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Ken Burns' "The War": SNAFU from Episode One

Gary North
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September 24, 2007

I watched the first two installments of Ken Burns' The War last night. It was a microcosm of wartime, no doubt it. The best-laid plans of mice and men, etc.

The sound track was out of sync. So, every time someone appeared on screen to reminisce about the outbreak of the war, the words were delayed. It was not a long delay, just enough to be noticeable . . . and annoying. To minimize this annoyance, I moved my eyes to the speakers' eyes.

Here we have a multi-million dollar project, which has received more pre-broadcast publicity than any documentary I can recall. Two decades of experience went into this production, along with six years' of production time and money. Yet the whole effect was compromised by a glitch.

This is what war is all about. The generals make plans; the entire chain of command is entrusted with the responsibility of implementing the plan; and when the first shot is fired, it's a dud.

SNAFU. That word that came out of World War II. Burns should have known it would happen. At least it was not FUBAR. There is time to get reorganized.

The old rule of computer programming -- universally ignored -- is "beta test everything." Burns forgot to beta test something in the system. I'm not sure what.

I think of the poor guy watching opening night. His baby is born, but it can't lip-sync. "Holy moley, Captain Marvel: it's Milli Vanilli!"

After watching three hours of this documentary, it is clear to me what it will be: a bunch of interviews with remarkably young looking vets and their relatives, with lots military films of troops shooting, battleships shooting, planes dropping bombs, and lots of still photos of corpses. I suppose this is the best way to present a war: shooting and corpses. The highlight is the narration of Keith David. His voice would make my home videos presentable.

There was nothing on the origins of the U.S. entry into the war: the domestic political issues, the international issues, or (of course) the reasons why the Japanese attacked. Maybe there will be later. We'll see.

The show does say that the death toll was 50 million to 60 million. It also says that the worst of the devastation was on the Eastern front. It never comes out and says that the Western European front was really a side show militarily, even though it was. It began in earnest late, in 1943, almost four years into the European war. Still, I have never seen any popular documentary aimed at an American audience that stated up front that the real action was outside the American crusade in Europe.

It shows the terrible fate of Japanese-Americans: the concentration camps. But it was wrong when the narration said that no one high in government opposed this. One man did -- a most unlikely figure: J. Edgar Hoover, the G-man himself. He wrote a 6-page memo to Attorney General Francis Biddle, in which he concluded: "Every complaint in this regard has been investigated, but in no case has any information been obtained which would substantiate the allegation." His assessment was ignored.

When the series is all over, viewers will think, "Well, that was really something." What, they will not be able to say. There are no dots to connect, because the director decided to present the whole thing from the perspective of four participants from four home towns. There are dots, all right, all over the place, but there is nothing to connect them in any unique way. One set of connected dots will be as meaningful -- and therefore as meaningless -- as any other.

The #1 problem with documentaries is that they are visual. The visual images roll by, and the script pretends to make sense of them, but other than telling viewers what they are seeing or have just seen, the narration adds little. A script profound enough to deal with the complexity of history cannot be conveyed accurately through images and a narrative so loose that it must be consistent with images. One picture is not worth a thousand words. There are very few images that provide meaningful rhetorical support for a well-crafted thousand words. Images provide rhetoric: a means of emotional persuasion. They do not provide logic. Not many images add anything significant to logic when you are talking about the complexity of history.

Burns is the best creator of documentaries in our era. They are great entertainment. They are, as he has said, poems. But with respect to conveying the truth of history through images, they fail. For example, there is nothing on screen that ever proves the title of Episode 1, A Necessary War. The title is pure propaganda. All that follows is entertainment.

If you have a taste for shooting and corpses, stay tuned.

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