The thing that really got me mad," Ken Burns says in explaining why he felt called to begin "The War," his forthcoming documentary series, "was finding out that a huge number of our high-school graduates think that we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the second world war. It's so unbelievable." Now you or I might have set about trying to fix America's broken educational system, but Burns is a practical man—at least a seven-part, 141/2-hour film for PBS is doable. All you need is six years, gigabytes of images, a gift for fund-raising, the right inspiration-perspiration quotient and a high tolerance for bad dreams. "I had a nightmare about Peleliu last night," he says. (That's the vicious and strategically pointless 1944 battle near the Philippines, in part three of the series, which debuts Sept. 23.) "I was trying to get up this little embankment, and the sand kept giving way. That happened all the time when I was making the film—I'd dream we were trying to figure out a problem in the editing room, and all of a sudden I'd be in the battle."
That's where Burns aims to put you, too. In the middle of Peleliu, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, D-Day, the Hürtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—and in Waterbury, Conn., Mobile, Ala., Luverne, Minn., and Sacramento, Calif., where the loved ones of ordinary soldiers and airmen waited and worried. If you saw Burns's 1990 film "The Civil War," you know what you're in for—except that here he supplements his trademark panning shots of grainy photographs with combat footage, much of it, surprisingly, in all-too-living color. And instead of such historians as Shelby Foote, "The War" has present-day recollections from those who were there, with faces that would catch the eye of any filmmaker. Mobile's Sid Phillips, still lean and handsome, recollects atrocities in the Pacific. His townsman John Gray, whose bearing and features evoke the bluesman Howlin' Wolf, tells about dancing with Samoan girls who'd reach back to see if blacks really had tails. And Luverne's Quentin Aanenson, who looks gentle and haunted, talks about how his right hand still won't function when he wakes up from nightmares of having used it to gun down Germans massed in a truck.
Burns's single most important source of photos and footage was the National Archives, which stores the military's official combat photography. "The thing that pisses me off more than anything else," he says, "is that they don't charge us anything, while the people who charge the most are the Germans and the Japanese. What's wrong with this picture?" The newly discovered color footage—old newsreels had showed some of it in black-and-white—has a fearsome immediacy: "This is as close to the meat grinder as we can get." Still, Burns downplays his gumshoe work: " 'Rare and never-before-seen footage' is the trope that I've beaten to death, as has everyone else. It's how you use it. It's not just illustrating, it's trying to put you in the moment."
Inevitably, though, this documentary also puts you in a moment Burns never foresaw: today, in Iraq, and on a far different home front. No scrap drives, Victory Bonds, rationing or air-raid wardens yelling at you to pull down your shades. Where "home front," in fact, is a quaint expression—except to the families, far fewer than in World War II, with a reason to take it personally. And "war effort" means yellow-ribbon decals in the mall parking lot. In the current war, Burns says, "we're not permitted to shoot the caskets coming back. In this film, we show huge nets from a trawler, each one filled with 15 or 20 flag-draped coffins. Today you can't show the bad stuff. You can't even find the bad stuff, without behaving like a pornographer on the Internet. We don't even know the cost anymore." When Burns began work on "The War" in 2001, he couldn't have known Iraq would become the film's secret subject, even though the place is never mentioned.
In John Cheever's 1954 story "The Country Husband," published only nine years after the end of the war, to bring up the topic at a suburban cocktail party was "unseemly and impolite." "The people in the Farquarsons' living room seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world." After Vietnam, and especially since the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984—a "long orgy of sentiment and self-congratulation," Washington Post essayist Jonathan Yardley called it at the time—our view of World War II began blurring into nostalgia. It's also generated high ratings on TV and coined money at bookstores and box offices. From "The World at War" (the 1974 documentary narrated by Laurence Olivier) to Tom Brokaw's 1998 book "The Greatest Generation," the usual stance could be summed up in the title of Studs Terkel's 1984 oral history, "The Good War." The fascination, Yardley argued, wasn't really with the war itself, but with "the goodness of ourselves and our cause."
