This past week I watched the Ken Burns documentary The War, his 15-hour story of World War II. In case you don’t know, Ken Burns is like the Steven Spielberg of documentaries, and what makes The War different from all the other WWII films is that he tells it not from the viewpoints of the leaders, but from the vantage of the everyday people who lived through it. He follows several people from the cities of Mobile, Alabama; Luvern, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Sacramento, California. He delves into racial issues, such as the internment camps for Japanese-Americans and the segregation of black troops.
I had never seen a Ken Burns film, though I had heard of him. I started with a smaller one, his documentary about the Lewis and Clark expedition. At four hours, it’s a good primer for how thorough Mr. Burns is in his research. His later films are much longer, though, so start with a shorter one first and see if you like that much detail. Baseball clocks in at over 18 hours, and I’m not sure how long The West is—and it’s one I’d love to see, but the library doesn’t have it. I do have The Civil War on hold, and it’s supposed to be excellent as well. If it’s like The War, I’m sure it will be worth watching.
What impressed me most about The War is how much it ended up moving me. Mr. Burns doesn’t inject his own opinion about war or even the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. He lets the participants speak for themselves. And it turns out most of them have no regrets about using the bomb. Americans today gripe about the five thousand-some (or however many it’s up to right now) that we’ve lost in our Mideast engagements, but there were single battles that exceeded that total in WWII. I have to wonder if people today would be so judgmental of the actions of WWII leaders if they had to live through five years of rationing and having practically every family with someone fighting overseas, wondering if they would come home. No Internet, so you can forget jumping on Skype and talking to your soldier. You’d just have to content yourself with weeks, maybe months without hearing a word from him, all while watching Army officers visiting relatives and delivering those horrible telegrams.
Like everyone else, I’d studied WWII in history class. I’d seen the numbers, read about the battles (usually in abridged form, I’m sure), and thought it was terrible what happened. I felt a little closer to it because my maternal grandfather was a WWII vet. He served in the Navy onboard the USS Colorado, and I can remember him telling me about having a kamikaze pilot hit their ship and what he saw. Of course, this was only after I’d gone in the Army. Vets tend to talk to one another about things they won’t even discuss with their spouses because they know that vets will understand, where civilians won’t. It’s not elitist, it’s just that to truly understand what it’s like in the military, you have to have been there. It’s experiential.
But even with Grandpa’s stories, it never really sunk in what it was like (of course, being around 20 years old when he told them to me might have had something to do with it, too). Neither did reading about it in school. But watching The War and seeing veterans getting choked up about events that happened sixty years ago brought it all home to me. So did all the combat footage Mr. Burns was able to dig up. Seeing soldiers fighting on D-Day and during the taking of the various Pacific islands from the Japanese. Hearing their stories of how hardened they became to seeing dead bodies in all kinds of conditions, of the Marines losing so many people so fast that they didn’t even have time to learn their names, of the 442 Battalion—the Japanese-American unit that became the most decorated unit in Army history—losing around 400 men to rescue some 200 white men in Europe—Belgium, I think, but I had so much information come at me that I can’t keep it all straight—and so many other stories that really brought home the sacrifice these people made.
One of the scariest stories was one of the infantrymen talking about taking some German prisoners and one turned to him and spoke to him in perfect English without an accent. The German asked this man where he was from, and was very insistent about it. When the man finally revealed that he was from Waterbury, the German nodded and said he knew it, that the town was near the confluence of two rivers, one of which was the Mad River. Only locals were familiar with the Mad River, and he asked the German how he knew that. The German replied that he’d been trained to be a territorial administrator. The vet said that he got chills down his back when he realized that meant Hitler had planned on conquering the US along with Europe.
It’s easy to sit back now and dismiss a lot of this stuff. It was more than sixty years ago, after all. What’s it got to do with us? Well, as the story I just related shows, it means we’re not speaking German and attending Nazi rallies. That we’re not watching Jews get put in ovens—though if Hitler had had his way and we were under German rule, there might not be any Jews left by now. And if you think we persecute homosexuals, be glad we’re not part of the Third Reich. A little name-calling pales beside being executed for sexual preference.
We’ve lost most of our WWII vets by now, but I’m glad I saw this documentary. It makes me feel a little bit closer to my Grandpa than I did before, and a little more aware of what he went through.
If you like history, or documentaries, or both, I highly recommend both The War and Lewis & Clark: The Journey of The Corps of Discovery. I can almost guarantee you’ll learn something about both these events that you never knew before.