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By Bryan Newbury
October 1, 2007 

“War? The one war I’d be happy to join is the war against officers.” 

No doubt the subjects in Episode Five of The War could relate to Ed Abbey’s sentiment. The War seems to be developing not as a series of acts, as in Henry V. Instead, we’re seeing the story from a different perspective each night. To summarize: night one, the civilians and soon-to-be soldiers; night two, the workers; night three, the collective; night four, the officers and planners; night five, the enlisted men. Vexing though it is that it marches chronologically along to this motif, there is a sense about it. 

In a Harper’s insert (along with many others, presumably) the quote about FUBAR that grabs a person is “[G]enerals make plans, plans go wrong and soldiers die.” True enough, and Episode Five follows this maxim throughout. Whether it is the apparently gross incompetence of Major General John E. Dahlquist near Bruyeres and St. Die or the staged swagger of the larger-than-life Patton, the story returns again to an officer figure of, at best, Celine’s General des Entrayes. The viewer is confronted with an officer corps that resembles a football coach of exceeding arrogance, intent on running out the clock minutes into the third quarter and almost blowing a thirty point lead.

The portrayal is a tad unbalanced. One is compelled to ask throughout The War if it is possible that the Germans or Japanese were good tacticians as well. Sure, plans go wrong. That could have something to do with the fact that for every plan, there’s bound to be another bloke making a counterplan. In the case of Arnhem, for example, it seems that the Germans might have just outfoxed the Allies. FUBAR seems to suggest that intransigence is at the root of this coup. Were the Axis Powers unable to game plan, World War II would have been a marginal skirmish. 

This is not to say that there weren’t critical errors in the fall and winter months of 1944, nor that the bravado of the men barking orders doesn’t often result in countless meaningless deaths among the enlisted ranks. What would you expect to hear if you had the opportunity to get an oral history from those in the front lines?

FUBAR stands out by having that living room feeling. When Quentin Aanenson or Joe Medicine Crow is speaking, the screen seems to disappear. This is one of the stated goals of the project, according to Burns. The Greatest Generation is dwindling, and it will not be long until young people will not have the opportunity to experience these recountings firsthand. Episode Five may just give that vicarious experience for generations to come, and needs not to claim any other social value. Shame that there wasn’t a series of this scope solely for this purpose. 

There is also an intellectual recogniton, in line with the dominant theme, provided by the secret journals of Mobile’s Eugene Sledge. His sentiment, that coming from a culture of life and individualism, the knowledge that you yourself are expendable, isn’t one that we associate with WWII’s zeitgeist. There is a good deal of this type of myth busting in The War, especially Episode Five, and it is welcome. Those of us lucky enough to be brought up around WWII veterans often assume the Brokaw narrative. The men and women of the 1940’s were tougher than we can imagine. No bitching or bellyaching. Just do what you’re told and proceed along stoically. Of course, people are the same throughout time. People didn’t wait until marriage throughout human history, then one day rip off their clothes and begin fornicating openly in 1967. Men didn’t start to lose it on the front in Vietnam. Dissent didn’t begin with John Lennon.  It is a topic of interest, and whatever mask The War has taken off, it is a valuable service. 

At the end of this episode, we are on the brink of the firebombing, the Battle of the Bulge, and Iwo Jima. O, and that occurrence that brought the war to its end. After years of work, The War could be criticised in poetry workshop parlance as “not well crafted.” It would be reasonable to expect a more coherent narrative, beyond the slings and arrows of humble online critics. It won’t make that mark, barring a stunning conclusion. Still, it has us on the edge of our seat, despite knowing the outcome. Plus, we get to hear Keith David utter the word “fucked” a few times in his omniscient tone. For the viewer, little else should be required.


Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

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