Over the weekend, I picked up the companion book for Ken Burn’s The War, written by Burns and longtime collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward. The book, along with other companion books, is a literary mirror to the multiple hours long documentaries that Burns is well known for producing and writing. The War is a 14 hour long documentary that’s to air on PBS starting September 23rd. The book is an outstanding and highly detailed look at the Second World War.
The War is practically comprehensive. Covering an exhaustive amount time, from the entry of the United States on December 8th after the attack on Pearl Harbor through to the extensive campaigns in Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranian and the Pacific and to the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Most books and authors hardly dare to cover that amount of ground in the amount of detail that this pair of authors go into.
The War focuses on the entire campaign through the eyes of four towns in the United States- Luverne Minnesota, Sacramento California, Waterbury Conneticut and Mobile Alamaba. This is a war that is shown through the eyes of ordinary Americans, high school graduates and people who had hoped to serve their country in what is considered by many to be the last great war.
However, from the start, Burns shows us that war is not great, no matter what the causes and reasons behind it. He opens with a quote:
I don’t think there is such a thing as a good war. There are sometimes
necessary wars. And I think one might way “just” wars. I never questioned the
necessity of that war. And I still do not question it. It was something that had
to be done. – Sam Hynes.
This is the tone that the rest of the book follows. Burns sets out to show what war looks like, and backs it up with hundreds of photographs, throughout the 451 pages. Some of these pictures are familiar to history buffs. Others, most of them, are completely new to me, and they really show a side of the war that’s the same.
The book also covers a lot of ground that doesn’t really get lumped together. The book not only covers the battlefields and the times that the soldiers spent on the ground between gunshots, but also the home front, from the woes of the families waiting to hear from their sons, fathers, children and husbands, the rationings, as well as the racial tensions among workers and the internment of African and Japanese decendants living in the United States, as well as their plight to get recognized as real people and soldiers.
The book and presumably, the documentary along with it, are not without their flaws. While they provide some stunning work on the war, there are parts that are missing, mainly the years leading up to the US’s entry to the war. The book picks up and drops off with Japan, at Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. There’s very little on the buildup of Japanese, Italian German agression, militarily and politically, as well as the Russian relations. Similarly, there’s very little on the aftermath of the war, which is one of the biggest factors in creating the modern world, after the United States and Russia carved up Europe that would essentially plunge the world in to another World conflict.
But that’s not the focus of the book or documentary. This story looks at the war, but from the eyes of the soldiers. We get the personal stories of the people from those four towns. And they’ve done that spectacularly.
The War is an outstanding work of popular history. With any luck, Burns will succeed in bringing the Second World War to a public that really only knows it through the films Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Windtalkers or Flags of Our Fathers, or the books of Stephen Ambrose. Hopefully, the War will be a much more accurate version of what happened those 60 years ago. Hopefully, it’ll go a long way towards telling the public those stories that will soon be lost.
This is really something to check out.