- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

If Ken Burns hasn’t already secured the role of national history czar, his latest magnificent documentary epic, “The War,” should land him the gig. The culmination of several years’ work that, in recent months, had seemed at risk of being eclipsed by identity politics and priggishness over profanity, “The War” tackles nothing less than what Mr. Burns’ writer-collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, here calls the “greatest cataclysm in history.”

World War II is a natural, perhaps unavoidable, subject for Mr. Burns, who spent years crafting a celebrated documentary on the Civil War that portended the gruesome possibilities of inexhaustible total war.

With 1,000 WWII veterans dying every day, “The War” is like a tourniquet on hemorrhaging memory.

Journalists, predictably, have looked to Mr. Burns to play along with pet parallels between World War II and our troubles in the Middle East. He has replied in various outlets that the documentary doesn’t “have a political bone in its body.”

He’s right. If anyone — whether left-liberals who believe the Iraq war is a blunder of unprecedented proportions or neoconservatives who insist we’re currently engaged in a fourth world war — can sit through the 14-plus hours of “The War” and still see analogies between then and now, I offer my heartfelt sympathy and commitment papers.

“The War” — presented in two-hour episodes that premiere on PBS stations Sunday night, followed by three installments this week and three more next week — is a staggering education in the uniqueness of a historical moment.

Counting both civilians and combatants, a death toll of perhaps as many as 60 million people, including 400,000 Americans; the Holocaust; the Bataan Death March; the dropping of two atomic bombs; a $3 trillion bill (in today’s dollars) for the U.S. alone; widespread commodity rationing — pardon me for concluding that, despite everything, 2007 isn’t the nadir of human existence.

Mr. Burns and co-producer-director Lynn Novick seize their fearfully large topic by focusing on four quintessential American towns: Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Waterbury, Conn. The filmmakers also whittled down testimony from 600 persons to about 40 subjects here, including notable veterans such as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, historian Paul Fussell and WETA’s own Ward Chamberlin.

Although physically untouched by the distant tumult that began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, these places are rapidly transformed after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They become bustling war-industrial hubs; their sons are drafted; and those left behind watch newsreels at local movie houses and edgily await telegrams bearing news of the deaths of loved ones.

“The War,” too, draws extensively on the memoir “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” by the late Mobile-born Marine veteran Eugene B. Sledge. His gothic prose is voiced by actor Josh Lucas, creating an almost Nietzschean gloom in Episode 5 as the advance across the South Pacific grinds on amid unimaginable brutality.

“The War’s” unflinchingly graphic archival footage and human witness together bury Mr. Burns’ reputation as a sepia sentimentalist. It is mercilessly critical of the U.S. military’s policy of segregation of black servicemen and the Franklin D. Roosevelt-sanctioned internment of Japanese Americans (making all the more ironic Hispanic activists’ complaints that the movie ignored Latinos).

World War II here is not “good”; it is simply necessary.

The documentary pulls off a delicate balance that Mr. Burns says previous war documentaries lacked: that of context and intimacy, macro and micro. It’s speckled with family photographs, even street addresses, and seamlessly blends in wartime films and photographs, many of which will be unfamiliar even to World War II buffs. Helpfully, it often pulls back to show map graphics of the far-flung, two-theater Allied campaign.

Mr. Ward’s written narrative (voiced by actor Keith David) is fluent, but it’s no match for the plain, vivid language of those who were there, or who waited anxiously at home.

Marine Sid Phillips of Mobile remembers watching the naval Battle of the Philippine Sea from ashore — the concussions of battleship gunfire would “flap your clothes,” he says. Airman Earl Burke of Sacramento, a B-17 turret gunner, wounded in subzero midair, tossed out balls of his own frozen blood, lest he have to mop up liquid later. Waterbury’s Ray Leopold, an Army rifleman turned medic who has since passed away, tells of an encounter with a captured German soldier who spoke perfect English, had a detailed knowledge of local Connecticut geography, and claimed he had been trained for Hitler’s “administration of the territories” — a chilling reminder of Nazi ambition.

Mr. Leopold, a Jew, is heartbreaking when, in “The War’s” last episode, he recounts how American troops discovered the full dimensions of the Nazis’ civilian murder machine — “industrialized barbarism,” in Mr. Ward’s apt phrase.

Mr. Phillips’ sister, Katharine, a delightfully genteel Alabamian, provides welcome doses of gentle humor as she recalls how the war affected her neighborhood — how, for instance, a proper birthday cake, in those years, was an uncommon luxury.

“The War” isn’t flawless. Is its choice of period music — from Bing Crosby crooning to the jaunty Gypsy jazz music that accompanies the liberation of Paris — occasionally cloying? Yes. Was it too obvious to have Tom Hanks read the wartime journalism of Al McIntosh’s Rock County (Minn.) Star Herald? Yes. Is the whole thing draggy at times? Yes.

And yet, this is a movie that tries to convey the fitful pace of American life at a time when citizens felt falsely optimistic about the war’s swift conclusion, as the Allies found themselves bogged down in places such as Anzio, Italy, the thick forests along the German-Belgian border, and the fiercely defended chucks of volcanic rock that the U.S. had to conquer before finally attacking Japan’s “home islands.”

Life did, and did not, go on.

Stateside impatience, however, was a far cry from the despair felt abroad.

Luverne’s Quentin Aanenson, a fighter pilot who flew 75 combat missions in Europe, reads aloud a letter he wrote to his girlfriend. He had decided to dispense with the stiff-upper-lip euphemizing of previous correspondence. He wanted to give her a flavor of what life was really like. “I live in a world of death. I watch my friends die in a variety of ways,” he wrote.

Mr. Aanenson put the letter in his foot locker and never sent it. To do so would have been unnecessarily cruel, he says.

Now, thanks to “The War,” all of us can read it — the truth.

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