Burns's film, however, belongs to a newer way of looking at the war: the deadpan realism exemplified by Tom Hanks's 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan," which presents straight-on the brutality and absurdity from the soldier's viewpoint. (Hanks does some of the voice-over in Burns's documentary.) For contemporary scholars, the top-down view of history is, you might say, history, and this revisionism suits Burns's populist sensibility: "The War" belongs to the tradition of Ernie Pyle's reporting and Bill Mauldin's cartoons, not of Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe." We've seen this sensibility in "The Civil War," and in "Baseball" (1994), whose most memorable figure isn't Babe Ruth, but the Negro Leagues veteran Buck O'Neill. But, like all his films, "The War" also carries on Burns's most primal, personal mission: what he calls "waking the dead." As he's often said, the early death of his mother determined both his life and his life's work—"though I don't want to dime-store-psychology it too much." It's significant that the other piece of news prompting Burns to do this film was that 1,000 World War II veterans were dying every day. "One thousand," he says. "And every time someone dies, all those associations and all those memories, whatever was repressed, whatever secrets—gone. This is our last chance."
"The War" is in no sense a polemic—or even an "antiwar" film, except in the sense that any film showing what battle is like for those who have to fight it is inherently antiwar. "We're not in a dialectic, as Michael Moore is, in which the whole purpose is to infuriate," he says. "Which is all right, but it's limiting." Burns simply shows, spin-free, both the heroics and the atrocities, the brilliant generalship and the bad decisions: like Peleliu, or the bloody 1944 Operation Market Garden —"just a foolish, blundering, idiotic thing that Eisenhower approved on Montgomery's recommendation"—which cost 542 lives in eight days, for no purpose. A month of World War II could produce the casualties of four years in Iraq.
As Burns demonstrates, both sides could be both incompetent and savage: American troops in the Pacific find comrades with their heads cut off and their genitals tucked into their mouths; they respond by taking no more Japanese prisoners. This isn't to say that he ever suggests a basic moral equivalence: it's always clear who the good guys are, no matter how badly they act. But after seeing this film, who could talk about the Good War with a straight face? Well, probably the same people who've been using the expression while knowing that some 60 million people died, including some 400,000 American troops. "It was time, I think, to just unwrap the bloodless, gallant myth of the second world war," Burns says, "and say this was the worst war ever. The worst." It was only—as the title of the first episode calls it—the necessary war.
So far, this underlying thesis hasn't jerked patriotic knees: in fact, Burns says, veterans are thanking him, "at every single screening," for showing war as they experienced it. Of course the film hasn't aired yet. For now, though, the biggest beefs come from Hispanic groups and some Native Americans who complain that their people go unrepresented, and some affiliates—which didn't seem to mind the obscenely gruesome Holocaust pictures or the scene where a machine gun blows off a soldier's head—had a problem with the four uses of cusswords, one of which is alluded to in the anagrammatic title of episode five, "FUBAR." (For you youngsters, this was a GI anagram standing for "F–––ed Up Beyond All Recognition." Perhaps it was a snafu to include that.) Did you need further evidence that today's decadent home front can't see past the end of its own nose? There you go.
Burns carefully selected the veterans, families and communities through whose eyes we see the war for their geographic and ethnic distribution, and also for their just-folksy likableness. (Some aren't just folks anymore: literary scholar, essayist and historian Paul Fussell, who memorably breaks down on camera, is identified simply as an infantryman; during the war, Burns argues, he was just Paul Fussell.) Still, Burns doesn't idealize the home front of the 1940s. "The War" presents in detail such national disgraces as the ongoing subjugation of black Americans that led to race riots in Birmingham, Ala., and other places in the middle of the Good War, and the huge Japanese-American internment camps—which Burns says about 90 percent of his audiences had never heard about. (Speaking of national disgraces.) It deliberately cuts from footage of the ruins and radiation victims of Hiroshima to an inappropriately raucous VE-Day celebration in Times Square, with Glenn Miller on the soundtrack. "Yup," Burns says, "we stick it in your face." He was concerned enough about this point to write, in a follow-up e-mail, "I share your sense of the obscenity of celebration after atomic obliteration. That's why we did it that way, and that's the way it was here in these United States, despite the skin-crawling nature of it." Still, the solidarity we experienced in World War II has come again only once: immediately after 9/11. And we know how long that lasted.
