Ken Burns talks about the bloodiest conflict ever
By Bill Colrus
Perhaps no other single statement in Ken Burns’ latest film, The War, so perfectly encapsulates the World War II experience—or the experience of any war, for that matter—than that of infantryman Paul Fussell.
“The real war involves getting down there and killing people and being killed yourself—or just barely escaping. And it gives you attitudes about life and death that are unobtainable anywhere else.”
Priceless first-hand accounts like this from Fussell and others inspired Burns not to tell the story of the Second World War through the words of his usual parade of expert writers and historians. Instead, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker of The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz told the story of World War II through excerpts from letters, newspaper articles, memoirs, and accounts from soldiers hailing from—and those who fought to keep things together back home in—four “ordinary” American towns: Mobile, Alabama; Waterbury, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota—towns, Burns says, that were free of conception, had no set-up, and had no baggage.
“We feel so grateful that we met the people we did, and got to know them, and that they were willing to share their stories—some of them sharing stories they had not even told their families,” Burns says. “We tried to honor their experiences and put together as comprehensive a sense of what went on in that war as we could. It was a way for all of us to acknowledge and salute what they did.”
From Pearl Harbor to the Bataan Death March, from Omaha Beach to Okinawa, from a prison camp holding Allies in Manila to internment camps holding Japanese-American citizens in our own country, and from our discovery of Hitler’s Concentration Camps to our atomic bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The War offers an intensely brutal, intensely heroic, and intensely personal glimpse of U.S. involvement in the bloodiest war the planet has ever seen.
Narrated by Keith David and featuring guest voices from the likes of Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Eli Wallach, the seven-part (almost-16-hour) series premieres Sunday night on PBS. Burns spoke with The Pulse about why he felt he had to make The War, what World War II meant for our country, and the lessons it holds for us today.
At this point in your career, you could probably make a film about any subject you’d want to. Why World War II? Why now?
There was really a sense of urgency. Veterans of the Second World War are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day in America, and if I had tried to make this film 10 or 15 years ago, they weren’t talking. Of course, in five years they’ll (likely) all be gone, and the Second World War will become the province of historians. No longer will somebody be able to say, “I raised my rifle, adjusted the sight for the wind, and shot the guy,” as Daniel Inouye does in the film.
I’ve been very reluctant to do this. After the Civil War series came out 17 years ago, I vowed we wouldn’t do another film on war. It was just too hard. It was just too emotionally wrenching. We are emotional archeologists. We’re not interested in excavating the dry dates, facts, and events of the past, but (rather) something more durable, something more powerful. We certainly touched it in the Civil War series, and I just didn’t want to revisit it again. The public spent the years after the Civil War series saying, “You have to do the Second World War, you have to do this war, you have to do that war” over and over again, and I would say, “No.” But when I learned that these men were dying, I changed my mind. And I’m glad I did, because I think I’ve made the best film of my life.
Well, that was my next question: Where do you think The War stacks up against your other films?
Up until this film, if you’d asked me, like a parent of three daughters, I’d have said I love my films all the same. And I do. I have the great fortune to work in public television. I make no excuses. The films that I’ve finished and the films I wanted to make—no one’s come in and edited this, or made me do that, and so they’re free of that. But this one is the best. Everyone who sees it says so. I’ve been to West Point and showed it to 1,100 cadets in dress grays—an hour-long clip reel of very difficult stuff—and it got standing ovations and “hoo-rah’s.” Later on, in San Francisco at the Castro Theater, 1,400 civilians from a decidedly different political and, as you can imagine, human perspective saw it. I showed the same clip reel and got the same exact response.
Unlike many of your previous works, The War contains absolutely no interviews with historians or writers. Why were they left out of this project?
I just realized early on that we didn’t need to have Monday morning quarterbacking and the armchair generals, however good they were.
Here, we could have people who were actually in the war, and they could tell us what happened. I also felt like there were thousands of other documentaries focused on the celebrity generals and politicians, on strategy and weapons and armaments, and all things Nazi to the point where it metastasizes into kind of an admiration for them, and I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to have a bottom-up sense of what it was like for so-called “ordinary” people. I felt that unless we did it from the bottom up, we couldn’t do justice to it. Too often, things have an all-aerial view, that is to say, all context and no intimacy. But the things that, paradoxically, become intimate often have no context, and so I wanted to do both.
