Thursday, December 27, 2007

I've been meaning to post this story I wrote for a while, but just didn't get around to it thanks to the holiday swirl. I saw Burns speak and he was great. He repeated part of what he referenced in this article: how this generation's "Pearl Harbor" did not elict a reponse for sacrifice and shared purpose. Instead, Burns said the America public was told to shop. And he's right. The government with the cooperation of the major press have done their best to keep this war, especially in its occupation phase, out of the view of the American public.

Now before you all tell me it's on the nightly news every night, ask yourself what kind of stories are usually run? They are stories of attacks and body count. I don't ever get the sense of what is actually going on there, except for that. There is much much more, but are we getting the chance to learn about it through the mediums the bulk of Americans use?

Anyway, if you've not seen "The War," get a copy and watch it. It's a great film.

For Ken Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, his approach to
the story of America’s involvement in the Second World War wasn’t to focus
on the presidents, prime ministers or generals, but instead to report it
through the lives or ordinary people.

And Burns is quick to add the men and women who experienced the war were
not “ordinary.”

Burns spoke to Reminder Publications last week. He will be appearing at
a signing and a discussion about “The War” at 2 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Borders
bookstore at the Holyoke Mall. Aside from the recent release of the
documentary on DVD, there is also a companion hardcover book by Geoffrey C.
Ward and Burns.

Burns said that in producing the film, the first thing one had to do was
shed any idea of a standard documentary format for the production. The goal
was to make “an authentic film.”

That task was daunting because Burns added World War II was “the biggest
event in human history.”

Burns wanted to approach the subject through four communities –
Luverne, Minn., Sacramento, Ca, Mobile, Ala. and Waterbury, Conn. – and
their citizens. To do so, once the communities were selected Burns and his
colleagues spoke to over 600 people – individuals who saw combat and those
waiting for their loved ones to return from combat.

From that group, about 40 on-camera interview subjects were selected.
They ranged from people who fought in the Pacific and European theaters to
Americans who were imprisoned behind enemy lines to young women who found
themselves working in jobs that supported the war effort.

Burns said it was a privilege to speak with these people as it allowed
him to see what it was like to experience the war.

Many other documentaries have discussed the leaders and the events of
the war and Burns thought this approach “keeps you away from what really
happens in war.”

The production took seven years to make and involved going through
thousand of hours of archival movie footage – some of it was truly horrific
Burns said – thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of interview, he

Burns wanted to put viewers into the shoes of Americans living during
the war by cutting from scenes about the clash to Europe to the home front
to the war in the Pacific rather than covering those events in separate
parts of the film.

“Americans were overwhelmed by news,” he said.

With uncensored war footage and frank interviews with veterans and
others, Burns hoped to strip away the romance that has surrounded “the good

“The good war was the worse war ever,” he added.

Burns noted, though, one can draw some of the most positive examples of
human behavior from the war.

“The good stuff is only made better when you lift up the carpet and
sweep out some of the dirt,” he said.

The ultimate result is a film that has made a deep impression on its
viewers. Burns said he has received thousands of calls and letters from
veterans who have told him that finally someone has portrayed what being in
the war was like. Burns has received gifts such as dirt from Omaha beach and
sand from Iwo Jima from viewers.

“It’s been an amazing, amazing outpouring,” he said.

With America is currently involved in a war that was started with an
event that has parallels with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Burns noted
Americans today haven’t been asked to make any sacrifices unlike their
countrymen of 60 years ago.

He said that at signings he always asks how many people know someone who
is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and he said only about two percent raise
their hands.

He said the lack of involvement of most American’s in today’s conflict
has resulted in a separate military class.

During World War II, Americans were in the fight together, he said.

“Today we’re all individual free agents,” he added.

He said we might be today ‘a richer nation, but we feel a poverty of

Review: “The War”
For anyone who harbors romantic notions about “The Good War,” Burns’
lengthy documentary will quickly remove any rose-colored glasses.

“The War’ is a story about how a nation of people who largely viewed
themselves as unaffected by events happening in both Europe and Asia reacted
when thrust into a conflict the likes the planet had never seen before.

And while Burns shows how Americans reacted in selfless and noble ways,
he balances the coverage by also showing that people were all too human.
Whether it is the racial tension that came with the industrial mobilization
or the shameful treatment of Japanese American citizens, this film does what
no other documentary on World War II has ever done: it relates the story of
the war in truly understandable terms.

Like “the Civil War,” the film for which Burns is best know, “The War”
uses a variety of firsthand sources and accounts. The difference with this
film is that we are able see and hear those witnesses in contemporary
interviews. This film is all the more powerful because we can relate to the
events through these people.

This film established a human link between those who experienced the war
and those who have only seen it as a historical event and I think it should
be required viewing for anyone wishing to understand the American

© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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