After viewing only one episode, it may be premature to judge "The War," Ken Burns' long-awaited documentary on the American experience during World War II. The first installment (which aired last night on PBS) was both illuminating and disappointing; for any serious student of the war, Burns' documentary will offer little in the way of new information. But the personal accounts and anecdotes--the hallmark of any Burns production--were largely compelling, providing enough reason to tune in for tonight's second (and subsequent) episodes.
Whatever its flaws, Ken Burns deserves enormous credit for simply tackling the project. Compressing the terrible panorama of the war into a 15-hour television documentary is no mean feat; Mr. Burns and his production team have been working on the project for the last six years, interviewing scores of Americans who fought in World War II, and those who served on the home front. Ultimately, the recollections of 40 men and women became the centerpiece of the documentary, providing the individual experiences that offer intimate context and perspective on the greatest conflict in human history.
And that may be the most important aspect of the production. As Burns noted in last night's introduction, "The War" may represent one of the final attempts to record the thoughts and memories of The Greatest Generation. Collectively, they fought and won the war, but the enormity of their effort--and sacrifice--was largely ignored for decades. It remains ironic that the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials in Washington were completed ahead of their World War II counterpart. That memorial finally opened in 2004, 59 years after the surrender of Germany and Japan, and long after the passing of millions of Americans who secured that final victory.
So, it's appropriate that "The War" is a collection of individual stories, and on that level, it works quite well. While the accomplishments of the World War II generation are extraordinary, they were achieved by ordinary Americans, many from small towns or rural areas who had little thought of the wider world before December 7, 1941. Most of the film's 40 "witnesses" were drawn from four communities--Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota and Sacramento, California--representing four regions of an isolationist America.
Among the survivors who've appeared (so far), two stories proved instantly memorable. In early 1941, Glenn Frazier was a 17-year-old Alabama farm boy, who lived near Mobile. Spurned by a girl friend, Frazier rode his motorcycle through a juke joint that refused him service, "destroying bottles and furniture." Humiliated, scared and unable to face his parents, Frazier enlisted in the Army the next day, volunteering for service in the Far East, believing that the war would remain confined to Europe.
When the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Frazier found himself in brutal combat on Luzon and the Bataan peninsula; after seeing a close friend blown apart in an enemy air attack, Frazier laconically recalls that "he had no trouble killing Japs." In fact, Frazier felt deficient in his duties if he didn't kill at least one Japanese soldier a day, as the enemy advanced against beleaguered U.S. forces. By the end of the first episode, Frazier had already survived the Bataan Death March and was being held in a Japanese POW camp where other, unspeakable horrors awaited.
Another Alabamian, Sidney Phillips, first experienced combat as a Marine on Guadalcanal in late 1942. In last night's opening installment, Phillips remembered Navy supply ships sailing away just days after the invasion, after a Japanese attack shredded the U.S. screening force. Alone on the island, Phillips and his fellow Marines engaged in brutal, hand-to-hand combat against Japanese troops that tried to force them from the island. If not for a cache of "captured" enemy rice, the Marines would have starved to death before the Navy returned. The memories of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Frazier were riveting, capturing both the desperate victory of Guadalcanal, and the disaster that preceded it in the Philippines.
But, in his effort to capture the broad strokes of our war experience, Mr. Burns makes some rather odd choices. The Battle of Midway--the decisive naval engagement of World War II in the Pacific--is summarized in barely two minutes, while the internment of Japanese-Americans is remembered at length. Obviously, the internment was a tragedy--and unjustified--but Burns makes no effort to balance images of Japanese-Americans heading for the camps against the security concerns that prompted FDR's decision. And, without the American triumph at Midway, the outcome of the Pacific War (for all concerned) would have been very different, indeed.
So far, the tendency to "capsulize" key events in favor of other narratives (including the internment controversy) isn't enough to keep us from watching "The War." But it would be unfortunate if Mr. Burns' film ultimately succumbs to the dictates of political correctness. After devoting much time to the internment controversy, we wonder how he will treat the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In fairness, one of the most memorable scenes in the first episode vividly captured the war's brutality--and provided a powerful reminder to those who anguish over our "excessive" casualties in Iraq. Against a backdrop of headstones, Mr. Burns reminded viewers that 35,000 Americans died in the first year of World War II. For the math-impaired, that's almost seven times the number who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past four years.