The famous US film-maker Ken Burns , whose name is familiar to North American audiences thanks mostly to his ground-breaking 1990 film on the US Civil War, has perpetrated another epic documentary. Burns latest subject is more war, this time “The War”  (as the documentary is called, a depressingly ambiguous title for a European audience). But for Americans, “The War” is World War Two, a conflict that has produced a seemingly never-ending spate of nostalgic and sentimental homages to what is modestly coined (in US collective memory) as the “greatest generation.” Among the more recent grandiose offerings, we have had director Steven Spielberg’s film, “Saving Private Ryan,” US broadcaster Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation ” and a wildly popular television adaptation of historian Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers “. Burns’ film follows in the same vein, insofar as it is an unapologetically US-centred examination of World War Two (there is not a single non-US voice in the film). But the film avoids the theatrical triumphalism of these other efforts and achieves a degree of nuance and dignity by focusing on individuals remembering what they experienced. This parochialism might turn off a non-US audience (I was watching in Canada), but in its depiction of war as a remembered event, Burns is asking a subtle question about history that lifts the film above its narrow national focus: what is the value of memory to our understanding of history?
“Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost” wrote Walt Whitman , not counting on modern filmmakers to prove the sentiment wrong. Burns’ apparently decided to make a film about The War in 1999 when he discovered that upwards of a thousand US veterans were dying every day. That’s an impressively large number, and a sombre reminder not only of how many people actually fought in the conflict, but just how many lives were intimately affected by it. Indeed, the scope and impact of the conflict is hard for us to fathom, wherever we are. As one interviewee commented: “it was like our lives were suspended for the duration”. Burns is a historian of a peculiar sort – he describes himself as an archaeologist of emotion. As such, he asks: how does that happen? More importantly, how does thatfeel?
Emotion, not cold historical analysis, is the central theme in this 15-hour outpouring. But these are not the yellow-patina memories of old snapshots, or whitewashed celebrations of heroism. I can remember one of Burn’s interviewees, Paul Fussell , a noted historian, author and himself an infantryman in The War, commenting that when people die in war, they usually don’t die well: they die in a fusillade of agony, of mutilation and disfigurement. For Fussell, this is an important point: war is gruesome. Burns follows him lockstep; he wrenches from his subjects the horrifying carnage they witnessed. It is a mighty thing to see a kindly grandfather figure reminisce about shooting down a fellow twenty-year old, still agonising fifty years later over what he has done. War dehumanises; the philosophy of war strives to offer a simple choice to the young men and women who are called to prosecute it: them or us. But, we learn through the uneasy recollections of the now-elderly men who actually pulled the triggers and threw the grenades, not completely, nor forever and, for many, not at all. That’s an important point that most histories of conflict are not comfortable, or perhaps even capable of making.
Americans have memorialised The War as Their War. Despite the savagery unleashed by the conflict, The War is still seen in American eyes as a virtuous, even noble, enterprise. Even fifty years later, the enemy are still easy to loathe, and still comfortably fit the stereotypes which made that “us/them” trigger-impulse possible. The War earns its definitive article because, even with the passage of time, it is still imbued with an aura of epic righteousness. In American memory, liberation is pitted against Buchenwald, freedom against the Bataan Death March. Lest we fail to get the point, the film’s narration helpfully frames the question for us: anger, arrogance, bigotry, victimhood and the lust for power on one side; courage, perseverance, selflessness, faith, leadership and the hunger for freedom on the other. No points for guessing which side the Americans were on.
Clarity, particularly ideological clarity, makes an uneasy bedfellow with historical fact. But this is a different specie altogether: memory-fact. The War exists as a set of specific events and geopolitical forces. But it is also how a society remembers, or wants to remember, the conflict. It is how that conflict was (and still is being) shaped, and how it in turn shaped people’s lives. Some  critics  have noted the inevitable distortions (errors really) of a historical narrative that coalesce around individual memories. Pre-war America is recalled by many of the film’s subjects in idyllic terms: all sunny afternoons and cherry blossoms. Given the extraordinary deprivations of the Great Depression, this is factually absurd.
However, from a historical view that gives the curious entropy of memory its due, such recollections are a fascinating and deeply-moving testament to how cataclysmic The War must have been for a generation looking back, even for those far-removed from the theatre of war. The breadlines, unemployment, dust bowls and general misery of the 1930s were shaded by the events that follow into an American Pastoral. Accurate? Of course not, but no less true for it and, for a historian, well worth noting.
The War exists as a collective memorial in varied ways: urgently, as an epic struggle of Good against Evil, but parochially as sons sent off to fight leaving behind their families, narrowly, as small groups of men who fought more to save each other than for any greater purpose, and tragically, as lives cut short and friendships savagely ended. For the tens and tens of millions of people caught up in the immediate events, such a revelation is hardly surprising. But for those who were thousands of miles away, the fact that the War had a similarly monumental, intimate and profound impact is well-worth considering.
“The War” is not a rejoinder to the current imbroglio in Iraq and Afghanistan – its origins predate both. But it makes an implicit point about current events. Even if the triumphalism of the Allied victory in 1945 can be overstated, the larger contours of that struggle highlight the lack of focus and intent in America’s current missions. Clarity of purpose matters: its absence does not just undermine the present; it promises to despoil the memory of events for generations to come and will be an important part of how we write its history.