The War Is Over . . . Now, on to the Re-Runs
By Michael Getler
October 5, 2007
"The War" is over. The Allies won. And so did PBS viewers.
The epic 15-hour documentary — produced by filmmaker-extraordinaire Ken Burns, co-producer Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward and presented in seven nightly episodes stretching over the past two weeks — was a remarkable accomplishment by any measure.
In any undertaking of this magnitude, seeking to capture America at war at home and abroad during World War II, there are bound to be some things left out and some facts and assessments that viewers will take issue with. Printed below are some of the letters I received about the series, several of them complimentary but many also critical about one thing or another. This is, after all, the ombudsman's office and that's where viewers generally direct complaints rather than compliments.
I watched the entire series as well, as it aired, not before. I was in elementary school when Pearl Harbor was bombed, remember many things about the war years at home and the years of its immediate aftermath, and have remained fascinated with the war's impact on this country and the world. So, I, too, sometimes moved to the edge of my chair and said to the TV screen the equivalent of: "Hey, why so little on the London Blitz and nothing about the German bombing of Coventry that preceded the devastating depictions in the film of the U.S.-British fire-bombing of Dresden . . . and what about Dunkirk and El Alamein . . . and all those WACs that we saw at home and in the newsreels . . . and why no insight about what America knew about the Holocaust before it liberated some of the concentration camps?"
This column, however, is not really a review, and my interjections, with the possible exception of the highly visible Women's Army (Auxiliary) Corps, may not be so relevant because part of the intelligence of the film is that it captures what Americans seemed to be focused on at the time, while at the same time providing intense and bloody focus on campaigns in Northern Africa, Sicily, Italy and Peleliu in the Pacific that more easily slip from memory than do D-Day and Iwo Jima.
There have been scores of reviews in virtually all major newspapers and magazines, both print and online. Here are links to a few interesting ones — in the New York Times, Salon.com, Current.org, Newsweek-MSNBC.com, and USA Today — in case you missed them.
"The War," in my view, does not quite reach the level of eloquence, artistry and narrative that Burns' 1990 masterpiece "The Civil War" achieved, but it is an awesome achievement. The series is very long and exhausting, often hard to watch because it does not spare the viewer the overwhelming, repetitive and intimate sense of death, dismemberment and brutality, as well as the chaos and often fatally bad decision-making that war is about. Whatever ratings eventually are posted for this film, it would be interesting to know how many people just watched slivers of it. But the important thing about it is not the ratings, which PBS will showcase, but the fact that it has been made and it is now there to be seen — whether last week's debut, or this week's re-runs or in five or 10 years.
Aside from the war itself, the film brings an intense, personal focus to the scene and situation of blacks facing discrimination and segregation both at home, in the booming defense industry, and in the armed forces, and does the same with some 110,000 Japanese-Americans sent to barren and exposed "relocation" internment camps in the West. Then some are asked to join the Army, where their units distinguish themselves. Some viewers said they felt these segments were too much of a focus, but I thought these known historical events became newly jarring in extraordinary films and interviews and were among the most powerful in the series.
The series reminds us that some 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II at a time when the population was about 140 million, less than half of what it is today. It depicts the fear, courage and willingness of those on the front lines to keep moving forward, to attack the next hedgerow or the next heavily defended island, and then the next one and the next one. And there was no one-year rotation home. You were in for the duration. Almost 300,000 Americans were killed, some 670,000 were wounded. Worldwide, some 50 million to 60 million people died between 1939 and 1945. The series pulls no punches.
The Other 'War'
For the ombudsman's office, however, the real battle over "The War" began early this year when PBS started promoting the series and serious challenges began to surface from Hispanic-American organizations, pointing out that there were no Hispanic veterans of World War II among the 40 or so men and women who actually appear in interviews used in the film, or apparently none even in the 500 or more who were interviewed before the on-camera selections were made. The omission touched off a long-running battle between these groups and the PBS/Burns/Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) group involving questions of artistic freedom and alleged congressional (Hispanic Caucus) interference, along with a considerable campaign of outrage aimed at public broadcasting by Hispanic activists. There have been four previous ombudsman columns — on March 16, April 10 and 18 and June 1 — that dealt in whole or part with this specific issue.
