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By Bryan Newbury
September 24, 2007

Ah, The Good War.

Despite pronouncements by soldiers far and wide, one of who plays an integral part in the latest epic documentary project of Ken Burns, that there is no such thing as a good war, all Americans seem to know instinctively that there is indeed. To finish the statement above, though there are no good wars, there are necessary wars. If we are honest with ourselves, the opposite is probably true from the Peloponnesian campaign to Guadalcanal. To refer to a war as necessary by definition extends a value judgment… and in the case of The Big One, at least for the United States, the verdict is overwhelming.

A good war, it seems, is what we are so desperately lacking these days. When considering the Axis Powers, we can conjure images of evil despite the cartoonish posture of Mussolini or the comical moustache Hitler sported. The “gathering threats” of Messrs Hussein and Ahmadinejad seem laughable when considering the challenges of the Anglo Saxon world in the 1940’s. 

Burns does well to assert this difference, albeit in a rather subtle way. The filmmaker has given a number of interviews, which allude to the substantial differences between WWII and our current endeavors in the Middle East. When the subject of collective sacrifice comes up in Episode One, only the most tin-eared observer can miss the comparison.

Anyone familiar with the Burns oeuvre doesn’t need to be told that The War will not be a firebrand’s polemic against American empire. Every detail, ranging from the street addresses of the interviewees to the ubiquitous narration of Keith David, points to a continuation in the Burns body of work. 

Early on, the question seems to be whether or not he can sustain the subject.  The subject, like so much in the Ken catalogue, isn’t all that surprising. Burns has never demurred from America’s larger themes. The Civil War. Our greatest novelist. Our national pastime. One of our two contributions to world culture. Why not tackle the sacred cow of twentieth century America? Of course, one could reasonably accuse him of painting with the broadest of brushes. What is there to profit from an examination of arguably the most examined period in contemporary history? 

This question will be borne out by the seventh episode. Considering the first 150 minutes, it is fair to say that the goal just might be achieved.

Through each turn, The War accomplishes an element of surprise. 

The discerning viewer finds himself questioning Burns’s motives, only to castigate himself when the film acquits itself of any accusation of jingoism. Good war or no, the atmosphere of xenophobia must’ve been palpable during the Second World War. In one moment, we begin to doubt the objectiveness of the film, as footage and stories from Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March seem to cultivate a propagandistic approach. The next, we’re faced with actual propaganda from newsreels and Executive Order 9066. The latter placed the Japanese in America, regardless of citizenship, into internment camps along with German and Italian aliens. It is only natural to assume the side of the victors in this conflict, but The War goes the extra mile thusfar in broadening the scope of ideas.

The question remains: how broad? Should The War sustain its catholic perspective from the invasion of Poland to the mass murder of Hiroshima, it could be an epochal piece of filmmaking. If it diverges in the woods right around the Bix Beiderbecke mile marker, we might have to wait for a nine part series on The Great Depression.


A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at

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