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Transcript: Talking About War

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. 66 years ago, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged a reluctant United States into a four-year odyssey now known as the Second World War.

This fall, that journey was documented over 14 and a half hours by filmmaker Ken Burns and his team.

As you may have seen, the journey was filled with stories of great courage and sacrifice but that doesn't make it easier to confront the abject horrors at its center.

When we look closely at warfare it raises profound questions—about how the waging of war intersects with our notion of a democratic society.

With me are the producer directors of this remarkable television series, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and Dr. James Forbes, the Senior Minister Emeritus of the interdenominational Riverside Church in New York. Welcome. Ken Burns, you've actually shown pieces of this series to veterans of the Second World War. When the lights come up at the end of these screenings, what kind of effects are you seeing?

BURNS: We had one veteran with tears steaming down his cheeks. That I've waited all my life for somebody to tell it the way it was. Thank you. Or someone just exploding, and a family member running out of the room. They'd never seen their dad cry. And it turns out he was just remembering lost buddies. And he couldn't tell that. They were buddies acquired after he left home, and gone before he got home. And there's no one to talk to for 60 plus years.

BRANCACCIO: And surely we have to make it clear, if we were in the role of listening, that we're going to be supportive. You have an important figure in the film, Sascha Weinzheimer. And she, as a young girl, was a prisoner of the Japanese in occupied Philippines. She gets back, and she says very vividly she didn't think people really wanted to hear her story.

BURNS: Right.

BRANCACCIO: So she clammed up. Her words.

NOVICK: Yeah, you know, I think it—it's very difficult for the people who have been through these experiences to come home and be filled with all these complicated feelings of what they've done and what they've seen, and to feel very alienated. And I think one of the most heartbreaking parts of the film for me is seeing how alienated and isolated they feel when they first come home, and—and the people that they love can't understand them and don't really want to know what they've been through.

And there's this essential loneliness. This is partly why they did clam up and not talk about it for so long. And I think we have to remember that we have, I believe, sort of a moral obligation to let them—to give them room to bear witness to the difficult and dark and complicated parts of what they went through, and to really feel that it's safe to do that.

That we will listen, we will understand and will not judge. We will let them tell us honestly what happened. Because that is the best way that we can kind of honor them, is if we actually know what it was like. If we don't know what it was like, then we're not really participating in this process at all.

BRANCACCIO: You have Sam Hynes, he says, "There will always be plenty of evil. And there will always be plenty of wars. Because human beings are aggressive animals," he said. He might just as easily, instead of aggressive, said evil. And if you share that kind of conclusion with somebody, it's very difficult to live with. It's a dark vision.

FORBES: Yes. It's self-incriminating to acknowledge that what we saw at work in our enemies, we also see at work in ourselves. And can you imagine the amount of shame and guilt that you carry around, alongside your sense of valor and your sense of courage. They're all mixed up in there. I mean, guilt is bad enough. But when there's sort of guilt and also a sense of glory at the same time, it's almost too complicated to talk about.

BURNS: And we don't have the traditional way of conveniently reducing the Second World War into a set of causes and then effects. But in fact, say at a very elemental level in the first sentence, that it's—it came about because of ancient human emotions that seem in their listing, so petty: jealousy, anger, rage, victimhood. And—and they—and it ended because other more positive emotions come.

So we see in—in the cauldron of the Second World War, incredible forces massing, not only against each other, but within ourselves. And there are moments at the darkest points of this film, in the fifth and the sixth episode, and even indeed, in the Holocaust, where we have to meet face to face with the demon who is also us. That in order to win the war, you have to kill millions of civilians.

You have to actually train a generation of young men to become professional killers. And then, of course, war, the lie of civilization, requires you to, when it's over, say, okay, don't be professional killers again. And that's where a good deal of the compartmentalizing of these memories takes place.

BRANCACCIO: You hear Quentin Aannenson. He writes this amazing letter to his fiancé that he never sends. At the beginning. He says, "I live in a world of death." But later, he goes on to say, "I am not the same person you said goodbye to. No one could go through this and not change. We are all casualties," he says. And you're seeing this 60 some odd years later, people are still feeling that they're casualties.

NOVICK: It does rearrange their molecules in some way, and it—it—it shapes them. It's just—there's no way to get around that.

So you see it in the way that they choose to tell their story, in the way that they've lived their lives, in their relationship with their family, and how they think about the world. It's—it's part of who they are. They'd been through this ordeal. And if they'd come through it, even with all the complications and baggage. They went about their lives with incredible motivation and sort of direction.

And most of the people that we met have done that. They've sort of put it away—maybe emotionally, that wasn't so good. But for practical purposes, it enabled them to go on and be productive citizens and have happy family lives, and really sort of live life to the fullest. And yet, there's this little piece back there that's still a secret. And I think there's where the—at the end of their lives, to put it all together, and sort of maybe become whole in some way. It's important to tell.

