"The War" is not the war

In reviewing Ken Burns’ PBS series The War in the September 25 issue of Newsweek, David Gates quotes Ken Burns as saying he was appalled by American high school students’ lack of knowledge of World War II. The War is Burns’ attempt to rectify that situation. But while Burns succeeds in delivering much of the soldiers’ and civilians’ experience and some significant information about the war, he filters and distorts in ways that do a disservice to future generations of students and do not illuminate the crucial context within which human action and experience occurred.As a result, this version of the Second World War is less a historical document than it is an agenda-driven political statement. The director/producer’s self-admittedly revisionist point of view permeates the series in a seamless, inflexible manner throughout its 14-plus hours. Instead of providing a thoroughly comprehensive view of the epoch, its leaders, and the historical imperatives that drove the world to such extremities, The War is essentially a one-dimensional presentation. Burns presumes to show the human face of war. He accomplishes this. But his narrow focus never rises to the level of historical significance. His agenda promotes pacifist truisms that war is hell, soldiers suffer, leaders blunder, and old men send young men to their fate with questionable strategies and faulty planning. It prevents him from using available footage that would present a comprehensible overview of the underlying causes, political motivations, societal pressures, and cultural imperatives that made the conflict inevitable.The War presents none of Adolph Hitler’s mesmerizing tirades before hundreds of thousands of German citizens. Emperor Hirohito goes virtually unseen. The words of Franklin Roosevelt are heard for a few seconds while the camera is focused on the radio consoles from which his voice emanates. The leader of the free world is shown as a crippled old man at the end of his days. Interestingly, the fact that The War is a biased and lopsided documentary is made clearly evident by the aforementioned Newsweek story that praises it. After interviewing Burns and reviewing the series, Gates declares “The War” to have an implicit subtext – the war in Iraq. He includes “progressive” views of the uselessness, horror, and folly of war and sees them inherent in Burns’ series. Judiciously placed quotes from Burns buttress Gates’ views. It is clear that both men stand solidly on the same side of the political spectrum.By far the most disappointing thing about The War is that for generations of citizens educated by electronic media it will stand as the defining documentary of World War II. It is clearly not that. The series is a purposeful oversimplification created to promote an anti-patriotic and anti-nationalist pacifist agenda. Rather than give the world’s citizens the objective historical account they deserve, Burns proffers a thinly-veiled anti-war polemic. Instead of strengthening and inspiring viewers toward the more cohesive ethic of national purpose and social solidarity – the hallmark of the Allied involvement in World War II – the series weakens and further divides our resolve. And sadly but predictably, this is occurring during a time of war. Image from The War: http://www.pbs.org/thewar/

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