One afternoon in late June, Burns is holding a small press conference in Concord, N.H., not far down the road from his home and headquarters in rural Walpole, before an evening screening of a one-hour clip reel from "The War." He's been doing these gigs all year. A film isn't great, he maintains, if nobody sees it—nor will the big-money sponsors pony up. (PBS is spending nearly $10 million to promote the series.) Only a dozen people have showed up at the oak conference room in the Capitol Center for the Arts, but by 4:30, at least 100 people are standing in line outside for the free tickets. Two buses arrive from the New Hampshire Veterans Home, and white-haired men with wheelchairs and walkers, some equipped with oxygen tanks, join the line going down the walkway and out into the street. Few people here are under 50, except for some apparent grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Burns deals with the usual questions about profanity and the protests by Hispanics as if he were taking infield practice. He compares the cussword quotient to that of the far more foulmouthed "Private Ryan," and notes that in 1940 Hispanics made up just 1.4 percent of the U.S. population—though he doesn't note that an estimated half a million fought in the war. He's done mini-bowdlerizations for some local outlets, and with documentarian Hector Galán filmed supplemental material on Hispanic soldiers; some 28 minutes will appear on the official DVD and in reruns, and on the premiere broadcast before the credits of two episodes. He's also shoehorned in material about Native American troops.
His next stop is a reception downstairs, in a low-ceilinged, carpeted room where tables have been laid with crudités, dip, small pastries, cheese, fruit, bottled beer and wine in plastic cups. God knows how many times he's seen spreads like this. He doesn't actually get to eat: he's too busy meeting and greeting, and he's also on a no-carb, no-sugar diet he says has given him energy and taken away 20 pounds.
The auditorium is full; on being asked how many veterans are here, perhaps a third of the audience rises. Floor mikes are already set up for the Q&A afterward. Burns gives his speech—the ignorant high-school kids, the thousand vets a day, the no top-down heroes, the not-good-but-necessary war. Backstage, he eats a bit of cheese while the clip reel shows—seven clips, one from each episode—comes back out, gets his standing O, and audience members line up at the mikes. A man in shorts and a ponytail suggests that Burns make a film about "peaceful resolutions to conflict." (Burns agrees we seem drawn to violence, but thinks it's "more effective to keep reminding people of the cost.") A veteran of the 1943 Tarawa campaign, one of the film's grimmest stretches, approaches, holding a paper bag. He praises his old commander, and says the commander's sister wrote a book—actually, he's got it right with him. A middle-aged man says his father and uncles were in the war; one uncle was shot down and saved his crew, another survived the Bataan Death March. "Sorry," he says, "getting a little emotional here."
A couple of weeks later, I sit down with Burns in his office, under a large photo of Jackie Robinson, in the farmhouse where Burns has lived since moving here in 1979, before his first film, "Brooklyn Bridge," made him famous enough to raise the money for another, and then 20-odd more. " 'The War'," he says, is "the first film where I've ever said unequivocally, 'This is the best film I've ever made'." (We sat in this same room after he'd completed the 2001 "Jazz," and he said the same thing.) Like all his films, "The War" derives its power from the inspired sequencing of hundreds of small moments. Not just the harrowing combat footage or the corpses that seem to cry out to you, but the veterans, now grown old, recalling what they'd tried so hard to suppress. Ray Leopold, a Jewish veteran from Waterbury—who recently became one of the thousand-a-day—begins to tell about liberating a Nazi "mental hospital" in which medical experiments had been performed, then stops and says, "I really can't tell you what I saw." And then, as Burns puts it, "he stares at the camera for a thousand years."
