Having watched the 16 hours of Ken Burns's war extravaganza, I have to say I thought it sucked. There was a lot wrong with it as art, which I will get to, but there was a deep moral hole at the center of it. The artistic failure and the moral black hole are related.
Nostalgic, sentimental, slow paced like an endless thanksgiving family get-together, and deeply invested in American exceptionalism, with a self-congratulatory and mawkish backward view of any mention of the evils of the time, segregation, for example, from an implicit we-are-much-better-now-thankyou viewer-supplied perspective, plus running through it all there was a kind of subliminal and in my view deeply dishonest crypto-triumphalism as contaminating background radiation. It was a succession of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post magazine-cover pictures of war on the home front alternating with the attempted-realism of non-stop newsreel explosions, weary soldiers marching, more explosions, corpses, and more corpses, and mutilated corpses, and more of them too, all with the probably unintentional effect of deadening any real realization of the human meaning of it, with a voiceover of course, explaining it all.
Mention was made of the furor that arose when the first photos were published, in Life, I think, of dead American soldiers in Pacific beach sand. Those photos had impact because no one had yet seen them. To see 16 hours straight of death and mayhem and more death and more death yet deadens the moral instincts, assuming the viewers have any left after CSI Miami and the average American action-movie genre film.
This series was in effect a vaccine against a genuine apprehension of what that war or any other war really is.
The voice-over was almost unbearable--no cliche, bromide, nor hackneyed comfort-zone voice giving sonorous meaning to it all left undeployed, and most unbearable of all was Tom Hanks reading homilies from a Minnesota small-town newspaper. I hasten to say that the homilies themselves were not unbearable in their original context. They only became so in the context of this obscene celebration of The War.
Yes, celebration. Who does Ken Burns think he is kidding?
And the celebration was profoundly dishonest, in every which way from Sunday. (Tom Hanks could really say that well, I'll bet.) First of all, the idea of taking four towns as representative of America is folly. Hispanics got angry, with good reason, because there was not a Martínez or a Gonzales from any of these places, but four towns are by definition not representative. The project of painting these towns, in black and white mostly, as "America" is flawed and dishonest from the start.
What this was, was the construction of an idyllic myth of "America" brought together by this great (and I suspect in Ken Burns's view, wonderful) crisis, The War. Rosie the Riveter rolled up her sleeves. Civilians put their shoulders to the wheel. We put our differences aside. Fresh faced boys lined up to volunteer. All underwent great sacrifice, enduring hardship, death, and destruction to further our great project, victory, which brought us all together.
What crap! What unbelievable nonsense.
Burns inadvertently makes exactly those same observations about the Japanese and the Germans. The War was a great crisis that brought everyone together, everything subordinated to the cause of victory--but, given a view from the outside, he has no trouble seeing the downside of Japanese or German nationalistic fervor.
Our guys are heroes. The Japs are fanatics. This film should really be offensive to anyone not blinded by Ken-Burns-Americanism.
Burns also comes down pretty much on the side of those who claim the use of the atomic bomb was necessary, and quotes absurd hypothetical numbers of lives-that-would-have-been-lost. Half a million American soldiers. Hypothetical numbers are great to send into rhetorical battle.
He mentions, but only in passing, and without exploring it, the fact that the Japanese were actively trying to arrange a conditional surrender when the bombs were dropped. He does not mention that the one condition they required, and which we rejected, was the retention of the Emperor as head of state. When they surrendered unconditionally, we gave them the very thing they had been holding out for in their back-channel peace proposals.
Burns, who has no concept of irony, does not talk about this.
Burns does not say a word about the fact that the chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Leahy, opposed dropping the bomb. He does not mention that Eisenhower opposed it. He does not mention that Admiral Nimitz opposed it. He does not mention that Admiral Halsey opposed it. He does not mention that Admiral King opposed it. He does not mention that MacArthur opposed it. Most of them opposed it on old-fashioned moral grounds. Some, who knew how close Japan was to military collapse, opposed it on pragmatic grounds.
He does not mention that Einstein opposed it. Of course not. Einstein was not from Mobile, Alabama, or Laverne, Minnesota.
The millions of people who watched the final episode of this travesty went away knowing nothing of the historical issues surrounding the use of the bomb, and now think that it was a regrettable necessity.
That's very sad.
Why did I watch it, then? The personal accounts were fascinating, and were the main reason I stuck with it all the way through. I liked all the talking heads, even the couple of them who made the war into a springboard for some well-rehearsed crackerbarrel philosophy. They spoke, as the voiceover would have said, from the heart. Their words from the heart however were drowned out by the voiceover and the the explosions and the sturm und drang, courtesy of Ken Burns. These people were deeply deceived by Mr. Burns, in my opinion, because their relatively quiet and moving testimony was perverted to his toxic ends.
I liked most of the music, but again, it was misused to further Burns's terrible project.
I never saw Burns's Civil War, and I know now that I never will.