I'm not going to go over all that ground, but on May 10, after still more meetings with Hispanic groups, Burns, who had previously stuck to the notion of keeping the already completed film intact and with its original artistic vision, agreed that new narratives and voices would be included in the film. And so they were. About 28 minutes were added to the series so that interviews with two Hispanic-American veterans and one Native-American veteran could be included.
These veterans, like others interviewed originally, had interesting and important things to say. But these additions appeared as just that, add-ons and after-thoughts attached to the end of three of the programs. It didn't work, in my view. During the early battles over this issue, PBS had said that the additional material would be added within the "footprint" of the program, a bit of broadcast jargon that, I wrote on April 18, "is a terrible word that nobody understands except TV insiders and conveys the sense of not really leveling with people." These were hardly the "seamless" additions that one might have expected based on what had been said.
Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in World War II and they won an astonishing number (12) of Medals of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor. At the time, that number serving was, indeed, a very small percentage of the American forces, and Burns has stressed that he did not set out to exclude anyone but rather to make a film based on his vision of telling it through the setting of four towns spaced around the country.
I thought Burns did the right thing in adding these veterans, even though it clearly appeared as though the segments were slapped on to something that sure looked as though it had ended 10 minutes earlier. But the real pity here is that these thoughts did not come earlier to Burns and PBS. Although the Hispanics may have indeed been easy to overlook as part of the American war demographic in 1941, Burns set out on this project in 2001, six years ago in an America with a huge Hispanic population and culture. And that should have sent a signal to people, if they have their receptors in place, because it was World War II that also helped propel Hispanic Americans, even though a small group at the time, into a larger place in American society and into what is now a very prominent place.
Here Are the Letters
I just wanted to say that while all the documentaries by Ken Burns are exceptional pieces in their own right (Jazz series being my favorite), his latest "The War" has been the most poignant and moving for me. To watch these men and women speak about their experiences in such ordinary terms, and yet to know how extraordinary they were is both sobering and thought provoking. It seems that, while they are aware that their experiences are not the norm, they cannot fully internalize why these experiences set them apart from other generations. They are not asking to be glorified, just to be understood.
I think this is the kind of easily digested reality and sincerity that my generation, and those after them and their children, needs to see to have an understanding and connection to our veterans. Mr. Burns has taken a time in our history that seemed vague and faded, and made it touchable and human to people of my generation. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Silke Kirner, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
As a PBS supporter and ardent viewer — particularly of Ken Burns' fine work — I was stunned by the unfathomable omission of any reference to the Navajo Code Talkers in Burns' recent offering, "The War." This failure to acknowledge their huge contribution adds insult to injury, as these unsung heroes only received formal recognition by the White House in the last few years — much too late for the majority of these men who had already passed away. Overlooked as well were the women who served in the military during WWII. Thus, as impressive as "The War" is, these unfortunate omissions will prevent this significant documentary from ever being the masterwork it might have been.
Linda Mashburn, Tallahassee, FL
I just want to say how incredible, marvelous, and fabulous the series "The War" was. In fact it was absolutely WONDERFUL . . . I am an historian at heart and I own the Civil War documentary and I never thought Ken Burns could top that, but he did with "The War." I also own many W.W. II documentary films and have read hundreds of books on both the Civil War and W.W. II. But, "The War" was just too wonderful to put in words. I was glued to my T.V. from the very beginning. I was shocked to see the footage that was aired on the documentary because I have never seen that footage before and I though that I've scene everything from the History, Discovery, and Military station that I could on W.W. II., but the footage that Ken Burns aired was just so emotional. And all the people that where shown on the film and spoke to the audience and took part in that war and explained to us what they went through and their experience just made it all the more touching. How I wish this could be shown in the 7th and 8th grade classes of all the schools in America.