Burns loves to talk about his craft—hell, he loves to talk. He can explain to you why he needed to use Benny Goodman's recording of "Solitude" behind one scene, rather than the Ellington or Billie Holiday versions, both of which he prefers. For the Holocaust section, he tracked down the widow of the composer Olivier Messaien, who began his stark, rapt, terrifying "Quartet for the End of Time" in a German prison camp in 1940, and got rarely granted permission to use excerpts to accompany Holocaust footage. "That clarinet just pierces your heart over the skulls," Burns says. "If you notice, three times in that scene the music comes to a climax and it ends, and then it starts up again. And the last one is really too much, you don't want it to start up again—we did it totally consciously." On principle, he avoided too-familiar images: in "The War," you won't see the flag being raised at Iwo Jima.
While "The War" maintains a studious neutrality, Burns himself—like a lot of people you may know—can't keep the lid on his private outrage over what's currently happening to the country that he's made all his films to celebrate. He veers into The Subject while talking about the new film he's completing, about America's national parks. "Roosevelt thought up the Civilian Conservation Corps, and within three months—good, you're sitting down—within three months, it was employing 300,000 young men, sending back money and helping millions of people. And we couldn't get a f–––ing trailer to New Orleans in three months. That's what it's like right now."
"Well," I say, "if you want to go there—"
But he's already there. "We've outsourced our intelligence. Our ability to do things. It's terrifying."
"And our service industry—"
"You heard about that paper that's outsourced its local news reporting?"
"It's terrifying. I don't recognize this country."
"Lately I've been wondering if—do you think you'll be able to stick it out and die here?"
"I hope I can die here. But there's a possibility … I made the films in some ways as a kind of—not bulwark, but just some sort of 'Hey, can't we all get along?' kind of thing. 'Don't you remember why we agreed to cohere?' "
Burns took pains to make "The War" judiciously enough so it won't be put to jingoistic use. "I hope it makes people ask questions about war, and make sure that our governments fight only necessary wars. They'll have to make their own decisions about which those are." But hearing the theme song, "America," an obscure old number sung on the soundtrack by Norah Jones—"America, America, I gave my best to you"—doesn't inspire much confidence. It's all too easy to imagine it emanating from a beribboned SUV, or an underarmored Humvee. Will one listener in a hundred pick up on the misty wistfulness in Jones's voice, suggesting that self-sacrifice in a necessary war has become a thing of the distant past—except arguably in the case of Afghanistan—like a nickel Coke or a deal sealed with a handshake? But Burns is an optimist. He truly believes that a mass audience—if you call PBS viewers a mass audience—will understand a story and its implications, provided you tell it clearly.
Burns may be overestimating the capacities of a populace so unacquainted with its own history, so accustomed to being spun—in plain English, lied to—and so conditioned by the disposability of all "content," from popular music to movies to celebrities to events in the news, that facts go in one ear and out the other. Whether the United States fought against the Germans or with them is an exam question, and who likes exams? The Iraq War is only the latest manifestation of a sense that the world is a matrix of shifting shapes and provisional truths: Saddam morphs into Osama morphs into Hillary, and rationales for war bob in and out of being like the cryptic answers in a Magic 8-Ball. American casualty figures—two today in "Baghdad" or "Anbar province," seven yesterday, three the day before—have about the same degree of reality as the numbers on a credit-card slip or in the federal budget (where the cost of the war is off the books), except to comrades and family members. Would they seem real if we were allowed to see the pictures of the coffins? Or would we think they were Photoshopped by MoveOn.org?
If there's any reason to be nostalgic about World War II, it's that in those days such talk would have been insane. FDR might have played fast and loose with some inconvenient truths, but no administration official would have boasted, as one senior adviser anonymously did in 2002, that "we create our own reality." How quixotic of Burns to make a film to show what the worst war in history actually was, back when we agreed that things actually were. And we knew what bound us together: if not goodness, at least necessity. If Burns gets lucky, his contribution to our understanding of American history will haunt viewers for days. Did I call him a practical man? The sand keeps giving way, and he keeps on marching.