BRANCACCIO: Dr. Forbes, there'll be many people who are left feeling they're in pain—having watched some of this, maybe it dredged up long suppressed things that had happened. As a pastor, you often have to figure out ways for, with people who come to you in pain. What are some ways forward?

FORBES: You know, I have always counseled people to trust the body. It's amazing how the body functions sometimes to, in a sense, dull our senses of some things that would be so painful, that we'd be devastated. So just trust the body. Kind of if it says cry, cry. If it says, take a long walk, take a long—just take your clues from what's inside you. Because we've been, in a sense, made with capability of dealing with grief. Because loss is a part of life and vulnerability too. So that's the first thing.

But the second is the stories. You've got to—you've got to—you've got to find somebody you can tell the story to. I mean, the loneliness that requires you to keep your pain inside yields to so many of the atrocities we have seen. And so, that's another thing. There are religious motifs, also. People need to recognize that they are forgiven. That's a—and we need a blanket statement that we're all needing to be forgiven, all of us.

The ones that did nothing, the ones that did something. The ones that were conscientious objectors. The ones that were just supplying the medicals, the medics. All of us, when we look at it, were inadequate to the enormity of the requirement in that hour. And also, the arts. I guess different folks will find a way. Go to see a film. Listen to some good jazz.

BURNS: Yes, sir.

FORBES: I mean, people say that's not the right thing to do. Don't let anybody tell you what to do. Do what in a sense, makes it possible for you to find the energy to continue to be a human being functioning in a complex world, where you recognize that there's grace. Nobody's going to be perfect. But there's grace. These things, I think, are often the margin of difference between those of us who crash completely and those of us who muddle our way through until a brighter day.

BRANCACCIO: Maybe even write the stories. Eugene Sledge—

BURNS: Right.

BRANCACCIO:—from Mobile, Alabama. He did this amazing contemporaneous diary of his experience. But he came back, as—as your films depict him—he was functioning, but he was troubled?

BURNS: He was very troubled. He could not turn off that compelling dynamic of war. He could not get it out of his head. He had gone off with some, of course, fraudulent vision of what war is. He went off, caught up in that enthusiasm, and was immediate—immediately put into at Peleliu and Okinawa, experiences no human being should ever have to witness. And he could not let this go.

And yet, he found, by taking these notes and scribbled ideas, some of them written in the margins of a New Testament, he found an ability to work his way through it. And he produced such a directly honest memoir. And this is what we—what the whole equation is about, that we've been talking about here. He was so undeniably honest about what he'd seen. And he saw the both sides of it. He'd seen his complicity in the evil. He understood generationally, what his men—his friends had had to do, and how they were on the right.

But he put it in the context of sheer horror of combat, and left us a—a monument of honesty.

BRANCACCIO: I understand that Ray Leopold from Waterbury, Connecticut, who is such a vivid voice, he's recently passed away?

BURNS: He recently passed away, yeah.

BRANCACCIO: Thank goodness you got his story.

BURNS: Well, we said—we sort of in the beginning, as we were constructing the proposals, that we wanted to get to know these people like they were our family members. Or somebody that you could meet at Thanksgiving. And we did. And so, when we lost Ray, it was just intolerable. And that's the kind of urgency that we hadn't really realized, would overtake us in the making of this film.

BRANCACCIO: Well, see, this is key. Because there are many people who have lost the person in their family that may have been most connected to the Second World War. Either that veteran or person on the home front didn't want to share these stories, or it never came up in conversation. And they'll be feeling a sense of frustration, that it's—that it's almost too late.

Ray Leopold looks just like my grandfather, Hyman Fleischer, who served in Europe in the Second World War. He got a Purple Heart. He was wounded. Would never talk about his wartime experiences. He would have a quick quip or joke. And change the conversation.

We lost him. I can't have that conversation. But there may be some things people in my situation, watching this film, could do.

NOVICK: Yes. I mean, if you—if you had a relative who was in the war and you don't have a chance to speak with them because they're gone, there's many different ways you can find out details about what they actually did and where they were, if you have the time and the patience. If you know the unit they were in, you can request documents of where that unit was. You can get the files from the government about their service record. You can go to reunions. You can contact people on the internet. There's all kinds of ways to reach out to people who can fill in the blanks for you about just physically where were they, what did they do. Anyone who might remember them.

You'd be amazed what you can find just by reaching out to people.

FORBES: And—and I'm expecting that the—the film will do that. That people electronically will—will build community again. And that if there is one lonely veteran who does not know where people are who were in his group, if there's anybody else surviving, it'd be fascinating to see what is the process by which we rebuild community? We connect those bones so that someone says, "Is there somebody alive who is in Sacramento who was—who was in my unit?" So, rebuilding community is the antidote to a war, perhaps, that if it comes, and if violence is there, what can we do to reconnect?

BURNS: And there's an embedded message in the—in the story of the Second World War, as well, that isn't just the reality of combat that we are trying to capture, but the sense of community. That in shared sacrifice we made ourselves richer. That's a paradox. We made ourselves richer. And today, we kind of feel a poverty of spirit. That we're all independent free agents. We're making ourselves richer. And at the same time, there is a sense of not being connected. And one of the things that I felt oozing out of each of the stories here was that sense of how much more powerful and enriched our lives are when we're working together for a kind of common purpose. And that was clearly what was going on in the Second World War.

