By Michael Getler
October 12, 2007
Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. The inbox this week, as was the case last week, was dominated by viewer response to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick epic documentary series, "The War." Viewers continued to comment on the series, on some of the previous viewer comments, and on last week's Ombudsman's Column. What follows is a sizeable, representative sampling of the new comments.
Right Up There With 'Planet Earth'
I just read your views, and the others. You know, NO ONE will ever be happy with anything. I watched every single episode over the last 2 weeks. I found it to be, next to Planet Earth, one of the best docs I have ever seen on TV. I thought I knew a lot about WWII, but I didn't. I was crying, laughing and happy at the same time. It was amazing. You cannot get EVERYTHING in no matter how good an editor you are. So for me it was amazing. I still feel that WAR is an unnecessary thing to do, but in this case it might have helped. Thanks.
Joanne Resnick, Hollywood, CA
I am disappointed by most of the comments made by viewers of Ken Burns' "The War." There was some praise, but most focused on how certain groups had been excluded. It's pretty sad when some groups of people want to turn everything they encounter into a race issue. I believe they missed the entire point of this documentary.
Michael Cindrich, Kansas City, MO
I want to congratulate Ken Burns and PBS for an outstanding film of recording history for generations to come. As a child during World War II, I remember some of the "News Films" at the theater we saw and the news headlines that were spread across the paper that I delivered to homes on my paper route. All this "came alive" in watching the horrors of WAR. Perhaps this film will serve as a reminder for ALL that war is not the solution but working for peace is the ANSWER to a good life and a world we can all enjoy.
A. Johnson, Rochester, NY
I enjoyed watching the PBS show WAR this past week. Programs like that one should be viewed by everyone under the age of 60. So they will have an understanding of what our country went thru and how our nation pulled together for the common good for us and the world. We need leaders now that can pull this country together to help solve some of the problems that we are facing today.
James Richardson, Milan, MI
Two distinct things about The War leaped out at me: 1) I am an infant survivor of Santo Tomas Civilian Internment Camp, Manila, Philippines. For my entire life, whenever talking about this, it was abundantly clear that most people had no idea what I was talking about, simply no mental equivalent. Many people have told me either that I must be Jewish, because no one else was in concentration camps, or else that whatever happened to me and my family was insignificant, in light of what happened to the Jews. Now I can simply refer to the civilian concentration camp covered mainly in episode six of The War. 2) Ken Burns did the music the same way he did the Civil War, and it was a total flop, including playing certain melodies at the wrong times and really failing to cover at all the importance of music on all fronts and to all audiences during the war. He should never have hired Wynton Marsalis to do this. He should have hired three living persons, one vet each from the European and Pacific theaters, and one person from the home front, and played the original '40s music digitally re-mastered, as done in the Readers Digest series America In the '40s.
I. I. Butler, Berkeley, CA
In March, my mom was buried next to my dad at Tahoma National Cemetery. Her place was guaranteed by her own merits. Nearly 63 years earlier, she was one of 5,500 women who served in the South Pacific as a WAC. A Texas farm girl, she joined her two brothers overseas. It was on the Island of New Guinea where she met my father. They were married after the war and reared four children. Growing up, as the eldest daughter, what I learned about the war from books, movies and the classroom was always presented from a male perspective. But I knew different.
At home there were two uniforms in the cedar chest. It was mom who would wake us on school mornings by humming reveille, instill in us respect for the flag, and keep her young brood of four in military order. Dad may have been the GI of the movies with his Bronze Star and blood-stained souvenirs, but it was mom's experience that offered the most enduring influence on her daughters. By her example, we understood that women were as capable, brave and patriotic as men. Her participation in this war "experiment" was a guiding light for women's equality.
Like dad, she was buried with full military honors — the same number of volleys, the same tri-folded flag, the same haunting Taps. I regret the documentary I had so greatly anticipated failed to provide an adequate testament to the ground-breaking women in uniform who served in WWII. It was an omission of profound proportion.
L. Peters, Edmonds, WA
No More Naïve Beliefs
I have for a long time had a somewhat naïve, romantic notion about pre-WWII Germany and the War itself. I had heard the stories of Nazi Germany from my mother and her German relatives and of the war years and had an opportunity to live in Germany in the 1970s. My Father served in Burma, but there are only a few photos of him there and only a few stories he told. He mostly said how brutal the Chinese Nationalists were, as opposed to how bad the Japanese were. I thought in the beginning of the Ken Burns documentary that it was erratic and somewhat unfocused, but as it continued it became quite overwhelming and riveting and I think it is as good as his other work. It should have been longer in duration in my opinion. It did one important thing for me. I no longer have those naive romantic beliefs about that War or any war.
