â€śThe war,â€ť wrote Walt Whitman in 1867, referring to the recent American blood bath, â€świll never get in the books.â€ť Whatever else he may have had in mind, the writer of â€śDrum Taps,â€ť who also served as a male nurse baptized in the bloody Washington, D.C. hospitals during the conflict, meant that, in those days before American wars were fought in foreign lands, without the slightest sacrifice demanded from most Americans, except maybe a few cheap tears for the families of the fallen, war could be counted on to generate such implacable feelings that no one who had truly experienced it could be objective enough to write about war as it really is.
Whitman must also have meant that even if a writer or other artist could describe the real horrors of war, as heâ€™d seen it, heâ€™d not be allowed to present it to the naive American public. That, of course, is why the powers-that-be were so worked up when the photo of the coffins of the American dead, shipped back from Baghdad in the early months of the current war, somehow slipped through their hands, out of their control.
Iâ€™m old enough to remember seeing John Wayneâ€™s movie â€śThe Sands of Iwo Jimaâ€ť (1949), one summer afternoon with my cousin Sam Crawford, in Portsmouth, Ohio. Iâ€™ve probably got that film mixed up with other war movies of the same era, but what I remember best are the almost generic scenes where the handful of clear-eyed, fair-minded American soldiers, at terrible cost, are beating back the rat-like hordes of slant-eyed, devious Japanese warriors who have planned some sneaky, inhuman attack on blind behalf of their divine Emperor.
Maybe it was in the same movie, the compulsory scene where the camera shows full-face a determined and faintly smiling Japanese dive-bomber pilot zeroing in on an Allied flat-top. Suddenly, the pilot, the smile wiped off his face, throws his leather glove-encased hands to his goggled eyes. A three-second pause ensues. Then, blood begins to flow slowly from behind the shattered goggles, and the Japanese plane, happily aflame, plummets from the sky trailing a heavy plume of black smoke.
When I first saw this movie, some five years after World War II, that bloody scene caused the largely juvenile audience to jump up from their chairs and cheer and holler, as at a Friday night football game. What are we to make of this? For one thing, I guess, that some people, the slant-eyed Japanese for instance, are more easily vilified than others who look like us, the Germans to use an example. For another, that blind hatred can be a long-lived legacy. A Cottey colleague, somewhat older than I, once told me that even after the war had been over for more than half a century, and, at age 5, heâ€™d been by far too young to have fought in it, heâ€™d nonetheless been old enough to absorb the tones of voice of the adults surrounding him, and, consequently, he still intensely disliked and distrusted the Japanese, no matter how many were bright young students in his history classes.
â€śThe war will never get in the books.â€ť Civilians canâ€™t stomach unvarnished or un-prettified pictures of real war. In addition, every artist has his/her own â€śtakeâ€ť on an event, and will convey that bias/leaning/prejudice through the smallest detail or the most apparently innocuous word or brush stroke.
When I was a teenager, I used to be fascinated by the weekly NBC --TV installments of â€śVictory at Sea,â€ť a filmic (is there such a word?) history of the U.S. Navyâ€™s struggles against the German enemy in the War. At this skeptical stage of my life, I suspect the directors cut the grisliest parts of their documentary to spare my tender sensibilities, but I was entranced by Richard Rodgersâ€™s magnificent score, and by scenes featuring the stunning fighter planes, like the Corsair, Thunderbolt, Mustang, and Hellcat.
Had they been German or Japanese, I still wouldâ€™ve loved them. Their prop-driven bodies were so sleek, so maneuverable, so colorful -- so â€ścool.â€ť Their enginesâ€™ purring was pure song to my ears.
And just because the black-and-white film depicted real events, I knew, even then, that that didnâ€™t mean the film editors hadnâ€™t monkeyed with their selection of scenes to promote the desired emotional response from their American audience. Even the documentary filmmaker often has an axe to grind, an agenda to promote, a product to push. The filmâ€™s narrative was dry and understated, but it was spoken by Alexander Skourbie, the baritone voice of God. I couldnâ€™t imagine a nobler war story.