BRANCACCIO: Now, Ken, you've really started something here. Because there'll be some people watching this series who will draw from it the sense that we need a very strong military that is very—well stocked in preparation for whatever the next assault is. And that there'll be a—a hawkish conclusion drawn from your work. There'll be others watching this who see it as an argument to think hard before deploying military power. Those are the types of discussions around the television set or a dining room table that can bring the house down. Does that concern you?

BURNS: No. I think that's exactly what you want to have. And I do expect that there'll probably be an increasement in enlistment as a result of this. And—and a strengthening of many people's anti-war feelings.

I mean, we're showing—it's all about arithmetic. This is the calculus of war. It's horrific. And—and I think, as Sam Hynes says in the opening moments of the war, "There's no such thing as a good war."

And the Second World War has been smothered in that gallant bloodless myth. "There are only necessary wars," he said. And I think it's incumbent upon a democratic society to evaluate what the arithmetic is, the cost of war. And to make sure, particularly in a democratic society, where we actually have the ability to elect the leaders who make the decisions—


BURNS:—that we make decisions about going only to wars that are necessary. Because, as Sam Hynes also said, there's evil in the world. There will always be wars. So we—we, obviously, want to have a strong military. We want to be prepared. But we also want to be mindful of the huge, huge cost. And this is what we have to come face to face with. And so if a film, in any way, initiates that dialogue, let's pray that it is a measured and compassionate and thoughtful dialogue.

FORBES: You know, I—if—if there's an argument at a family between—doves and the hawks, I would wish to say to them I could not imagine that we could ever have won that war if there had not been some sense of national purpose that united members of our nation and of the axis itself. So, whether you're a hawk or a dove, you've gotta be working to discover what is it that unifies us? What is it that makes us a nation where even blacks and whites (and the race issue is in this war, in this film as well). What is it that we affirm so strongly together that even if we differed in perspectives, we would be willing to make a sacrifice because we, as a nation, have this sense of purpose.

We've got this sense of vocation. We've got this set of values. So the—the—let—let me visit the—the dining room table in somebody's home and say look folks, let's see to it that we never go to war unless we have something of a unifying sense of why we're doing it.

And then, when the war comes, if it must, though I'm gonna fight against the war, using that word, let's make sure that we are so clear that we are one people with a purpose of liberty and justice and peace for us all. That we will sacrifice even our lives in order that we will pass onto another generation a world in which family is not just a term we use for three people living in the same house. But for the nation and, ultimately, for the world.

BRANCACCIO: There's, among the dark themes of these episodes, is this life affirming theme of the allies could not have pulled this off unless the country moved forward with something close to unity.

BURNS: That's exactly right. And let's not—let's remember that there were people across the whole political spectrum that we have today. I mean, people had a variety of—of political beliefs, just as we find.

But—but they're in the service of working together, not—spending their entire lives pointing out how we're different. And that's what we do today in our media culture. And so, yes, we had that diversity of political beliefs.

And, obviously, torn on the bias and questions of race and language and region of the country. But, still, we were able to find a common cause, and to do it. And, of course, this is the essence, the other paradox of war is that it is, of course, the worst of us.

But it also brings out the best of us. We see not just the obvious things, the bravery and courage, and I don't mean to diminish them by saying obvious. But this is what war reminds us of, of—of extraordinary acts of bravery and human courage.

But we also see tenderness and love and brotherhood and fellowship. This is a—this is a war that forever—it—it let the genie out of the bag. We were no longer gonna be able to go back to Jim Crow in the south. We weren't gonna be able to permit these things.

It was just not possible. If you existed in a—in a foxhole—with a brother, he's your brother. That's what it is. In the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans—dropped—behind our lines wearing American uniforms, who was the most American of soldiers coming around the bend?

An African-American soldier. That's gonna completely blow your mind and change forever how you're gonna see things. So we're gonna find Jackie Robinson coming out of this thing.

We're gonna find Dr. King coming out of this, and Rosa Parks. We're gonna find women now in the marketplace and asking for new things.

We're gonna find Dr. King coming out of this, and Rosa Parks. We're gonna find women now in the marketplace and asking for new things. This war is going to change things. And I—I—I think it, in many ways—for the better. So we have—byproducts which are horrific. The worst—the worst body-count in human history. And we also have some pretty powerful positive things that we can take from this.

BRANCACCIO: A conversation that I have no doubt is going to be continued in households all across America. Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and James Forbes, thank you very much.

NOVAK: Thank you.

FORBES: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: You can learn even more about the war and find links to NOW's sound and video archives over on our website. is the place to start.

I want to leave you this week with a gentle reminder. If you value what you see here. And on other PBS programs including Bill Moyer's Journal and Frontline, and you want to see more programs like it, this is the time to cast your vote by giving generously to support your local Public Television station.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.