This is the only documentary that has a simultaneous view of the European and Pacific home fronts. They’re happening at the same time. We’re doing the whole thing. They’re bound together. And because we’re not interested in generals and strategy and armaments, we can actually experience—through the complex testimonies and the complex sound effects—what it was like to be in that war at that moment.
At the beginning of Episode Six, Ray Leopold from Waterbury, Connecticut talks about capturing a virtually accent-free German soldier who, through a casual conversation, tells Leopold that he had been trained in Hitler’s “Administration of the Territories”—in other words, to handle the eventual takeover of the United States. The German soldier knows the exact whereabouts of Waterbury, the name of a major river running through it, and the name of another tiny river that intersects it.
It’s a chilling account.
I wasn’t aware that Hitler’s vision for world domination was so widespread and so detailed as to include each and every tiny portion of our very own country.
Did any other accounts like that one really jump out at you while you were doing your research or conducting your interviews?
All the time. I put that one in because it was so spectacularly terrifying. They had someone ready to take over virtually every corner of the United States.
When I thought about how many people it would have taken for the Germans to know every minute detail about each and every part of the country, the hair stood up on the back on my neck.
The guy was accent-less, too. That’s the amazing thing.
As was maybe expected, much of the imagery in The War is extremely brutal and extremely graphic. How tough was it to look at as you were doing your research, and how did you draw the line concerning what was—and what wasn’t—appropriate for inclusion in the film?
That was the single most-discussed thing in the editing room. It was very difficult to uncover and look at this footage—from literally hundreds of archives, from Moscow to Tokyo to Berlin to London, and also from our glorious National Archives. (Much of the footage was) so deeply buried that it was outtakes of stuff that hasn’t been seen since it was first shot.
We are absolutely confident that, while the footage is quite brutal, it’s not too brutal. There was a middle-aged woman who watched the whole thing over three days with us and, in the end, said, “The bodies are horrible. Don’t take out a single one.”
That’s what the cadets at West Point said, and what the old veterans have told us. We just tried to calibrate it. We didn’t want to sensationalize the death, but we wanted to show it accurately. I left much, much, much worse stuff on the cutting-room floor.
It was really tough for us to handle it. Particularly with the Second World War, which has been so wrapped in mythology and bloodless gallantry. We keep forgetting that this was the bloodiest war ever.
The often-horrific nature of the combat in World War II was extremely sanitized by the press during the war and, to a great extent, in Hollywood films about the war in the years since. Do you think the relatively limited portrait most Americans have about the true horror of the war has influenced our nation’s overwhelmingly heroic and noble notions of it?
I think that the overwhelmingly heroic notion of it has set in more as time has passed, because when you see how the government and the press were willing to show the horrors of Tarawa—dead bodies floating in the surf—you realize that, in some ways, we’re suffering from much more censorship today. No one’s permitted to film a casket coming back now, where, as you saw in the film, ships were disgorging vast quantities of caskets in the Second World War.
I think the passage of time, combined with the unambiguous nature of our involvement—they weren’t battles that caused great divisions like Vietnam or the current Gulf War—have unintentionally conspired to sanitize the Second World War into a very dangerous position. Alongside that, Hollywood history—until recent years with Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Letters from Iwo Jima—has not been faithful to the gore or the brutality.
I felt compelled to do this film because we’re losing these guys at the rate of 1,000 a day. And yet, I felt like nothing had really done justice to it in the documentary realm in terms of the reality of what it was like to be in that war.
How do you think 350,000 dead American soldiers would play in today’s political climate?
It’s terrible. But, of course, the other great thing that came out of the Second World War, the great secret is that, in shared sacrifice, we made ourselves richer—and I don’t mean in just some sentimental way that we made ourselves richer spiritually or communally. We made ourselves richer, paradoxically, by giving things up—financially and materially richer—and that’s something that we don’t understand today. Americans would have been prepared right after 9/11 to do anything. We would have learned how to sacrifice. We would have learned how to toughen up. And what were we asked to do? We were asked to go shopping. The flab continued to grow over the gut, and the ability to give up things and discipline ourselves (faded).
