Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ken Burns' "War" Is Well Done, But...

From Paul Levine

Have you seen the first two episodes of Ken Burns’ “The War” on PBS? It's the start of a 14-hour documentary, a smart, polished, and informative take on World War II, as experienced by townsfolk and soldiers from four different American cities. It’s hard to criticize a project that is so nobly intended and so well executed.


Yes, there’s a but coming. First, however, this fine account of the more graphic sections of the mega-series from Glenn Garvin in The Miami Herald:

The dead are everywhere in The War: burned corpses, mangled corpses, frozen corpses, bloated corpses, corpses bobbing in the sea and corpses rotting in jungle clearings, corpses dangling from ropes and corpses piled in unruly stacks. American soldiers watched their friends be killed, and killed remorselessly in return. They did it until they were killed themselves (average life expectancy for junior officers during the Battle of the Bulge: 17 days) or went insane. The most harrowing moments in The War are film clips of the mumbling, twitching victims of combat fatigue, a military euphemism for nervous breakdown. ''I can't stand seeing dead people,'' pleaded one.

One of every four men evacuated from battle zones, The War reports, was a victim of combat fatigue. The surprise is not that there were so many but that there were so few. ''I live in a world of death,'' a fighter pilot wrote home to his fiancée. ``Like everything else around me, my dreams are dying, too.''

Okay, now the but...

If you’ve read your history – and there are hundreds of books on World War II – or if you've watched the History Channel, or even thumbed through a series of Time-Life pictorial renditions of the war, you’ve got a good sense of this story already. Most well-read Americans know about Bataan and the Battle of the Bulge, about Tarawa and Iwo Jima, about North Africa and Italy, about B-17's hitting Germany from England and B-29's hitting Japan from Tinian. They know about D-Day, if only through seeing “Saving Private Ryan.”

I wonder if the money and time and skill that went into this project might have been better spent on the Korean War, that nasty little conflict that cost more than 54,000 American lives. It’s long been called “the forgotten war.” Many of you know there’s a new book out, “The Coldest Winter,” by the late David Halberstam.

Just a guess, but I'll bet you a dozen Krispy Kremes that many more Americans can ably describe the events of June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy than they can the Battle of Inchon in September 1950.

What do you think?

The most inspiring news story of the week comes from the Wall Street Journal's Jeff Zaslow. His profile of Randy Pausch, a Carnegie-Mellon professor dying of pancreatic cancer, is a true profile in courage. Please check out "A Beloved Professor Delivers the Lecture of a Lifetime" for both the story and a video excerpt.


I haven’t read this book, but I love the title and the first paragraph:

"Some Like It Hot-Buttered"
By Jeffrey Cohen

The guy in row S, seat 18 was dead, all right. There was no mistaking it. For one thing, he hadn’t laughed once during the Blind Man scene in Young Frankenstein, which was indication enough that all brain function had ceased. For another, there was the whole staring-straight-ahead-and-not-breathing scenario, and the lack of a pulse, which was good enough to convince me.


Last Saturday, which happened to be Yom Kippur, The Miami Herald reported that Barry Kutun, 66, city attorney for North Miami, was sentenced to probation and house arrest for having sex with a 16-year-old prostitute. He claimed he thought the girl was 18 but nonetheless pleaded guilty and avoided jail time.

The judge's sentence is a legitimate subject of debate. Too lenient? Did a well-known lawyer get a break from the system? Fertile topics for informed discussion.

But the Internet fosters a different kind of "letter to the editor." On the Herald’s web site, we find these anonymous remarks:

“Another pervert Jewish lawyer gets off the hook."

Posted by: Correctional Officer

“They let him go because he's a joo and we have a jewdicial system."

Posted by: Billy

And this clever fellow:

“I am hearing too many jewxcuses and jewstifications for this schmuck's behavior.”

Posted by: Marty

Ah, the beauty of the 'Net. The ability to display your ignorance and hide your identity simultaneously.

(Click the envelope below to send this post to a friend).



  1. Yes, Paul, I've wondered why there hasn't been more interest about the Korean War, especially since its outcome, in some ways, has more direct present-day ramifications.

    And the death toll--horrendous.

    I think that there's a epic documentary out there waiting to be made.

  2. Paul,
    I agree with the Korean war documentary idea. I had a professor in college who was at the Yalu river.

    Most History Channel buffs are familiar with the Chinese intervention in the war across the freezing river but outside of that group it is fading from memory.


  3. I've been watching the Burns documentary and learning a few things either I didn't know or I'd forgotten. Having trouble sleeping at night, though. Here's a great non fiction book on the Bataan Death March for those who want more WWII. GHOST SOLDIERS by Hampton Sides.

  4. I'm watching the Burns' series too, Paul, and don't find it as remarkable as some of his other work. But I think that's because it's TOO familiar to me. I'm being reminded, rather than learning.

    For those teenagers he talked to, who said that we fought AGAINST Russia and on Germany's side, hopefully it's an eye opener.

  5. I was looking forward to Burns' documentary but found it lacking. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I would love to see such an endeavor on the Vietnam war. Yeah, we have Oliver Stone's movie and Jane Fonda footage, but I would love the story told through some of the soldiers and politians eyes. I had friends from West Point and friends from the ghetto who died in this horrendous war. When we will we ever learn?

  6. I've really been enjoying the Burns documentary, after a summer of immersing myself in WWII movies and reading, there's still so much more to be learned--though I would love to see him do projects about the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

    The Miami Herald letters to the editor are nauseating. Why why why why? What is WRONG with people? I just don't get it. Makes me crazy.

  7. Excellent post, thank you. I agree about WWII being overdone, at least for those with a few years on them. Korea would be an eye-opener for everyone who wasn't there as would Vietnam.

    As a Vietnam vet I know that there is not common knowledge of the history of the event in my experience; and enough time has passed so that both wars may be viewed with some historical perspective.

    Another subject deserving of interest and study is how veterans have been treated after all of our wars as an indication of how the damaged from Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated and will be treated. Those who get so much mileage out of "Support our troops" are short on substance where the rubber meets the road and their support really matters.

  8. I haven't been watching the movie. I'm waiting for the book.

    Tom, T.O.

  9. I've been TiVo-ing THE WAR, and haven't watched any of it yet. Don't know if I'll want to.

    I do agree, though: that is a heck of a title and first paragraph. And I greatly appreciate your mentioning it.