Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Reflections on Ken Burns’ THE WAR

Last night, I finished the 7 part PBS documentary, The War.  Directed by Ken Burns, this documentary on World War II did not give us a focus on the inner workings of the Nazis (as does so much on The History Channel). It was not a history of military strategy.  It was not a debate over just war theory–Burns’ editorial position from beginning to end is that this was an unavoidable and necessary war.  Rather, this film is the human story of WWII, focusing on how it impacted the lives of people in 4 U.S. towns: Laverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; Mobile, Alabama.

This is definitely made from an American perspective.  A similar film by a British director would have started earlier and been filled with seens from the Battle of Britain with folks wondering if the “Yanks” were ever going to get into this war. In much of Europe, such a human film would have dealt more with occupation. Northern African directors could reflect on the pain of being the proxy battlegrounds for a feud between rival colonial powers.  A Russian version (the Soviets lost more lives in battle than any other Allied nation in WWII) would have focused on even more incredible suffering and the huge frustration of waiting seemingly forever for the U.S. and U.K. to open up a “Second Front” in Western Europe.  The War in the Pacific would be told differently by those victims of Japan: Korea, China, Indonesia, the Philippines. It would even have been told differently by an Australian director.

So, The War, is a quintessentially American film.  Burns himself says that no one film could tell the story completely. He chose to do the film (which took 6 years) in 2000, when he realized how many people who lived through WWII, either as combatants or in other capacities, were dying every year. At the same time, he read a report showing that many U.S. high school students were so confused that they believed the U.S. and Germany were on the same side in WWII against the Soviet Union–confusing WWII with the Cold War!! (These kinds of surveys always make one very nervous about the state of U.S. education. Sigh.)

The film has been criticized, especially by Latinos, because the role of Latinos in WWII was largely ignored. In response to criticism of this film in pre-release, Burns “tacked on” footage and witnesses from Latinos in the first episode.  This is in stark contrast to the film’s strong description of the suffering of Japanese Americans during WWII (most living on the West Coast sent to concentration camps for the duration of the war–a practice that also happened in Canada) and the story of the segregated Japanese American regiment, the 442nd, which was sent to fight in Europe with family behind barbed wire in the U.S.  It’s also in contrast to the film’s strong depiction of the role of African-Americans in segregated military units, such as the story of the Tuskeegee Airmen, and in the defense industry.  The War not only shows the injustices of a fight for democracy in a segregated society, but how the changes the war brought about planted the seeds in the 1940s for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

I think the Latino criticism is justified, but I think that we all have blinders.  No white historian or director told well the stories of African American and Japanese American contributions during WWII before historians and filmmakers from these groups told their own stories, themselves, in ways that forced the rest of us to pay attention instead of sweeping them under the rug.  I think Burns’ “add on” in the face of Latino criticism shows that he regrets overlooking that contribution.  Latino historians and filmmakers could make sure that future white historians and filmmakers like Burns have a hard time overlooking Latinos’ contributions because they are too well known.  That was what happened with African-American and Japanese American contributions.

I was most moved, of course, by the segments from the freeing of the Nazi death camps. I had seen such footage before, but I was no less moved and angered.  If I had my way, every Holocaust denier in the world, most definitely including Iranian President Ahmadinejad, would be forced to sit and watch those images and hear the testimony of the survivors and of those who liberated the camps.  I fully understand why Holocaust denial is a crime in contemporary Germany.

Make sure your local libraries, universities, and high schools have copies of The War and show it–with time for reflection and discussion.  Oh, and to critics of my pacifism, Yes, the film did raise questions for me about what I would have done then and there, but I will save those for another post.  There are no easy answers and a strength of the film was its depiction of how the surviving soldiers, marines, sailors, had to struggle to fit back into civilian life.  The image of “The Greatest Generation” coming through the horrors of war without any doubts, without psychological problems, without what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder–is exposed as the fiction it always was.

When I next see my father in law (who had his ship blown up at the battle of Midway) or my maternal grandfather (who was at Okinawa) or paternal grandfather (who was nearly killed repeatedly in the Italian campaigns), I will thank them for their service and sacrifice with some more understanding than this child of the Vietnam era has ever had.  I remain committed to gospel nonviolence–but without any sense of pride or moral superiority to those who felt they were forced to fight and kill and possibly die in a war that seemed to be about the very survival of civilization.