Donna L. Homyak, Scottsdale, AZ
Though I lived through the war years as a young bride, I was only interested in what was happening in my husband's area. This documentary was as new and riveting as if I hadn't been living it. My husband was drafted during the Battle of the Bulge and fortunately he served in the Navy. Never before and never again has this country been so united. We knew everyone of us mattered. We all had the same goal and we all contributed.
B. Greenberg, Teaneck, NJ
I felt I just had to write someone and let them know how deeply I was moved and how wonderful I thought the PBS and Ken Burns "The War" was. My husband is a retired Army Col. We spent 30 years as Army officer, Army wife, and Army family. We moved 24 times; including 12 years in Europe and my husband did two tours in Vietnam. My father fought in World War 2, he was in England and France. I thought I knew what it was to be military and I thought I knew (by experience, education and personal knowledge) what war was but after seeing this moving and incredible 10 hours, I realize that I didn't have a clue. Thanks to both of you and all who funded this magnificent documentary. I will never forget it or the people in it.
Judy Shepherd, Satellite Beach, FL
PBS [Ken Burns and associates] dished out massive doses of Novocain and totally numbed my senses with the airing of "The War" — a failure. Fourteen hours [plus promotions] of artillery, 5" and 16" ship guns, 20mm and 40mm ship cannons, tanks, mortars, bazookas, small arms . . . oh yes, the mangled and dead soldiers and civilians — all interwoven with too graphic of first-hand experiences. DID WE NEED FOURTEEN HOURS? This program benefited the military men with stories [augmented over the years] to sooth their damaged psyches and feed those that thrive on death, destruction, and perversity of real horrors. DID WE NEED FOURTEEN HOURS? Isn't celebration of brutality and horror really necessary for a maturing species? [Have other nations dwelled on this material as Americans do?] DID WE NEED FOURTEEN HOURS? Why should we be reminded of these things . . . Korea, Vietnam, Iraq? We do it over and over again. DID WE NEED FOURTEEN HOURS?
David Petersen, Kansas City, MO
I am so sick of hearing "the greatest generation" and "FREDOOM" said about WWII that I could upchuck. All of those "freedom" fighters are the same people denying black people and yellow people true FREEDOM. It is said that at one time a German POW was treated better than a black American soldier. Imagine that the man ready to cut the throat of an American soldier was held in higher esteem than a Tuskegee Airman. Nothing anyone can write, say, tape, film or in any way archive the "Glory" of white domination and denial of freedom and make me believe the sons of the slave masters were the "Greatest Generation." In closing let me say one thing that Black people did for America; Black people made the words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence actually mean something other than a just words on a piece of paper.
George Holland, Mobile, AL
The "War" is technically uneven especially the first installment. Most of the news reel report films were of poor quality and do not reflect what the average person would have seen contemporaneously. Additionally I felt that the Hispanic segment was a platitude, out of place in this fine work.
Mike Knight, Tampa, FL
As a former WWII Marine, I have watched and enjoyed every minute of the War series. However, the story can stand on its own, without the loud, overpowering music in the background, or in most cases, forefront. Why PBS producers believe they have to have music accompanying all productions, I cannot understand. Thank you for the stories.
Earl Reynolds, Amarillo, TX
Perhaps in the minority, I, as a 64-year-old woman, take great offense at the glorification of Ken Burns and PBS's WWII. It was what it was . . . and no more. That our leaders did not deal with Hitler earlier . . . and his open anti-Semitism, does not condone the aftermath. It just illustrates that ignorance and stupidity cause great bloodshed and emotional angst. What was learned by this? I venture . . . NOTHING! The Greatest Generation, indeed! They condoned the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War. For Shame!
Susan Rhoades, New York, NY
Ken Burns should be awarded the highest lifetime honors from every nation on this planet. He should also be called Sir Ken Burns and anointed! He has more guts than anybody I can think of in years. He might even surpass my fave — Lance Armstrong.
J.N. Wier, Birmingham, AL
Vietnam Marine '66-'67
I see that despite its obvious discrimination against Hispanics, PBS went ahead and started airing "The War." The whole incident is very unfortunate, but to add insult to injury, "The War" is now airing right after what someone, somewhere, for some reason decided to call "Hispanic Heritage Month."
