Over the past five weeks, I’ve been running a series of screenings for the recent Ken Burns series, The War, on the Norwich campus. I had hoped that this would be a fairly popular draw for the Norwich community. Unfortunently, there wasn’t as much in the way of interest as I’d hoped, for students or teachers here. On average, we had probably four or five students during the bi-weekly screenings, with only one or two instructors turning up each time. I reviewed The War here earlier, shortly after I purchased the companion book, from what I had come up with when I finished reading it. Having seen the entire fourteen-hour series, most of my opinions of the event remain, but there are a number of things that really struck me. My first introduction to Ken Burns was years ago with his series, The Civil War, which my parents had taped, being highly interested in the Civil War, and looking back, it’s likely that this was something that helped get me interested in history, and in paticular, military history. The series used thousands of photographs and letters to illustrate the series.
Burn’s new series used photographs, but now had access to video footage – hours of it. The footage that they used was in color, black and white, of the soldiers from each side of the war, before combat, and during combat.
This was the most shocking thing that I’ve really seen, and I think that there’s a general dismissal of ‘real’ footage that is highly misplaced. Prior to the series’ premire on television, there was quite a lot of controversy over the FCC and stations airing a ‘clean’ version of the series. Looking back over the past viewings that I’ve been holding, I can see the reasoning behind it. It was an incredibly hard thing to watch at times – unlike a movie, the violence here was real. When you see a person fall over, they were killed or wounded. When you see an explosion, more people were really killed, and it’s not something that I’ve thought about lightly.
The dynamic use of footage here really brings the events of World War II to life, quite literally. Along the way, there are letters, photographs and interviews with people who had been there. This is possibly one of the most accessible, and most complete documents out there for the Second World War, encompasing all of the major conflicts and the home front in vivid detail. Almost every conflict has a survivor talk about the events that they had to live through, and we watch as they relive the battles, and they smile, laugh, scowl and at times cry as they remember the men and events that passed by them.
The battles are looked at in both a bird’s – eye view of the war and on the personal level, something that is not easily or often done well. Watching through this entire series provides an excellent background to the Second World War, something that is really needed in a country that really only knows about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Iwo Jima and Hiroshima. Often, in the after discussions that I helped run, inevitably, there was a “I didn’t know …” this or that, about various aspects of the war. I didn’t know much about Anzio, North Africa, Italy, various elements of the Pacific and some elements of the home front.
The series does gloss over elements, but this is certainly to be expected with a conflict as large as the Second World War. As I mentioned before, there is little on the build-up to the War, but there is quite a bit on the homefront reactions to V-J Day, although not much in the overall view. More than likely, those would comprise a documentary in and of themselves, given the complexity of the issues.
Burns does dispell the notion of the Good War that is pounded in to the viewer. Often, the tolls of the wars are told again and again, and we really see what the effects of war is, something that we probably don’t pay much attention to as often as we should. It’s a something that is probably easier to forget or overlook in the aftermath and end result of the war – that the United States came out on top in the world. We won, and probably because of that, it was the good war.
I don’t doubt or argue with the notion that it wasn’t a just war, given what the American, French, British, Polish, Belgium, Russian, New Zealand, Australian and other allied forces went up against, a massive and unspeakable evil that showed what some people could do to others. It may not have been a good war, but it was fought for very good reasons and Burns goes a long way towards showing that to us.