When I renew my pledge to PBS, I will remember that, sometimes, television rises above the commercial garbage that is its standard fare.  The War is definitely television at its best.

Update: I have just been informed that most PBS stations will rebroadcast The “Good War” and Those Who Refused to Fight It, a documentary on conscientious objectors to WWII, tonight. Check your local stations.  This should be a good complement to The War.


October 3, 2007 - Posted by | war


  1. I agreed with much of what you said but you last sentence was your best. Thank goodness for men like Ken Burns,my father Quentin Aanenson and all the men and women that saved this planet those many years ago.


    Comment by Jerry Aanenson | October 3, 2007

  2. A very nice reflection. But I wonder about this sentence: “I remain committed to gospel nonviolence–but without any sense of pride or moral superiority to those who felt they were forced to fight and kill and possibly die in a war that seemed to be about the very survival of civilization.” Defenders of the “war against terrorism” will appeal to the very same justification. So did defenders of every Cold War conflict–the very survival of civilisation depended on keeping the dominoes from falling. So did both sides in the American Civil War. So while I agree that pride and moral superiority should be off the table, I don’t think that psychological conviction about the moral imperative of any war should be privileged in any way.

    Comment by Kerry | October 4, 2007

  3. I’m shocked that you would resort to violence and “force” holocoust deniers to watch this or any other film. Whatever happened to your committment to non-violence? And Kerry is right, you are far too easy on those who resorted to violence (not “forced)during WW II. Those committed to nonviolence are morally superior to those who resort to violence even if the “survival” of civilization is at stake because nonviolence is SUPERIOR in all respects and at all times to those who would violate Jesus’ teaching. What happened to “turn the other cheek.” The ends (survival) does not justify the means (killing).

    Comment by anon | October 4, 2007

  4. I would be interested in knowing the following about those who support SCHIP and those who feel it is too expensive:

    1. Annual income
    2. Where they get their health insurance (is they have it) and who pays for it

    I suspect that opponents tend to have more available resources for buying health insurance and a large number, like George Bush, have “free” health insurance — paid for by others. Supporters probably find health insurance unaffordable or have close personal association with those who can’t afford health insurance. We have vested interests here.

    If we can afford to kill (Iraq & Afganistan) we can afford to heal!

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | October 4, 2007

  5. I think we need to distinguish “force” from “violence.” If I tackle a little child who is trying to run into traffic, I have used force to save the child’s life–and possibly injured the child doing so. But I have not acted violently.

    If 3 burly men have to use safe containment techniques to get a psychotic patient into a straitjacket, they are not being violent, either.

    I should, perhaps, have said that I would coerce Holocaust deniers into watching footage of the camps.

    I am still committed to nonviolence, but those who don’t see any moral ambiguities in pacifism are fooling themselves. Karl Barth said rightly that, after the horrors of WWII, there could be no triumphalist just war theory and no triumphalist pacifism–only chastened just war theorists and chastened pacifists. I believe that and this film reinforced that “chastened” feeling.

    I have not forgotten Jesus’ commands. Not at all.

    Tauratinzwe, you are always welcome, but I think your comment went to the wrong post. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2007

  6. isn’t “chastened just-war” still a repudiation of nonviolence. isn’t it really just an excuse to reject the simple teachings of Jesus about turning the other cheek. it may be “chastened” but being a little bit nonviolent is like being a little bit pregnant. and you may distinguish between force and violence all you want, but the difference between chastened just-war and chastened pacifism is still a choice between chastened violence and chastened nonviolence (not between force and violence). why should Christian pacifists committed to the teachings of Jesus be “chastened” anyway?

    Comment by anon | October 4, 2007

  7. Your’re right. I was responding to the SCHIP post. Don’t know how it got linked to this one. It’s only link to war is the inconsistency of those who want to be seen as pro-life and can afford war but not health care. Boot me over to where I belong. 😉

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | October 7, 2007

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