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Ken Burns' The War

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A passing vignette in The War is Ken Burns' portrayal of how millions of Americans reacted to the news of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death. The President then provided a sense of unity and Americans viewed FDR and the office itself as an integral part of our national identity. I couldn't help but think what a different place America has become today. Somehow we made the descent from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Edward R. Murrow to George W. Bush, David Patraeus, and Katie Couric.


For me, Ken Burns' stunning documentary shows that all war is evil and must be ended for good, not glorified or exploited for partisan political advantage.


The grammar and structure of the film, with its superb pacing going back and forth from Western Europe to the Far East, and the astounding archival footage of combat Burns dug up over the course of six years makes The War a documentary that will stand the test of time. As the episodes progressed, I even came to value more the highly personalized accounts from people who were affected by the war in so many different ways, some of whom were from Sacramento, California where I have lived since 2002.


Viewing the footage of live combat in Europe I cannot stop thinking about the destruction of the 6th Century Benedictine monastery in Cassino, Italy. Even the Nazis did not disturb the ancient structure, which is not surprising since the Germans were allied with fascist Italy and were there to defend it. Seeing American airplanes bomb into rubble that precious, irreplaceable architectural marvel emphasized the terrible waste that always accompanies war. It reminded me of the more recent destruction of the antiquities throughout ancient Mesopotamia. The obliteration of all of those beautiful little towns in Italy, Belgium, France, Holland, Germany and elsewhere, with their cobble stone streets, boulevards of picturesque homes, and public squares, changed the face of Europe forever. It is more than a "tragedy" or a "shame," it looks to me like a crime.


In the Far East, Burns shows us footage of American and allied forces fighting ferocious battles against the tenacious Japanese trying to reclaim dozens of tiny islands. Many of those islands resembled the Garden of Eden, with corral reefs, white sandy beaches, vibrant green trees, wildlife, fish and birds, and were all transformed into hellish wastelands under the barrage of hot lead and sulfur and bombs of all shapes and sizes.


And I thought about the 60 million wasted lives in that war and all of the contributions those 60 million people might have made to our civilization. Who can ever know what accomplishments those 60 million people might have made in the arts, or the inventions they might have created, or the diseases they might have cured, or the great buildings they might have designed?


The over $2.5 trillion spent by the combatant nations on destroying each other (and ultimately themselves) could have gone to ending poverty in the world, or building clinics and hospitals, homes and schools, infrastructure, and so on. We could have built upon our miraculous civilization. Instead, we had "the War" with all of its sorrow, catastrophic destruction, and horror.


I hope Ken Burns makes a sequel about the aftermath of The War. For a moment it looked like a system of international relations was being set up that would de-legitimize war. Under United States auspices we had for a time a framework of international law. The United Nations Charter, the additions to the Geneva Conventions, the strengthening of the World Court, and the Nuremberg Trials, all set up a system that if followed might have eliminated war as means of intercourse among nations.


The U.N. Charter made it clear that it was illegal for any nation to conquer another one; or to use force, or even the threat of force; or to acquire resources or land through military force or occupation; or to kill or torture prisoners of war; or hold prisoner without due process, etc.


Yet even though we live in a time far less perilous than that recorded in Burns' documentary, we have witnessed our own government violate every tenet of the framework of international law that the World War Two generation bequeathed to us.


In the final episode of The War, one of the veterans suggests that we will always have war because humans are primitive animals. I respectfully reject this notion. All of the men in the documentary who had fought in the war hated war passionately. They hated the killing and were often physically sickened when confronted with the reality of killing. None of the veterans could put the horror of the war behind them, and all of them learned to kill only through intensive training, psychological preparation, and conditioning. Those men and women who either fought in the war or suffered as a result of the war only endured it because they had no choice. To say that we must accept the inevitability of war is not only wrongheaded but with today's technology it is extremely dangerous.