Ken Burns' The War Attempts to Safeguard WWII's Memories -- and its Lessons (Summer 2007 Trust Magazine briefing)

  • July 23, 2007

After he completed his classic television series about the Civil War in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns—seared by the intense emotional experience as he compiled the raw material— vowed that he was going to stay away from war as a subject. But he changed his mind.

One major reason was that he became aware of young people's ignorance of World War II—for instance, a 2001 survey showed that a majority of high schoolers could not name all three Axis powers in the conflict.

Another key reason was the vanishing opportunity to hear stories firsthand from veterans and their families; the war's vets are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day.

The result was The War, a seven-part series that received support from Pew and is scheduled to be seen on PBS starting September 23.

The documentary brings together the front-line, eyewitness accounts of soldiers and the recollections of their family and friends who stayed behind in four American towns: Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn., and the small farming town of Luverne, Minn.

Burns and his crew interviewed some 80 Americans about their wartime experiences and ultimately used about half of those in the series; they also included video clips and still photographs of combat, most of them taken by those in the armed services. In spring, following complaints from Hispanic groups that the documentary omitted Latinos' historic contributions to the war effort, Burns agreed to add some material to include the perspectives of Hispanic-American and Native American veterans. For all its material, however, the documentary concerns only one question, Burns says: “What was it like to be in that war?”

The tone is set right at the start, with this piece of narration:

“The greatest cataclysm in history grew out of ancient and ordinary human emotions: anger and arrogance and bigotry, victim-hood and the lust for power. And it ended because other human qualities—courage and perseverance and selflessness, faith, leadership and the hunger for freedom— combined, with unimaginable brutality, to change the course of human events.

“The Second World War brought out the best—and the worst—in a generation, and blurred the two so that they became at times almost indistinguishable.”