F. Guillermo Rodriguez, Thousand Oaks, CA
An Untold Story
Let me start by saying I love PBS and NPR. I watched the series on WWII last night with interest as my dad served from beginning to end and had landed on Omaha Beach and my father in law served in the Pacific. All my uncles were involved as well. People need to understand how horrible war is and they need to understand all the dynamics including that of those who refused to fight. Talk about an untold story! We all need to understand that those of use who refuse to take part in war are not cowards or devils. We believe there are better ways to solve our problems and disagreements then killing each other and are willing to sacrifice to make another way happen.
I served in the Peace Corps in Niger. I also worked in the refugee camps in Somalia. I saw how Peace Corps volunteers there made the Somali people appreciate Americans and our country. Then I watched how our military in just a few short months turned the Somali people against us and how all the arms sent to them led to a failed state. WE need to come to understand the importance of listening to the as of yet small voice of Peace to give us more balance and yes more security.
Paul Amrhein, Richmond, VA
I really thought you were on the level with the producers and the programs you air, but with the new program you just started to air, "war" by Mr. Burns, it really hurts to see that of all the contributions that the Hispanic community has done through the years for the U.S. it's sad to see that the movie doesn't show much of the 500,000 soldiers who fought hand on hand with everybody else, it normally mentions African-Americans, it mentions the catastrophic saga of the Japanese-Americans who were treated like prisoners in their own land, but what is the problem that America has, or PBS or the producer Mr. Burns with the Hispanic community?
Alex Flores, San Ysidro, CA
Like many millions in this country I wish to thank you, PBS, and Ken Burns for the ultimate clarification of our rose colored view of the term of ultimate sacrifice meant in the terms of our patriotic view of World War II. I'm sure as many who have seen this documentary I did not realize the amount of devastation that every family had to endure due to the heroic view of that particular war that has been instilled for generations since that point in time. There have been many movies and in particular many still pictures that have done nothing more then dissolve the effects of war and inspire patriotism over the grotesque effects of that particular time. I felt my first sliver of the horrifying realism never known of WWII until the opening scene of Private Ryan, but I never expected the emotional pain of realism until your efforts to expose the devastation in this documentary. I had a slight understanding and intense disdain for our enemies during that period in time due to the continuous glorification of our victory over the enemy during the many years of watching films of WWII, but I never truly understood the resolve and horrific strain it took to overcome the resolve of our enemy during this time.
I believe the historical documentary "The War" is great, except for the fact that it immensely undermines the contributions of the Hispanic/Latino community. A much respected television station such as PBS should ensure it does not accidentally or intentionally join other television stations discriminatory views of minorities. For myself, of Mexican descent, I can say that I was very discouraged by the documentary and I do not hold PBS in high regards as I did before this documentary aired.
Octavio Casillas, Las Cruces, NM
Arranged Around Towns, or More Complicated?
This letter is a complaint about Ken Burns and The War. The latest excuse Burns has given for excluding Mexican-American veterans from his film is that none came forward in the towns that he chose to use. Well, he chose the veterans and then the towns, so he isn't being truthful when he implies that he was open to including Mexican-American vets. Here is an interview with Geoffrey C. Ward that shows how they organized the film.
"Luverne was picked because the eloquent pilot Quentin Aanenson came from there. Mobile was the home of the late Eugene Sledge and of his boyhood friends Sid and Katherine Phillips. Sacramento was picked in part because we were interested in the Japanese internment story and knew that several veterans of the segregated 442nd combat team lived there. We also wanted a Northeastern town, and when Lynn discovered the surviving members of poor Babe Ciarlo's family, Waterbury was added to the list. In every case, we found more riches than we could possibly use."
