Over Here, Now

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks about The War with Thomas Childers.

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ new seven-episode, 14-hour film, The War, premiers on PBS on September 23. The American Interest asked Thomas Childers, Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and an internationally renowned expert on World War II and the Third Reich, to sit down with Burns to discuss his new project.

AI: Let me start by confessing some curiosity. When I first saw the advertisements for The War, I thought back to the 1990s, when there was an eruption of work on World War II and you had just completed your very successful film on the Civil War. But you didn’t join in—

Ken Burns: I see where you’re going, and you’re right. After The Civil War was broadcast in 1990, I steadfastly insisted that we wouldn’t do anything more on war. I didn’t want to be typecast or seen as exploiting the success of the Civil War series. But more than that, I just didn’t want to descend again into the gut-wrenching, emotional madness of war. We’re not just excavators of the dry shards, the dates and facts and events of the past; we’re emotional archeologists. And the work really got to us. It got under our skin and I didn’t want to go there again.

What’s more, I had a great excuse to avoid World War II, because our culture is still immersed in it, from fiction books to non-fiction books, to god-awful horrible Hollywood films to wonderful Hollywood films, to terrific miniseries to documentaries, small and large.

But after a decade I changed my mind. A thousand World War II veterans are dying every day, and as someone basically in the memory business, that’s too big a loss to tolerate. Besides, we need these memories. As you well know, our kids these days think we fought with the Germans against the Russians, so I got lured back in.

Still, this is a film that couldn’t have been made ten years ago. People weren’t ready then to talk in the way they talk in our film. And it couldn’t be made five years from now, because most of them will be dead.

AI: You have chosen to rely solely on interviews with “ordinary people” who experienced the war. No treatment of the major political or military figures of the period—Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Churchill, Eisenhower. Why?

Ken Burns: It’s important, critical really, because The War is entirely a bottom-up story. I’ve paid lip service to bottom-up stories before, and I did a little of that in the Civil War film. But this film is bottom-up by design because the problem with a lot of World War II stuff is that it’s so distracted, too much mediated by an obsession with celebrity generals and politicians, strategy and tactics, weapons and armory, and the demonization of the enemy—all things Nazi, Hitler and the swastika. None of this answers the question of why World War II had become the “good war.” We therefore wanted to find unmediated commentary to bear witness to what it was like to be in that war, whether in combat “over there” or fighting in a real way on the home front. We were prepared for arbitrariness, impressionistic kinds of things—William Blake trying to capture the universe in a grain of sand—but at the same time hoping to find some kind of universal consistency in the end.

AI: So how exactly did you go about implementing the bottom-up design of The War?

Ken Burns: We used an almost “dart on a map” approach to pick four geographically distributed American towns. We went into those towns for five years, learned everything we could about them, advertised our presence, talked to more than 600 people, and ended up shooting just a handful more than forty people who make it into the film. There are another ten people we treat as characters who have survived into the present, and we’ve used actors such as Eugene Sledge and Al MacIntosh to read their voices.

Then we tried, in almost Russian-novel fashion, to match up battlefield and home front in both the European and Asian theaters of war. So we’ve told a chronological story in which, for example, you as a viewer land at Normandy; then you’re taken back home for a reaction to the event. And then you jump to Saipan, then back to the hedgerows, and then came the same juxtapositions for the battle of the Philippine Sea. And so on through what we refer to as short chapters stretched throughout the 14 hours of the seven episodes. The aim is to give the viewer a sense of it happening over there, but also, because you’re anchored at home, you really care about that guy who’s landing at Omaha. You know where he lives—and I mean literally the address of where he lives. You know what his mama looks like, and you know he’s got a dog. You hear his sister’s anxiety after seeing footage of Tarawa, perhaps when he was there.

The point was to provide a real three-dimensional context. That’s the only way we could get over the hump of the biggest obstacle to doing a World War II film, which is that “everybody’s doing it.” Well, no one’s done it this way.

AI: I teach about World War II, mostly to undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, and that presents a narrative nightmare because, as you say, you’ve got the two major theaters, but of course the complexities go way beyond that. But why just American towns? Was that because of the need for immediacy and assured connectedness to an American audience? Does that compromise the search for universality?