It’s been six years since 9/11, and we could be completely free of any dependency on foreign oil. We could have rebuilt, with what we’d have saved, our entire infrastructure, which would have made a disaster like Katrina—which we’re coming up on two years (since that happened)—or the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, or all the other hundreds of embarrassing things for the richest country on Earth, (easier to deal with). But we’re unwilling to do things together. Everybody’s an independent free agent. We drive in our car alone. We surf the Net alone. We listen to the radio alone. We watch TV alone. Nobody wants to give up anything.
Today, there seems to be more of an emphasis and concern placed on the number of civilian deaths in Iraq than was placed on civilian deaths during World War II. Why do you think that is?
We didn’t find out until later the millions of German and Japanese that were killed in our bombings. It’s a function of the fact that the cost of these wars is so ambiguous. We’re not together on it now like we were in the Second World War. We held different political views then—as radically different as we do now—but everybody was together on (the war). Now, when you’ve got a huge part of the population that believes that (the war in Iraq) is an unnecessary war, you increase your sensitivities to the unnecessary costs of war. And what are those unnecessary costs? Not only our own fallen soldiers—who we, clearly, report on with great pain—and those who are injured and maimed, but also the care that they receive or don’t receive back home. We also ask questions about civilian deaths. We also have a different kind of media culture today.
What kinds of parallels do you think exist between what our country experienced during that war and what we’re going through now during our current conflict?
In some ways, nothing. In the Second World War, everyone was engaged in that event and they were giving things up. We’re not doing that here. Everybody was subject to a draft. We don’t have one right now. We have a volunteer military. It’s totally different. There are huge numbers of days that go by when the vast majority of our population doesn’t even think of Iraq, and, I’m sorry to say, that during the Second World War, everybody read the paper every day and knew exactly what was going on. They knew the geography around the world. Today, I bet you that if you had a blank map of the world, 50 percent of Americans couldn’t find Iraq on it.
During World War II, our military had very defined enemies, targets, and objectives. Things are not quite the same in Iraq. Do you think the complexity of modern war makes it harder to support in the same way as past wars?
No, and I would disagree that modern war is all that complex. We talk about asymmetrical warfare, and what could be more asymmetrical than a Kamikaze plane heading for your ship? Multiply that by 100. Then, multiply that by a few. So, if you have hundreds of kamikazes, that’s pretty asymmetrical. And when we talk about complexity, this was a world war that engaged 85 million people in uniform. We’ve got 140,000 or 150,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. There’s a lot that you can do with will.
We have a separate military class that suffers its losses apart and alone from the rest of us. Most of our people are disengaged. When I speak almost every day around the country, and I ask how many people know someone in Iraq, if it’s two percent of my audience, I’m flabbergasted. That’s what we have. This is the circumstance. War is the same everywhere, and it just takes a kind of understanding of what the cost is of the war, which we’re unwilling to do now. We want, basically, everybody to go shopping and not worry their pretty little heads about it.
There are similarities. You can import a veteran of the Second World War, with someone from Iraq, and someone from the Peloponnesian War, and they would tell you it’s all the same. It all comes down to these several declarative sentences: I was scared. I was bored. I was cold. I was hot. My officers didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t give me the right equipment. I saw bad things. I did bad things. I lost good friends.
It’s true of every single war.
In the film, Katharine Phillips, of Mobile, Alabama, talks about FDR being the “powerful, driving force” of the war, and says the entire country was behind him. Do you think it’s possible for our country to be as unified behind a president ever again? What would it take?
I believe we could be, and I believe we were behind this president 100 percent in those first few days (after 9/11), but the opportunity was squandered on what I believe was an unnecessary war which bled our treasury and our children. I think we could unite against a similar threat the same way we did under Roosevelt. The speeches that Roosevelt gave at D-day and that President Bush gave are not that different. It’s the quality of leadership.
How do you think this film will affect people’s impressions of World War II?
This is not homework, and this is not anything that we wanted to use to tell people how to feel. We merely wanted to bear witness to the testimony of these 40-odd people that you get to know in the film, knowing full well that their stories were representative and symbolic. We wanted to listen and tell a complicated narrative. People will have a whole range of feelings about the film, but I think, at the end, we want people to understand what the real cost of war is. There’s a calculus involved here, and, today, we’re kind of anesthetized to what the cost of war is really about. That’s what we hope our film does.