bad Guadalcanal was until after Sidney came home. No one on the homefront did. The 5,000+ casualties weren’t reported. The brutal fighting wasn’t shown on Movietone.
In contrast, Katherine Phillips also talked about how the American public had been prepped for war against Nazi Germany for a few years prior to Pearl Harbor. The American public was shown some of the Nazi and Japanese atrocities on Movietone and they became convinced it was a moral imperative to act. When the time came, they were ready to go.
They also didn’t equate Nazi or Japanese propaganda with U.S. war reporting. Looking back, there can be no doubt that the U.S. glossed over things. But even then, even if the American people had known more, I doubt that they would have considered the press releases of the enemy as just “another point of view.” It points to how much faster and accurate our wartime information has become since then and that difference helps to explain, at least partially, why WWII is considered “The Good War” and why subsequent conflicts aren’t.
There’s much more to this episode and much more to the series as a whole. As I said, it is a social history most of all. Wartime tactics are only touched upon and it is the feelings of the average Americans involved that are explored most deeply. If you’ve seen your fill of documentaries on the “Hitler-story” Channel and want a different type of history of WWII, “The War” is worth watching.
UPDATE: Edward Rothstein is more critical of Burns’ historical method than I.
By selectively telling history from below, by highlighting emotion and sketching everything else, Mr. Burns privatizes war. He takes one of the most necessary wars ever fought and leaves viewers wondering whether any public goal can be worth its price. Occasionally, we learn that during the war the government kept details about loss or film footage of suffering secret, out of fear that they would shake public purpose; here, such details and footage seem to serve that very effect. In interviews, Mr. Burns has suggested that his views of today’s American warfare affected his portrayal of the Second World War. Here too, though, he is letting feelings eclipse history.
“The greatest sense I have about the war,” says one character at its end, is “relief we wouldn’t have to do any of that stuff again.” That is the teaching of this history from below. History from above tells us that unfortunately and terribly, we will.