Ken Burns: No, I don’t think so. Waterbury, Connecticut might not be the first Northeastern town you’d think of, nor would Mobile, Alabama be your first thought for a Southern one, nor Sacramento for a Western one. And there’s not a one-in-a-million chance you’d ever even think of Luverne, Minnesota for a model Midwestern town, assuming you’d ever heard of it in the first place. We started with an absence of preconceptions, and we try to get the audience to do so, too, on the way to creating a kind of visual poem. Just as there are only four towns in the film, so the majority of battles aren’t covered. It’s been the same in my films on the Civil War, on baseball and on jazz. It’s neither possible nor wise to try to produce a film version of a textbook or an encyclopedia or the Manhattan phonebook. What we look to do is create a kind of epic, Homeric poem in which, by focusing on a few dozen people, most of whom play secondary or even tertiary roles, you can still define an entire experience.

Guadalcanal, February 1943 (AP Images courtesy PBS)

And it’s not just an American experience because the towns are American. I just got back from the Cannes Film festival. I thought I’d made a film that only Americans would like. But for the first time in the history of the Cannes film festival they showed a film 14 and a half hours long—and they liked it. We said, these four towns could be any four towns in America, and they answered that they could be any four towns anywhere.

AI: That’s interesting, because one of the things that struck me was that the film is simply called The War—not World War II. It’s very Americentric; it’s an American story. Why not call it The American War or Americans at War?

Ken Burns: This is our perspective, yes. That’s the parochial, provincial—you choose the word—feel I’ve chosen to mine for the past thirty years. We call it “The War” because that’s what people who lived through it call it. If you get to any height above our ghastly 20th century and say “The War”, everyone knows what you mean.

I also think there’s something universal about the experience of war, and something generic about the experience of combat. If you strip away all the specific generals, the strategies, the tactics, the weapons, the bad Nazis and the rest of the particulars, you can still get—and you need to get—a sense of the raw human experience. If I never read a good review of this film I won’t care, because I’ve had a veteran come to me and say: “I’ve waited all my life for someone to show it the way it was.”

Even better: The other night in my little town—in the town hall in Walpole, New Hampshire—I showed an hour and twenty minutes worth of clips from the film at a benefit for the town’s VFW Post, historical society and the high school scholarship fund. The last clip was of the Battle of the Bulge, and a man stood up and said, “I was in the Battle of the Bulge.” And I’m thinking to myself, “uh oh.” But he said, “I just had tears in my eyes, and I wanted to thank you.” And this was a New Englander! New England men do not cry in public. This is what we’re getting from the people who, to me, matter most.

AI: How are you providing the larger context for the human experience of war? One of the great successes of The Civil War was that you had Shelby Foote and various historians provide context. But you do not take a similar approach in The War.

Ken Burns: Well, that’s right, but we do have a couple of secret weapons for the sake of context: Sam Hynes and Paul Fussell are here, for example, but not as scholars per se giving overviews. We’ve asked them what it was like to be a 19-year-old flying a torpedo bomber, to be a 19-year-old first lieutenant on the line who didn’t brush his teeth, change his clothes or take a shower for six months, and whose life expectancy was 14 days. That’s all we wanted.

But we do periodically lift up as filmmakers and give a broader overview. So once you put somebody whose address you know, whose cocker spaniel you’ve seen back home, in Peleliu or Tarawa…once you do that, you see a map, get the larger strategic picture, and then come back down to the individual. I’ve just turned the focus around. We’re used to seeing individual soldiers interviewed for the sake of drawing up the big picture; what we’ve done is use the big picture judiciously to illuminate the small, individual picture of human beings at war. That’s the point: I want people to look around so that, maybe next Thanksgiving after dinner, before old Uncle Charlie falls asleep in front of the TV, someone who has seen The War will want to sit down and ask him, “Hey, what did you do in the war?”

AI: What about the people who are going off to war now?

Ken Burns: It links up, because there is a universality to the story we’re telling. You could bring in a soldier who’s fought in Iraq, and he’d say, “Yeah, the officers didn’t know what they were doing; they didn’t give us the right equipment; the food was terrible.” And if you could bring in a soldier from the Peloponnesian Wars, he’d say the same thing.

It’s important, I think, to remind people of the links with the past, and of our connectedness now, because we’re loosing the feel. Maybe it was the surreal character of the first Gulf War, or maybe it’s the insane, celebrity-drenched media culture in which we think we can fight a war and eat our cake while someone else does the suffering out of sight. World War II reminds us of what’s real, and maybe of what we’ve lost. In shared sacrifice, we became richer—not just spiritually, not just cohesively as a country, but also economically. Today, we’re so much richer as a society than we were then, but we feel a poverty of spirit. Nothing connects us: Every car has one person in it; every TV has one person watching it; people are home alone on the Internet.