Robert Holman, Sandpoint, ID
I cannot tell you the full impact that "The War" had on me. I now have such a new respect for my Dad who was a Purple Heart vet. I didn't realize what a hero he was. He and his best friend enlisted the day his National Guard was federalized. They both served in the South Pacific with honor. My Dad was wounded on Munda (New Georgia) and carried the scars with him for the rest of his life. He had several medals and Herbie had eight medals including the Bronze Star and never told us. Dad and his friend Herbie told me the stories from the time I was a little girl, but, I didn't really have a full understanding of the extent of what he and Herbie must have endured until I watched "The War." Thank you PBS for telling the story.
Pamela Buchan, Chula Vista, CA
I am a loyal supporter of PBS. I am also a university literature professor who developed and taught an Honors course called "Documentary Film and Literature of Modern War" in the 1990s because I was afraid that today's undergraduate students were growing up without any knowledge of what a modern war can do to a country, whereas I remember Vietnam and see what it did [and is still doing] to America. To prepare for the course, I steeped myself in the history of WWI and WWII: I toured numerous European battlefields and cemeteries; read dozens of books about war; saved online information from veterans of WWI; interviewed veterans of WWII; and so on.
Of Ken Burns' "The War" I can say only that the film is good for what it is, but that's not saying much. It is television history: It is limited in coverage and considerably cleaned up for viewers. Far worse things happened during the war than are shown or described in the film. You may not want to print what I say next, but I shall say it anyhow. The film's narrator describes the tortured and mutilated bodies of dead troops in Asia. The producers should have shown the bodies of the men with their genitals in their mouths. Such atrocities have long been common during warfare. The Nazis did even worse things to live prisoners on city streets, but I shall not describe them.
For these and other details about modern war, see historian Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory"; "Understanding Warfare"; "The Norton Book of Modern War"; and "Thank God for the Atom Bomb." I have read, reread, and taught Fussell's books, so I have this closing comment to make. A section of Fussell's edited volume, "The Norton Book of Modern War," is titled "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books." The title is correct.
MaryAnn Wimsatt, Columbia, SC
Notwithstanding the numerous negative comments you received about The War, I would like to add my thanks and gratitude to Ken Burns and his team for another outstanding program. It would have been impossible (as was stated at the outset) to cover the war in its entirety of scope. This, of course, provided every special interest group an opportunity to criticize the show for failing to depict a perspective. Despite any perceived omissions, the series was truly an amazing achievement, which will preserve for posterity important lessons and commentary from participants.
Claude Lumpkin, Burlington, NC
I do not always agree with your programming but for the most part you air truly thoughtful and insightful pieces that broaden our horizons, educate and entertain us with a true sense of purpose. This surely was the case in the recent airing of Ken Burns' THE WAR. I watched all the episodes and was sad to read some of the comments that simply missed the point. The series was, no doubt, comprehensive and demanded a commitment from its viewers. But those that took it seriously and invested their time were duly rewarded. Ken Burns has earned his stripes so I knew that I would be watching quality material. I thought it highly necessary in these times to understand "why we have fought" and "why we must continue to fight" in this uncertain world we live in. The bravery that our nation has always put forth is admirable and these fine men deserve our respect and gratitude, not our criticism and disdain.
Pamela Gordon, Los Angeles, CA
That Patton 'Stunt'
One of the episodes touched on an outrageous stunt by General Patton late in the war, but essentially gave him a pass by not reporting more detail. When Patton's lead elements of the 4th Armored Division got within 30 miles of the Hammelburg (Stalag XIII-C) prison camp in Germany, Patton sent a task force of tanks and armored infantry 30 miles behind German lines, ostensibly to liberate the camp but actually to free his son-in-law, Lt. Col. John K. Waters, who had been captured in North Africa two years earlier. The task force had no way to transport the thousands of prisoners back to American lines, but that didn't matter as it turned out. Col. Waters was severely wounded when the tanks broke down the camp gate and was taken to the camp hospital. Thousands of prisoners streamed out of the camp with no way to get away. Then the Germans counterattacked and destroyed the entire task force, killing, wounding and capturing several hundred men. It turned out that the prison camp was adjacent to a German artillery firing range, so the Americans were sitting ducks. All the prisoners were recaptured, and waited along with Col. Waters for genuine liberation. The entire fiasco is laid out in the book "Raid, the Untold story of Patton's Secret Mission." I also cover it, in less detail, in my book, "Infantry: An Oral History of an American World War II Infantry Battalion." Two of the men I interviewed were among the Hammelburg prisoners.
Richard Stannard, Seattle, WA
Hi there, I just want to thank you for the series "The War." I had long suspected that there were very few Caucasian heroes in this war, and your series drives that point home extremely well. For as few Japanese Americans that were in this war, you showed how they were the most brave and fearless out of any of the troops. Very good of you to point out all of the racism and bigotry of this generation too, I was fearful that these old timers were getting "big headed." KUDOS. You must be very proud! Thank you again, well done.
