Compelling Companion to the Burns Documentary

By Falk, Stanley L. | Army, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Compelling Companion to the Burns Documentary


Falk, Stanley L., Army


Compelling Companion to the Burns Documentary The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. Alfred A. Knopf. 452 pages; photographs; maps; index; $50.

The War, the best-selling companion volume to the PBS television series of the same name, is dedicated appropriately to "all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf." But World War II was a great traumatic event that affected the lives and fortunes of just about every American. Thus The War focuses on four American towns, the people who lived there, their men who went off to fight and the impact of those searing years on all of them. Each of those towns, like most American cities, was changed by the war, and those of their sons who survived that conflict were permanently scarred by what they had seen and experienced.

The narrative by Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the script for the documentary, is a straightforward, powerful, at times dramatic account, with few pauses for analysis. A thoughtful introduction by Ken Burns, producer and director of the film series, sets the stage. The text itself is continuously enhanced by the oral or written testimony of military and civilian veterans; by full-page illustrated inserts about matters discussed more briefly in the narrative; and, most importantly, by hundreds of striking photographs, many of which few readers will have seen before.

These pages show the changes the war brought to American cities, the impact on the lives of families waiting fearfully at home for news of their loved ones and how the entire country was involved one way or the other in a great national effort. Many more show the grim, tragic costs of war: dead and dying men, the difficult beaches and fields where they gave their lives, cities destroyed by bombs or artillery, stacks of naked bodies beside crematoriums and the sad faces of refugees seeking shelter amid the carnage. As Ken Burns explains, the authors seek to tell "the bottom-up story of so-called ordinary soldiers."

"Generals make plans," notes Ward, "and young men die." So The War focuses on individuals, almost always enlisted men and junior officers, usually in admiring tones. Only a few senior officers are mentioned by name, and not always favorably.

The text and pictures do not cover the entire war, which in this context would have been a Herculean task. In addition to the book's emphasis on the home front, these pages are primarily concerned with the ground war fought by American Army and Marine forces. They include some descriptions of aerial combat but only limited references to the naval war and even less discussion of what America's allies were doing. There are other omissions: The fighting in New Guinea and Burma, for example, is scarcely mentioned. Minor errors and oversimplifications sometimes occur. Yet these limitations do not detract from the overall excellence of the volume. Indeed, of all the other historical projects on which Burns and Ward have previously collaborated-The Civil War, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and several others-this is surely one of the best.

About a thousand World War II veterans are dying each day, but Ward and Burns were able to interview nearly 50 surviving men and women and record their stories. They also consulted relevant web sites, memoirs and histories, and numerous photo archives.

The veterans' testimonies, which lend credibility and a sense of immediacy to the narrative, are frank, colorful and at times quite emotional. They relate what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., himself a wounded Civil War veteran, once described as "the incommunicable experience of war."

Holmes' words apply as much to the home front as to the conflict overseas. Of all the thousands of towns and cities affected by the war, Burns and Ward chose as typical examples four communities in different parts of the country: Sacramento, Calif.; Luverne, Minn. …

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