I think World War II, and the Great Depression just before it, gave America a revived, 20th-century sense of why we agree to cohere as a country. What I’ve been doing for 35 years as a filmmaker is to illustrate and echo that sense. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who died just a few months ago, once made a great statement about contemporary America: “Too much pluribus, not enough unum.” All of my films have been about the unum by celebrating specific groups and people whose stories haven’t been told.

AI: In The War there’s a Marine vet from Alabama who talks about fighting the Japanese. You get a picture of the Japanese as murderous fanatics—the Banzai charges, the kamikazes, the civilians leaping off the cliffs at Saipan, in essence the dominant vision most Americans had of the Japanese from 1941 to 1945. How do you get beyond wartime stereotypes still pulsating in some vets sixty years later?

Ken Burns: We show many sides. That Marine doesn’t get the whole limelight. Sacramento provides us with three Japanese-American men who go off to fight with the 442nd while their families are in internment camps. We have a Hawaiian Japanese-American who offers some startling American contrast, as well. And of course we have Sam Hynes thinking out loud about what Americans might be capable of doing in comparable situations, and it doesn’t require a lot of imagination for Abu Ghraib and Haditha to pop into one’s mind, after all. We didn’t choose or set up that juxtaposition, and we have no contemporary political axes to grind in this film, but we know that free associations—free electrons colliding with other free electrons in each breast—will cause different things. In some cases we may think we see a gradual, growing humanity among all human beings. In other cases we may think we see the reverse.

Normandy, June 6, 1944 (National Archives courtesy PBS)

AI: Well, I know you were impressed with E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed [Presidio Press, 1981].

Ken Burns: I still haven’t found a better memoir than With the Old Breed.

AI: What is so gripping about that book, so chilling really, is that you watch the descent of a civilized man—a kid, really, a sensitive boy—as he watches these incredible cruelties perpetrated by the Japanese, on the one hand, but also by his own men on the other.

Ken Burns: The Peleliu scene really is the nadir of our film. And you’ll remember, of course, if you know E.B. Sledge well, the prying of the gold teeth out of the not-yet-dead Japanese soldier is the centerpiece here, the lowest point, where the separation between our “good guys” and their “bad guys” becomes so blurred that you begin to understand the film as a tone poem about human beings at war. If we take just one step away from that horrific scene at Peleliu, the “good guys” and “bad guys” or “allies” and “axis” labels become meaningful. But if we take one step the other way, barbarism swallows us. And that’s what we’re trying to say: War is the lie of civilization.

AI: Peleliu aside, two other scenes really grabbed me. One was of the Marine who talked about watching the Japanese swim out into the ocean and shooting at them.

Ken Burns: The same man who talked about the women jumping off the cliff, or the glee with which he shot a Japanese who dared…

AI: He shot him in the face, yes.

Ken Burns: This guy leaves you with a deeply uncomfortable feeling. His name is Ray Pittman, and he’s from Mobile. Your whole feeling of him changes after Iwo Jima, however. Even a “good war” does bad things to individuals caught up within it. Everyone knows that, but we’ve tried to show it. We show a whole range of response as young men, children really, were turned into professional killers and then asked not to be killers again. It’s no surprise that many veterans won’t talk about it even today. And that’s okay. Some let off a kind of nervous laughter that might suggest a secret attraction to cruelty and killing. But that’s not it. When Ray Pittman gets to his story of Iwo Jima and talks about the life he’s had to endure since then, you begin to see that the nervous laughter about that Japanese, about those women, even about the pot shots he took, isn’t any secret attraction at all. It’s a kind of lingering awe or fear, even after all these years, before the power of war to split a human soul to encourage killing and ferocity toward some humans, tenderness and camaraderie toward others. This is a genuinely unsettling realization to have, and only combat veterans really earn it.

Geich, Germany, December 1944 (National Archives courtesy PBS)

AI: The other scene that struck me in a similar vein, but very unexpectedly, was the scene from the Battle of the Bulge and the story told by Burnett Miller about Americans rounding up and shooting German POWs.

Ken Burns: It is gripping, but context is critical: The Normandy massacre is still fresh in the minds of the men. And before this, back in the first episode, there’s a guy named Sid Philllips who is 17 years old and turning 18 during the battle of Guadalcanal. Sid hears of some Marines who’ve been ambushed, had their heads cut off and their genitals stuffed in their mouths. He says, “Our battalion never took a prisoner that I know of after that.” When the Bulge scene about the German POWs comes up in episode six, the viewer is ready—not ready to forgive or condemn, just ready to understand now the very opening line of the film: “World War II brought out the best and the worst in a generation.”