The series on WWII was wonderful, no one can dispute that. I am wondering, however, why you didn't mention the China Burma India War Theatre. This is called the Forgotten War — and it seems that you too forgot the men and women who served in this endeavor. My father was stationed in Calcutta and then Karachi India where he died. I would have loved to have learned more about this area on you series.
Patricia A. Kurtz, Nashville, TN
And What About That Doolittle Raid on Tokyo?
What impressed me most about "The War" were the sit-down interviews with civilian and military veterans of the Second World War. What disappointed me most was PBS predictably caving in to political pressure in regard to production; although, truth be told, I'm amazed the producers didn't initially include Hispanic and Native American veterans in the series. There were many extremely moving moments; and I believe Ken Burns and his colleagues are to be congratulated for eschewing use of traditional conservative cliches, such as exclusion of violence and censorship of speech.
My negative criticisms are few, but I believe they're valid. Firstly, I was disgusted by the extra-loud shrieking music blared at me during the segment dealing with discovery of concentration camps. The moving interviews with military veterans and the stunning video sufficed for conveying the horror of those camps. It is an insult to viewers' intelligence that the music volume was cranked up to ear-splitting levels, in order (apparently) to emphasize the importance of that one segment. Such inferences are for viewers to discover for themselves — bereft of needle-pegging, politically-induced and repetitive musical crescendos.
Secondly, I was taken aback at the absence of at least a short scene describing the First Aviation Project — the bombing attack made on targets in Japan by B-25 aircrews and sailors early in the war. That was the "point of the sword," the first U.S. attack upon the enemy. (Oddly enough, motion-picture film of a B-25 taking off from the U.S.S. Hornet as part of that attack erroneously showed up during the segment dealing with the subsequent Battle of Midway.)
The series' producers are to be congratulated for using color when the film was in color, rather than falling into the cliche of changing it over to black and white as has been done in previous documentaries. One glaring exception involved a scene showing a Japanese woman's radiation burns after one of the nuclear attacks by B-29s: The original film is in color, but the producers mysteriously decided to eschew documentary accuracy in that case. The other glaring exception was the film showing the U.S.S. Arizona exploding during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: That film originally is in color, too.
As you can see, my negative criticisms are indeed few; but I'm surprised such a fine production company made the mistakes to which my comments refer. Please know I sincerely believe "The War" was a very fine presentation, one which everyone should see; and I plan to purchase the series on disk in the near future.
Joseph Haran, Portland, OR
I have been reading the letters concerning PBS' "The War." It seems as if every one connected to the series, as evidenced by "Why didn't you include this or that?" I know that I connected, as it touched me for days afterward. It is hard to include everything about this war, but I think the focus was the emotional impact on those who lived through it, and the great unity it had on this country. Alas . . . if we could just bring back that unity . . .
Suzanne Waters, Blacklick, OH
This is my impression: that The War is Ken Burns' best film to date. Who knows what wonders he will still produce. Having some experience in trying to present complex ideas and divergent views, I was amazed at how fair and honest The War series was! That has to be terribly hard. Those complainers must have no idea or experience of presenting complex and emotional ideas free of ideology. I was also so encouraged, if one can be about war, at the expression by those who experienced it. So many gave their lives and health (crusade or not) so that we can enjoy the freedom we now experience.
Ronald Jackson, Bic, NU
I watched the series "The War" and didn't miss an episode. There was none of the posturing and, "We whipped them Germans," stuff you usually hear. There was the truth. How war really is "hell," how our soldiers had no idea what they were getting into or what to do once they got there. How there were commanding officers who knew even less than some of the men they were commanding and threw our boys' lives away in the process.
The other thing that made this program a treasure to watch was the dialogue of the family members and others who lived through those horrible times. That was very different. I also read some of the comments by other people who watched, the complaints from some of the Hispanic and Afro-American viewers. Their comments were valid, the non-White contribution to the war could have been delved into more thoroughly (and I mean the Native Peoples too — I'm sure there were more involved in the conflict than the one man they showed) But that doesn't detract from the fact that the program was really well done and showed aspects of the conflict that are usually glossed over. I learned SO much. I think a program could be done solely from the view of those at home. I would especially like to see programs on the Afro-American aspect, the Hispanic and the Native as well as Japanese viewpoint during the conflict; both at home and on the battlefield. Those are stories that still wait to be told.
Sameerah El-Amin, Rochester, NY
I enjoyed the PBS program "The War." I am a Vietnam veteran. I have always said the World War 2 was the roughest war. I watched the series on World War 2 and was really shocked how horrible it was. I am amazed how generals' commands cost the U.S. a lot of deaths I felt was wrong on some of the generals blundering part. It made me even more supportive of dropping the A-bomb on Japan and should have on the German army that would saved a lot of lives. I am amazed how most media today always brings out bad if one U.S. soldier kills an enemy when in World War 2 we lost soldiers by the thousands in a day.
