'The War': Young Soldiers Die, They Don't Just Fade Away

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007; Page M01

Toward the end of Ken Burns's seven-part, 15-hour extravaganza about World War II, the camera lingers for a full 40 seconds on the image of a dead U.S. Marine on Iwo Jima. Face up, arms splayed, teeth bared, he is as grotesque as a man forever young can be.

Forty seconds is a long time to look at a corpse, and that is precisely the point in "The War," which airs tonight and for the next six nights on PBS stations. The dead share top billing with the living, and often upstage them. By the end of the first episode, we have viewed hundreds of bodies; by the time the credits roll after Episode 7, we have seen many thousands.

Burns spent six years making "The War," an undertaking equal in duration to the war itself, and the venture has left him unsentimental about the greatest self-inflicted catastrophe in human history. He rejects the "Good War" balderdash and has said that World War II "was in reality the worst war." This sensibility helps sustain a compelling, flawed gem of a documentary, which enriches our emotional comprehension of an event second only to the Civil War in its enduring resonance in the national character.

If any occurrence in the 20th century deserves epic treatment, surely it is World War II. Fought on six continents for 2,174 days, it would claim an average of 27,000 lives on each of those days, 60 million in all. But to Burns it is the solitary Marine sprawled on a Pacific island that gives the tale its power: He recognizes the miracle of singularity in each death as in each life; how, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two are alike.

Watch for the images, not for the history. There is little substantive analysis, about the war or its many subplots. The story of Midway, among the signal battles of modern times, is dispatched in 2 minutes 13 seconds; available footage, or the lack thereof, presumably determines this summary treatment. Scholars will find occasional annoyances: The assertion that Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, the American commander at Anzio, was ordered to move inland from the beaches in January 1944 to cut German supply lines south of Rome is simply wrong. The truth is more nuanced, and far more intriguing.

Moreover, the largest figures of the war remain rather inconsequential, as though no one above the rank of captain had much to do with events. "Generals make plans, plans go wrong and young men die," the narrator, Keith David, informs us gravely. Just so, but plans also go right and young men still die. And it is the making of those plans that gives war its intellectual coherence, that lifts it above simply chaps biffing about.

These are more than quibbles. But "The War" achieves a cumulative power derived from those thousands of images -- many of them unseen by even the most devoted History Channel viewers -- and by those survivors chosen to bear witness. There is no on-camera presence comparable to Shelby Foote, the late novelist turned historian, whose avuncular irony played brilliantly in Burns's 1990 Civil War documentary. (In an apt admonition to every historian, Foote once warned, "A fact is not a truth until you love it.") Yet a half-dozen voices in "The War" conspire to form a chorus, individually eloquent and collectively compelling. Among the veterans to appear in several episodes is Samuel Hynes, a wry, incisive Marine fighter pilot who subsequently became a professor of literature at Princeton. His lyrical book "The Soldier's Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War" avers that "if we would understand humankind's most violent episodes, we must understand them humanly, in the lives of individuals."

Burns clearly subscribes to this approach in using the microcosms of four American towns to carry his story: Sacramento; Mobile, Ala.; Luverne, Minn.; and Waterbury, Conn. And so we meet Katherine Phillips, whose lilting Alabama drawl extrudes "war" into a three-syllable noun, and her brother Sid, who sees such abominations at Cape Gloucester that he vows to become a physician, and does. Or Ray Leopold, a veteran of the 28th Division, who muses, "Home is the ultimate value that humans venerate." And Quentin Aanenson, a fighter pilot from Minnesota, who says, "We all changed. We went out as a bunch of kids . . . and we came back, looked maybe the same, but inside we were so different."

Paul Fussell, once a 22-year-old infantry lieutenant in France's Vosges Mountains in 1945, is tart, incisive and emotional, as he has been throughout his distinguished postwar career as scholar and author. Close combat "gives you attitudes about life and death that are unobtainable anywhere else," Fussell observes. When first thrown into battle, "you have a reservoir of courage when you arrive, and each time you get badly frightened, a little of it diminishes until you don't have any left. And that is the worst moment." As if speaking to every GI in every hellhole on Earth, he adds, "You can't be careful, you can only be lucky."

Oral history, of course, carries peril as well as power. We hear a received version of events, rehearsed through decades of repetition, potentially fraught with self-aggrandizement and self-delusion. Words sometimes fail those asked to articulate their experiences. "It's hard to describe what it's really like," a veteran of the Italian campaign says. "To see somebody leaving this world is not a lot of fun." A Marine who fought on Saipan also concedes that "it's really hard for me to describe really how I felt," while a survivor of Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands advises, "War is not a pleasant activity. It's kind of like a bad dream." Dead tankers at the Battle of the Bulge, another adds, were "not a pretty sight."

That simply does not advance the ball. We may sympathize with an inadequacy everyone has felt, but surely history and documentary should have a higher purpose than inelegance. There can be a banality of goodness as well as of evil.

Perhaps "The War" is best viewed as one views an art exhibition, focusing on the pictures and not on the captions or the curator's exegesis. The narrative is just scaffolding for the images, many of which linger long after an episode ends: the vivid color footage of flamethrowers on Saipan; the photo of pedestrians strolling past a smoking body next to a burning city bus; the group portrait of butchered soldiers in the dead of winter, their frozen eyes open and lightly dusted with snow, like macabre Jack Frosts.

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