The war also blurred the best and the worst so that they became almost indistinguishable at the time. Since then, of course, we have mostly smothered the bad, giving rise to a popular myth of World War II as a mostly bloodless, gallant and heroic episode in our history. This does a huge disservice to what actually took place, and we have tried to recreate the original blurring, redeliver the original circa-1944/45 soldier’s truth that this is and was a turd, not a candy bar. That what the Bulge scenes are largely about.

AI: The same scene also captures the humanity, the absurdity and the cruelty of war by showing these German soldiers, these prisoners, not in steel helmets with the SS insignia and so on, as just after the Normandy massacre, but as just boys.

Ken Burns: Yes, they’re children, but this is really another angle on the horror of it all. This was an integral part of Hitler’s enormous scandal: getting everybody, even boys and old men to fight for the Thousand Year Reich. There are pictures in other scenes of sixty-year old soldiers trying to look tough, but looking more like kindly Gepetto. This is part of the undertow. No one can say this film isn’t clear-eyed about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, but it’s also utterly clear-eyed about what war does.

AI: Certainly, one of the horrors of war is that pre-war notions of morality are among the first casualties.

Ken Burns: There is something in the human breast that is still excited about war. Remember in the Civil War film how civilians all rushed out with their picnic baskets to watch the First Battle of Manassas, only to flee, horrified, at the blood and the suffering they saw. I’m basically for anything that checks the innate human enthusiasm for violence, anything that questions the view that says “yes, war is a good solution to this problem.”

Now, I’m not so naive as to think that there are no necessary wars. I’ve made films about two that needed to be fought: the Civil War and World War II. But you’ve got to be damn sure you understand the cost, and that a civilized people is ready to pay those costs in pursuit of critical objectives. If that’s not the case, then war will always split a democratic society. World War II did not split American society despite the strong isolationist tendency in the years before World War II. You had a populace that had essentially every oar in the water, pulling in the same direction.

Even so, the film is also not naive about black markets and other things that went on. Just as it tries to show the actual moral complexity of war, it also tries to strip away the “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” bromides from the home front.

AI: And you do that using the 1943 Mobile race riot over the shipbuilding effort, don’t you?

Ken Burns: That’s a huge scene, very important to the purposes of the film. We follow the irony of African Americans in the segregated armed forces in the stories of two men, notably one whose very poignant stories is one of the arcs of the film. You meet John Gray in the first episode, when he is asked to fight a war for freedom when his country’s own definition of freedom doesn’t fully include him.

AI: My father was in the 8th U.S. Army Air Force, and my uncle was killed in the last American bomber lost over Germany, at the very end of the war. The Telegram came on V-E Day; can you imagine? So for my family, World War II was not just a national victory, but a terrible personal loss. And of course, in the past few years in Germany there has been a rethinking of the war’s moral balance. The Germans still acknowledge and accept responsibility for the crimes of the German state, but at the same time they are asking to be acknowledged as victims themselves—again, on the individual human level, not that of politics or the state. Some 300,00 to 500,000 civilians died in the Allied bombing of Germany—

Ken Burns: About 590,000 in Germany.

AI: —and hundreds of thousands in Japan. This has finally become a controversial issue not just among American scholars and intellectuals, but among a broader stratum of our society. We saw it start some years ago in the Enola Gay controversy.

Ken Burns: We do cover this theme throughout the film, but we stay away from anything close to politics. We don’t try to score points now by having neon arrows point by implication toward Iraq. Nor do we want to score points over what happened more than sixty years ago. We just want to show what it was like, with all the contradictions and paradoxes, all the undercurrents and undertow you’re talking about.

We show the bombing of Germany, and we illustrate the ironies that the German will to resist intensified as a result, as did the British will to resist. We show that Allied bombing in Hamburg killed more people in one week than did the entire year-long blitz of London. We show how American Army Air Force pilots, concerned about killing civilians, were given a leaflet reminding them that everyone in Japan was being trained in the civilian defense corps, and we have footage of little schoolgirls brandishing sticks as if to say “there are no civilians in Japan.” Throughout the film, too, is an implied discussion of the arithmetic of war. We say in the opening disclaimer that World War II obliterated the very arithmetic of war with its sheer scale. The ultimate question in that calculus is the use of the atomic bomb, and our people in the film come down on both sides.

