• Last modified 6014 days ago (Dec. 28, 2007)
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A minor flaw in Ken Burns' TV war epic

Every college, library, high school, and families who can afford the modest cost should by "The War," the Ken Burns anti-war, pro-GI masterpiece shown twice this fall on PBS. Burns joins George Neill, Stephen Ambrose, Ernie Pyle (and soon, Robert Humphrey) in seeing war as it really is: from the bottom up, not the top down.

Along with identifying some of the generals who made ghastly errors (Patton's predecessor in North Africa, Dahlquist who sent the Nisei 442nd to be decimated in rescuing a fragment of the 36th Division, the rear-echelon decision-makers who sent troops to die on a needless mission to seize the Huertgen forest), Burns describes some equally ugly actions in the pacific where huge casualty numbers resulted from invasions as brutal and senseless as Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.

The magnificent concept Burns had, and he and his team then fulfilled, was based on showing the total impact of World War II on the citizens of four cities and on those who went off to serve.

Many histories of WWII have been produced, but Burns chose not to replicate any of them. His seamless narrative of what happened at home and at the various fronts is unique. It is a powerful contradiction of the notion that WWII was "the last good war." In the words of one of the survivors telling their own stories, "all war is bad." The actions of some of the 40 participants telling their own stories were in many cases, heroic and almost unbelievable, but they tell them as if they were. This is what the average men and women did in what Burns calls "a necessary war," not a good one.

Unfortunately, Burns bought into the notion that (as Part 6 of his epic, "The Ghost Front" portrays the Battle for the Ardennes — Battle of the Bulge) the biggest battle of WWII can be summed up in four words and horrendous casualty numbers — Patton. McAuliffe. Bastogne. "Nuts."

Historians and everyone who served at the North Shoulder (including Germans) easily grants some credit to those who fought in the Bastogne area. But the Hitler plan to take Antwerp and extend the war was thwarted far north of there. Still, criticizing Burns on this minor point of his seven-part classic is like complaining that the dog who dragged you from a burning building had fleas and bad breath. One lapse in judgment doesn't detract from the gift Burns has given all of us and generations to come in his "intimate history," where the operative word is "intimate."

Needless to say, we in the 99th needn't follow the example of some pressure groups who missed the entire point of the Burns non-chronological, non-pedantic, inspired approach. What happened in the universe of Luverne MI, Mobile AL, Sacramento CA, and Waterbury CT, happened everywhere in the universe of WWII itself.

Did the mayors of Milwaukee, Boston, Chicago, Miami, or Detroit protest "why not us?" No. Did my fellow left-handers join me in whining that Burns ignored the contribution we, some 1,500 in each division make? Hardly. Silly objections? Of course, but no worse than some of the criticism alleging that the Burns 15 hours add up to anything other than a masterpiece.

Elliot Wager M/393

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