J.B. Williams, Dyersburg, TN
I imagine it's very difficult to cover WWII completely in a 15-hour span. I thought the personal stories from various small towns gave a different insight to The War. I was glued to the TV. Thank You, PBS, for your excellent documentary.
Marc Willson, Manitou Springs, CO
The War series was great and another excellent work of art by Ken Burns. Lived during that time and it was all very memorable. Thank you for an excellent series.
Jane Burrington, Richmond, VA
For the past week I sat and watched "The War" by Ken Burns and nothing infuriates me more than the blatant disregard, noticeable disrespect and refusal to acknowledge Hispanic contributions on the battlefield during WWII. As a retired soldier not a combat veteran I might see another documentary by Ken Burns omitting my daughter's combat service during Iraqi Freedom. Give us our due now!
Miguel Rivera Jr., Wharton, NJ
I have just finished watching "The War." I am a retired career Marine Corps Officer. While on active duty I flew fighters (TOPGUN Graduate), was decorated for Heroism, a Military Aide for President Bush Sr., attended two graduate level schools — to name a few tours. My father and uncle both served in the Navy during WWII. I had a great uncle and two cousins that were in the Bataan Death March. One of the latter perished there. I was in tears when both my uncle and cousin showed me their scares of torture and told their stories.
Of the forgoing. all are deceased except me. Of the forgoing, all are Hispanics — Hispanics who dearly love(d) to their country to core. In your column you make the statement, ". . . Although the Hispanics may have indeed been easy to overlook as part of the American war demographic in 1941 . . ." That sir, is an abjectly stupid and intellectually bereft statement. From MY PERSONAL 2007 perspective, Hispanic contributions to the War were and are not "easily" overlooked. I am personally offended by your complete lack of wherewithal in making such a statement To say that, "Burns set out on this project in 2001, six years ago in an America with a huge Hispanic population and culture." WTF? So he therefore, in totality, excludes not just a "huge" population, but the largest 2007 minority in the United States???? Not ONE Hispanic name was originally presented.
You state that it was a "pity" that the PBS and Burns didn't have the foresight to recognize the issue. You have got to be kidding me. That tells me there is not one Hispanic in the senior decision making process at PBS. I refuse to believe a group of people who represent the senior leadership of a major production for a "PUBLIC" Broadcasting System could be so stupid. This was, in my mind, an intentional gaffe. Hispanics — "ah screw 'em, they are not a significant PBS 'interests.' They bring no economic weight to our bottom line. Besides most of them are illegal anyway."
I am not Hispanic Activist. I AM an American who proudly served in the defense of a country which I dearly love. The 500,000, or as you put it, "INDEED," a very small percentage, were ALL Americans! Their exclusion just adds to the belief held by many that Hispanics are all just a bunch of Mexican illegals — they had no part in shaping this country's history.
I worked as a Security Analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for a tour. As such I authored, edit, parsed and review policy. In my professional opinion your column, is disingenuous and without much investment of thought. I read your bio and will put my credentials up against yours any day. YOU — YOU HAVE NO IDEA what it is to have people try to kill you or break down in tears upon learning your best friend has just been killed. If you had maybe you would have applied your journalist skills with greater earnest. If I sound pissed-off, you bet your ass I am. I'm smart enough to know that PBS, in reality, leans heavily toward liberal interests. No big secret there. As a decorated Veteran, I am now inspired to take up the sword and work toward seeing that Federal funding for PBS is cut off — It clearly has and will continue to serve the special interests of a bigoted mindset.
Finally, there were 13 "astonishing" Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients during WWII, not 12 — you disingenuous jerk. You are clearly part of the problem.
Michael V. Trujillo, Albuquerque, NM
Major USMC (Ret)
My father was a prisoner of war for 26 months during the war. This was one thing that he never talked about. Watching this program gave insight of what had really happened. When my father passed away 10 years ago, we came across a poem that was done in pencil in his handwriting. We do not know whether these are his words or copied, but I would like to share that poem with you.
How can I erase the memories of the past?
How can I erase the thoughts that always last?
The thoughts and memories are part of a long life, Why do I remember the parts that were all strife?
My eraser only works it seems on things that were so good and I know the good out weigh the bad as I know it would.
So why can't my eraser erase the evil that I have felt and put me on a path of memories that are not full of wrenching guilt?
Erase the badness
Erase the sadness
Erase the madness
Erase it all for Peace of mind!
When we found this poem we thought that it had to do with coping with the war — now we know.
Judene Bald, Royal Oak, MI