Until Ken Burnsâ€™s â€śThe War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945,â€ť came along, that is. Burns, a gloriously gifted and un-Hollywoodized (he lives in Walpole, N. H.) documentary filmmaker, has been on the scene for quite a while, even though his hair style makes him look like a 10-year-old. He started out with the story of the making of the Brooklyn Bridge; then went on to eventually tell the 9-part (one for each inning) story of major-league baseball. Whether he drew it from his research or imposed it on his telling of the story, the moral core of Burnsâ€™s epic is the racial integration of the game, when Branch Rickey of the old Brooklyn Dodgers hired Jackie Robinson in the spring of 1947. Burns makes that one heroic action the be-all and end-all of the American pastime. And the viewer can believe it or not, as he/she wishes.
Burns experiments brilliantly with the format of most documentaries. Instead of focusing primarily on the movers and shakers of the cataclysmic events he chronicles, the Eisenhowers and Rommels of the War, for example, he dwells movingly on the â€śaverageâ€ť soldier, pilot, sailor, the men who actually fought the war, put their fragile human bodies on the line; and the civilians, the movie theater owner, the high school biology teacher, the nurse, all those who formed the soldiersâ€™ emotional matrices, half a century after the event. And he lets these Americans speak for themselves, and in doing so eloquently demonstrates one of the main tenets of his over-all artistic philosophy; namely, that, in a democracy such as Americaâ€™s, there is no such being as an â€śaverageâ€ť man or woman. By the same token, Burns chooses four â€śaverageâ€ť American towns to examine during the War years: Luverne, Minn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Mobile, Ala. Mostly through black-and-white snapshots of these â€śaverageâ€ť small towns, Burns shows how an implacable History has had its way with all four, depriving each, in the time it took to win the War, of its Norman Rockwellean innocence.
The thesis of â€śVictory at Seaâ€ť is an implied one: namely, that although it may be slow to anger and action, there is no more powerful fighting machine than an aroused democracy. Ken Burns, too, has a few theses in his most recent masterwork, the most nearly dominant of which seem to be: one, that no war has a winner; no war is â€śgood.â€ť All wars turn all combatants bestial, â€ślosersâ€ť and â€świnnersâ€ť alike. Yet, two, ironically, war brings out, as does no other human catastrophe, the heroic, the brave, the selfless.
There have come to be, in the more than half century since the War, certain dramatic black-and-white photographs that now seem to appear in nearly all accounts of World War II, from wide-angle photos of mustachioed Adolph Hitler ranting before endless, awe-inspiring formations of his Nazi troops; to photos of the half-naked dead bodies of those Europeans who, in life, tried to stand in the way of Hitlerâ€™s lightning-like and ruthless advance across their countrysides; from film clips of maimed B-29â€™s returning from their missions to their carriers and slamming into the flight towers; from the magnificent photo of the Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Iwo Jimaâ€™s Mount Surabachi, to the prize-winning and ubiquitous picture of the homecoming U.S. sailor kissing a backward-leaning young girl holding her hat to her head, against a backdrop of Times Square; to the first mushroom cloud. I think I know them all. Theyâ€™ve become all too familiar, visual cliches. But Ken Burns has chosen fresh photographs, from old, private collections as well as from public archives, unseen before by his public, to help him tell the whole story again from scratch, accompanied by the zip a stunning, heretofore-unseen photo delivers.
More important, Geoffrey C. Ward, winner of five Emmyâ€™s, the writer of Burnsâ€™s series â€śBaseball,â€ť has written the narrative of â€śThe War.â€ť Unlike the stentorian voice of Alexander Skourbie, narrator of â€śVictory at Sea,â€ť which made the most mundane event of the early 1940â€™s sound like the clanging climax of the Trojan War, and tends to stampede the viewer into feeling a pre-determined emotion, the narratorâ€™s voice of the PBS series â€śThe Warâ€ť is soft and almost deadpan, an authorial tactic which leaves the viewer/reader in charge of assigning the scene or words any emotion he/she wants. â€śThe War will never get in the books.â€ť Well, maybe Walt Whitmanâ€™s prediction will prove to be correct. But, then, again, maybe he just didnâ€™t live long enough to meet Ken Burns. Thatâ€™s my guess.