Monday, November 12, 2007

Another home run from Ken Burns?

Ken Burns knows how to do it, it seems. In his new series aired this fall on PBS, The War, he seems to have hit another home run, like his previous series on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz. The series is short and best described as World War Two from the everyday American street level. It's a compressed snapshot of why America and the world are what they are today.

World War Two was the largest war ever - it killed 60 million people.* It was one of the few events that qualifies as a cataclysm, dividing history in two in such a way that everyone counts it as before and after. It was the second part of an event that started with World War One and that in a sense continued until the end of the Cold War. What's happening now in the Middle East is part of the same stream.

There have been some complaints about the series. It jumps around too much and leaves context hanging, some people say, and they're right. But there's something else that bothered me about it: the lack of domestic political context. Contrary to the pap sometimes fed to viewers and readers, no American war has lacked controversy, and each was preceded by intense debate and dissent that often extended into the war itself, then was followed by decades of "bitter-enders" who held on to weird political ideas and theories long after the event. World War Two was the only American war to lack significant dissent during the war, but did not lack for intense debate beforehand. Everyone knew it would be a watershed in both American and world history. It's only in long retrospect that the Civil War became non-controversial throughout the United States (including in the South). Political consensus formed more rapidly during and after World War Two, but the bitter conflict of interventionists and isolationists - after the 1930s, America's only true isolationist decade - left a strong residue of distrust of executive power and skepticism about foreign involvements that appeared in the 1950s, again in the late 1960s and 1970s, again in the 1990s, and again after the Iraq war. The "great debate" of 1939-41 spawned America First, the largest peace movement in American history. Only the ignorant think what's happening now is unprecedented or even that big by historical standards.

But one thing Burns carefully avoids, and that's the mythology of the "good war." Each episode gives a small taste of what war is really like. Viewers learn why war, sometimes necessary, occasionally just, is never "good." Wise statesmen try to avoid it and, if they can't, find ways to limit it in time, space, and scope.
* The Russo-German war alone killed half of those people, about 30 million, and itself counts as the largest war in history.

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