This morning, Booman noted the otherwise un-noted irony (thanks to that famous liberal media!) of having war profiteer/Nazi collaborator General Motors sponsor Kens Burns’ documentary on PBS, The War.
Whenever PBS airs a big program/mini-series there is an announcement at the end. “Corporate sponsorship of Name of Mini-Series was brought to you by Name of Corporation.” This had unfortunate and amusing results for General Motors’ sponsorship of Ken Burn’s The War.
But this is an idle bemusement relative to the core problem with Burn’s whitewashing of The War.
In every media interview he gives, Burns preempts the inevitable questions about the current war in Iraq by pointing out that he began his project before the 2003 invasion. And diplomatically refusing to make any comparisons, he insists that “there’s not a political bone in this film.”
One can understand Burns’s need to not alienate his sponsors. Yet one cannot help but wonder if his desire to avoid the politics of the present did not also severely shape his telling of the past, for, as much as he attends to America’s racial injustices, he drains America’s second world war generation of any real political commitments or aspirations.
Burns’s narrator appreciatively states that Roosevelt redirected the energy of the New Deal to the war effort, and Burns’s now-elderly storytellers recall how FDR’s voice inspired them. Yet we hear nothing about what the New Deal entailed and why it mattered. We also never hear FDR pronounce the “four freedoms” or call for a second bill of rights for all Americans.
We never hear about the hundreds of thousands of housewives who volunteered to police local businesses in support of wartime price controls. And we never hear about labor unions, whose membership during the Depression grew from three to nine million, and during the war to 15 million. Burns makes no reference to A. Philip Randolph’s AFL Pullman Porters and the March on Washington Movement that pushed FDR to integrate the war industries, or the CIO’s policy of biracial unionism.
We need to know about those things to better comprehend how, in the wake of a devastating and in critical ways persistent depression, Americans – of every colour and ethnicity – were both ready and eager to fight not only imperial Japan, the country that attacked them at Pearl Harbor, but equally and, all the more aggressively at the outset, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. We need to know those things to better understand the commitment to and confidence about America that we hear so beautifully expressed by Burns’s own storytellers. And we need to know those things to grasp more fully why we look back to our parents’ and grandparents’ generation as we do.
In The War, Burns has produced a masterpiece of oral history. But no more than Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers, Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan or Tom Brokaw in the Greatest Generation does he ever really get at what prepared, encouraged and sustained young Americans in all their diversity to fight fascism and imperialism.
Failing to address the aspirations, struggles and developments that made the nation more democratic, gave Americans the confidence and hopes needed to pursue the war and left a legacy and a vision to challenge later generations, Burns fails to cultivate the kind of memory that might truly enable us to transcend the divisions that rend the nation’s social fabric today. He fails to speak to his fellow citizens of America’s historic purpose and promise and to remind us that we have been at our best when we have united and sacrificed, motivated not by fear, but by progressive solidarities and possibilities.