Ken Burns’ Necessary “War”

In the first episode of The War, Ken Burns’ incredible new miniseries premiering this Sunday on PBS, a veteran of World War II describes that conflict as “a necessary war.” History has proven that to be correct.

And history should also determine that Burns’ documentary is a very necessary and worthwhile endeavor, as it manages to put on film valuable recollections of that monumental moment in world, and particularly American, history. With many from that “greatest generation” now passing away each day, it is crucial to gain whatever information from them that we can.

As the introduction to each episode of The War reminds us, this immense conflagration was fought in so many places, that every single detail, and the exact number of participants and casualties, will never be known. As the result of a war in which nearly 100 countries were somehow involved, and which had major battles fought on three continents, from the frozen north down to the Saharan deserts and steaming tropical jungles, there are likely millions of fascinating, heartbreaking, heroic and horrific personal stories of that time that will never be heard because the participants took them to their graves.

That’s why it is necessary to get the stories that we can. We know the general textbook facts of D-Day, Guadalcanal, Monte Cassino and other events. We certainly have seen more than enough programs about Hitler and his Reich (if you want to see more footage of Der Führer ranting and slamming his fist, you’ll have to tune elsewhere; not much of that here. Unfortunately, fascination with evil helps deliver ratings; hopefully The War can show that tales of good and heroic people can also bring interest).

But what of the story of Glenn Frazier, who in a fit of despair over finding out the woman he loved did not return the feeling, joined the Marines and soon found himself a captive of the Japanese in the Philippines, struggling to survive the Bataan Death March and worse horrors (not realizing that the woman back home, whose shining face kept his will to go on alive, had actually changed her mind)? What about “Babe” Ciarlo, who wrote letters home from Italy that were purposely calm and vague about his activities, so as not to upset his family, particularly his mother — and whose sister unknowingly sent him a birthday letter nearly a month after he had actually perished in combat? What about the amazing, horrific and strangely poetic (and illegal) diary kept by Eugene Sledge about his stint in the Pacific? Or Willie Rushton, a black Marine who, after finally being allowed to fight honorably (and get wounded) at the battle on the island of Peleliu, was denied a haircut by an American barber upon return to his ship because of his skin color?

These are the types of stories primarily chronicled in The War, and what makes it so unique. In its seven episodes and 14 hours, it manages to awe us with the scope of the war, yet simultaneously telescope in on the human beings who were actually in it and not get caught up only in the military strategy and geopolitics of it all.

In particular, it focuses on American stories. Though over time America’s reputation has soured in the world, I think everyone can agree, and this series openly recognizes, that without the involvement of the United States, the Second World War would have had a drastically different outcome. The series uses four quintessential U.S. towns — Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; and Waterbury, Connecticut — from which to pull its real-life characters and their recollections. And what interesting characters they are!

Though danger and death overshadow everything during war, the stories aren’t always dark, and they aren’t all told by the veterans. The people back home stepped up as much as the soldiers did. World War II, and therefore this film, is also the story of how America, within a very short time, made the leap from an isolated nation to a world superpower. In the film, we see how this happened through the stories of people such as Emma Belle Petcher, a brilliant tool wielder who quickly rises to the rank of airplane inspector and demonstrates the increased role women played in the war effort. And there are stories of romance — usually ones that, by necessity, had to be put on the fast track; some tales joyous and lively (one woman explains how she sent a photograph of herself in a fairly revealing swimsuit for the time to her husband in Europe so he could have his own personal “pin-up girl” to look at while his buddies had to settle for the long-shot fantasies of Betty Grable and other such dreamgirls), while many stories are tragic ones, such as a father never getting to come home and see the child his wife had given birth to while he was overseas.

The stories of how the war was brought home to America sometimes take on a literal turn, as when Katherine Phillips of Mobile describes German U-boats actually being seen along the Southern coast of the United States, wreaking havoc during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, the story of America is also a story of race, and it often doesn’t have a happy ending. The World War II era wasn’t a shining example of race relations here, either. Blacks such as Rushton explain how, though having enlisted to serve their country, they were not allowed to fight at first, instead given service jobs. And the film features detailed stories from Japanese-American veterans such as Robert Kashiwagi, who fought overseas even as their families back here were kept in internment camps.

So, overall, The War is a very fascinating American story, set against a massive backdrop of world events. Burns even sets his amazing footage to the soundtrack of an array of American music, from blues to Big Band to jazz and some classical. It seems unusual to the ear at first, but it does work, this juxtaposition of gentler, sometimes even soft, music played against the monumental and often violent actions on screen.

These actions tell the story of a massive, and rapid, change in a society and culture, told from the intimate perspectives of those who lived it. And their stories have more breathless suspense, action and human emotion than any scripted drama you’ll see this season — you’ll be desperately wanting to see Glenn Frazier make it out alive and get together with that girl back home as much as you’ve ever wanted any fictional couple to finally have their fates intertwine.

If you want to simply learn about the major political and military personalities of World War II, there are probably other documentaries that may be better at giving you the details, dates, personality info, etc. But to truly experience just a little bit of what it may have been like to have lived through it, or in it, I don’t think you’ll do much better than to watch The War.

The War begins this Sunday with Part 1, “A Necessary War,” at 8pm ET.

The series continues September 24-26, with the remaining three episodes airing September 30-October 2.