We are hoping that the film will in this way causes viewers to understand the dialectically preoccupied world we live in, a world where everything is either good or bad, yes or no, up or down, black or white, male or female, red state or blue state. What we ask from art, including the art of film, is to see these dichotomies but also to reconcile them. Sometimes just containing and holding contradictions can be a step closer to a larger truth. We want to bear witness that this war, like all wars, was horribly contradictory and paradoxical. In that appreciation alone there is perhaps a kind of transcendence.

AI: Wars don’t stop when the shooting does. How do you deal with the postwar war of reconciliations and regrets?

Ken Burns: The atomic bomb falls about forty minutes before the end of the film. Aside from a few minutes of celebration, those forty minutes are all about how these people, these samples from each of the four towns, go back and deal with what has happened. These people struggling to come to terms with their time in the abyss forms the most poignant element of the film’s denouement.

In John Brown’s Body, Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem on the Civil War, Benét says of Robert E. Lee:

For he will smile
And give you, with unflinching courtesy,
Prayers, trappings, letters, uniforms and orders,
Photographs, kindness, valor and advice,
And do it with such grace and gentleness
That you will not know you have the whole of him
Pinned down, mapped out, easy to understand—
And so you have.

All things except the heart.
The heart he kept to himself, that answers all.
For here was someone who lived all his life
In the most fierce and open light of the sun,
Wrote letters freely, did not guard his speech,
Listened and talked with every sort of man,
And kept his heart a secret to the end
From all the picklocks of biographers.

So our last chapter of The Civil War is called “Pick-Locks”, attempting to understand the fates of the various people we have come to know. The last chapter of The War is called “Home”, and it has the same function. It shows the impossibility of wrestling to the ground what a war does to a human being.

All biography is failure, is it not? The people closest to us in life—our wives, our children—remain inscrutable. So how do we have the arrogance to think that we can spend a few years studying this human being and come back with any reasonable sense of who he was? We can’t, but it is the human obligation to try. And war, being an extreme aspect of human experience, provides an unusual opportunity to do that. So as we try to step down from the war at the end of this film, it’s kind of a prayer for each of these people, but it’s also a larger kind of question: What just happened to us? Why do we keep doing this? What is it about us that needs to do this?

One of one of the last talking heads in the film still has a twitch in his face. He hasn’t fired from his P-47 Thunderbolt in 65 years, but his trigger hand is still shaking. When he wakes up from a bad nightmare, his wife hands the coffee to his other hand. He talks about a particularly brutal raid in which he saw a man cut in two; the head and the torso go one way, the legs another. You don’t put that to bed. And Gene Sledge didn’t put his stuff to bed either.

AI: One of the untold stories is that, in 1945–47, the divorce rate reached an all-time high.

Ken Burns: Yes, it did. Post-traumatic stress syndrome didn’t have a name then. There was a certain “let’s get back to work” mentality that hid these things, but let’s not kid ourselves. We could go back to the Peloponnesian wars and find that 22-year-old kid on his porch or his stowa unable to do anything because of what he had seen. That “thousand-yard stare” has been with us ever since human beings decided to throw spears at people as well as at wooly mammoths.

Above all, we just want to be generous in this film. It’s a funny word to use, maybe, but we want people to really listen to these vets, to these human beings. That’s one reason we stripped away all the generals and the strategy and the weapons and the Nazis, so people could really listen to people.

AI: A last reflection, perhaps?

Ken Burns: Somebody once asked Isaac Bashevis Singer why it is that so many people love his work. Why would, say, some Japanese man like his work, even though it’s about the shtetls of Eastern Europe three centuries ago? His answer was that it had to do with the kinship of the soul—and that’s exactly what we’re after.

What kind of kinship of the soul can be distilled from something as horrific as war? We started The Civil War with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who said, “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt—we still feel—the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.” He was trying to put into words what every person who has faced combat knows in his gut, that, paradoxically, when your life is most threatened, when violent death is possible at any moment, everything is vivified. Your experience of life is heightened to a degree not felt at any other moment in ordinary life. In the end, we wanted to get at that. We took a shot in this film at communicating the “incommunicable experience of war.” I hope at least we got close.

Appeared in: Volume 03, Number 1 | Published on: September 1, 2007
Thomas Childers is currently completing a trilogy on World War II. The first volume, Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II, was published by Addison-Wesley in 1995. The second, In the Shadows of War, was published by Henry Holt in 2003. The final volume, The Best Years of Their Lives: Coming Home from World War II and Beyond, will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
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