Last night I watched the first installment of the new Ken Burns documentary called The War. The War is Burns’ attempt at telling the story of the United State’s involvement in World War II.
Let me first say that I went into the series with two biases: 1) Ken Burns is a brilliant maker of television documentaries, and 2) having studied WWII for 35 years myself, and knowing that WWII must be the most documented event (if you can call it a single event) in history, I didn’t believe Burns could actually bring much of anything new to the table.
After having watched the first two hours last night, nothing I saw last night changed my thinking.
The War is certainly well done and Burns’ talent comes through. But he isn’t saying anything that anyone who has ever watched the History Channel for any length of time doesn’t already know. In fact, even his presentation isn’t all that different from what I consider to be the best WWII documentary series ever made: The BBC’s The World at War, which was made over 30 years ago and first shown here in the U.S. in the mid 1970s on PBS.
The Difference between The War and The World at War seems to be one of scope. Burns focuses on the American experience in the war while The World at War looked at it from the perspective of all the major participants with only a slight British-cetric slant. Otherwise, the two series are remarkably similar. Personal interviews are interlaced with vintage footage with dubbed-in sound (most actual WWII footage had no sound attached to it). Even the maps of strategic movements are somewhat similar.
Burns, however, pays more attention to the American home front than you normally see in WWII documentaries, and I find that interesting. American civilians had the unique benefit of being able to view the war from afar. While the residents of most of the participating counties felt the direct effects of war (invading armies, bombs falling from the sky, etc), here in the U.S. life went on in relative security but the war still impacted almost everyone in some way, be it the shortage of consumer goods or the loss of loved ones overseas.
I was pleased to see that The War was somewhat harsh on General Douglas Macarthur’s handling of the Philippines in 1941/1942. Macarthur’s skills as a commander have been greatly overstated in popular culture. While I think he was a good administrator, and did a great job in occupied Japan after the war, his performance in the Pacific theater in WWII and later in Korea was mediocre at best, and downright stupid in his worst moments. I was glad Burns called him out on the Bataan disaster. I wonder if Burns will be as honest about the war’s other inflated American icon, George Patton.
I do think that documentaries like Burns’ contribute to something else that gets a little inflated: America’s role in the war. Yes, the U.S. played a huge part in the war, particularly in the Pacific. But I think when we see these shows, we start thinking that the U.S. won the war, exclusive of other nations. Many other countries contributed, and suffered, much more than did the U.S. in defeating the Axis in WWII. In fact, Germany had, in effect, already lost the war in Europe before the U.S. entered the conflict. In my opinion, Hitler effectively defeated himself in the summer of 1941 when he botched the invasion of the Soviet Union. After 1941, there was really only one outcome possible and it didn’t include Nazi victory. The U.S. certainly made the eventual Allied victory there much easier, but it was the Soviet Union the bore the brunt of destroying the German army. Had the Soviet Union been defeated in 1941, there would not have been any possibility of a successful D-Day at Normandy or anywhere else.
I’m a little unsure why the critics are heaping so much praise on The War since it’s not really all that out of the ordinary for WWII documentaries. I even heard one critic declare it to be better than Burns’ real masterpiece, The Civil War. Still, for what it is, The War is a good piece of work (based on the limited amount I’ve seen). Certainly if you aren’t well versed in WWII or you don’t watch the History Channel, you are bound to learn a lot.