I was a bit incensed at the segment showing the US troops marching triumphant into Rome. Mr. Burns should study his history a bit better. Not too long ago PBS aired a program called No Price Too High depicting Canada's part in World War II. In one segment it showed that the Canadians had been most instrumental in defeating the Germans in Italy and when the Germans were defeated they were ready to march into Rome but were ordered to fall back and give the victory parade to the US.
Marshall Pomroy, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada
Concerning Ken Burns' series on the Second World War: This seems to be more a comment on race relations and the internment of Japanese civilians instead of a movie about the war. I'm watching this for the third night in a row, and he has devoted a lot to race problems. I can see covering this, but for 3 nights.
Lowell Walker, Fayetteville, NC
I can't begin to express how disappointed I am in K Burns' The War. His decision to forego expert and historian opinion was a huge mistake. The result is a soft, sentimentally sloppy and thoroughly shallow portrait of WW II. The whole effort comes across as lazy. Burns is clearly living off his reputation in this production, rather than adding to it. What a waste of time; not worth the viewing.
Michael Denning, Auburn, WA
And What About Those WAACs?
My comments are regarding the Ken Burns series, "The War." I have been watching this for the past 2 nights and I must say quite honestly that I am not impressed. Perhaps it is because I have watched so many WWII documentaries and such, I'm a bit biased. But, overall I'm disappointed by the things that are seemingly being overlooked/left out. For example, the first episode of the series went through the end of 1942 — with no mention of the Doolittle Raid, the AVG Flying Tigers, or Americans serving with the RAF — all of which I believe are important points. The Doolittle Raid was a pivotal event, yet it wasn't even mentioned? Also I was disappointed that, while so much time is being spent focusing on the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, there has yet to be any mention whatsoever of the 99 US Army and Navy Nurses taken prisoner there. How long would it have taken to make a quick statement along the lines of, "Also among those taken prisoner were Army and Navy Nurses etc . . . " and show a photo? The series even focuses on a family being held at Santo Tomas camp, where the Nurses were held!
Concluding episode 2, there was 1 mention of a woman in the service, identified only as a "Nurse." There was some general talk about female war workers and they did have a "Rosie" which was great, but I found it a little frustrating that the series didn't really delve into what a big deal it was that women were joining the workforce at a time when a woman's role was really more "in the home." So far, the series is into late 1943 and there has yet to be any mention of the WAACs being formed, or any of the other women's branches of service. The series claims to be an overview of America in WWII, and how America's people reacted to the war — and personally I feel that the opportunity for women to serve in the military, at a time when women just "didn't do that," was a large part of that. The roles were redefined out of necessity. So, I'm surprised — and disappointed — by the lack of any mentions to this point.
Pamela Burkholder, Fort Worth, TX
As two women Naval Officers who served in the Vietnam era, we are furious by the total omission, during 15 hours of The War, of ANY reference to the many American women who served in uniform in the various branches of the military including the women who flew airplanes in the Women's Air Force Service Corps and the many nurses who served in combat theatres. School children seeing this so-called definitive account will never know there were any American women in uniform in that war. This appalling oversight greatly takes away from the credibility of this documentary.
Paula Tyler, Fayetteville, AR
I want to express concern for the following World War 2 documentary. I am appalled with the fact that Ken Burns and PBS are so proudly airing a documentary that leaves Latinos out of the story. So many Mexican-Americans have given their lives for the American cause. So, many died on the beach in Normandy and so many returned with little recognition. How dare you forget the Latinos who by the thousands sacrificed just as much as blacks and whites.
Fernando Galvez, Los Angeles, CA
I want to thank PBS for airing Ken Burns' film "The War." I just finished watching the first episode and in made me think hard about war and it also made me feel a lot of emotions. As a 38 year old, I haven't experienced anything close to what I saw in this film. But I know one thing, war is horrible. Mistakes are made from the President down to the private in the field. Lives are destroyed. It is one of the worst things mankind can be involved in. But there is something worse. That is the lesson I have taken from this film so far. In spite of the horrific realities of war, the alternative is sometimes much worse. Defeat and isolationism are simple not options to consider. Watching this film is an exercise that America needs. Thank you.
Will Schwab, Shawnee, OK