Monday, September 24, 2007

'The War'

There is a moment near the end of the first episode of "The War," Ken Burns' brilliant, haunting new documentary on World War II, that sears the soul.

A vet is recalling a moment on Guadalcanal. The fighting became all but guerilla warfare --- close, continuous, hand to hand. Days into the battle, his squad came to rest during the night at a lonely spot in the jungle.

Behind him, the marine heard a gunshot, then a gasp for breath. The wounded man began to moan. It continued deep into the night.

Weary, the marine thought, "Just go ahead and die already. We need the rest."

In the morning, he discovered that the wounded marine, who passed away shortly before dawn, was his best friend.

"You can't imagine," he said, "what it does to you thinking that you wished that your best friend would die."

And so it goes, human stories of this variety, for two and a half hours. "The War" is as stunning as it is honest. Burns chooses to tell the story in microcosm, using the citizens of four towns in California, Minnesota, Connecticut and Alabama. What Burns has created is a stunning indictment of the cruelty of war, but also a reminder of the heights to which human beings can rise.

Critics are yelping that Burns doesn't represent everybody; the holier-than-thou New York Times review all but accuses Burns of jingoism.

They miss the point. A television documentary is limited. It simply can't tell everyone's story. And Burns is a master of telling uniquely American tales --- baseball, the Civil War, jazz. He's not attempting to put forth an exhausting piece on all facets of the war, but rather America's four year chapter of this very bloody affair.

Thinking back to the marine's words, one can't help but be proud of that so-called Greatest Generation. They whipped the depression and, when the time came, they whipped fascism and militarism too.

At its heart, "The War" is a soldier's story. It isn't about MacArthur, Eisenhower, Monty or Patton.

It's about the guy in the jungle, haunted by a buddy's death.

What a story it is.

"The War" airs nightly this week on PBS.

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