A Letter to Ken Burns

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Dear Mr. Burns:

I have viewed
your documentary, The
Civil War
, many times over the last 15 years. I always enjoy
the experience. It is both informative and entertaining. I say this
as someone with a Ph.D. in American history.

I have viewed
The War once. I do not intend to view it again.

A lot of reviewers
will write reviews of The War. I doubt that many of them
will say that this film is superior to The Civil War. Artistically,
it does not come close.

What went
wrong? Several things, two of which were crucial. You neglected
two fundamental factors in all successful historical narratives:
(1) most of the people discussed or interviewed must be representative
of the specific events discussed; (2) most of the specific events
discussed must have been significant to the outcome of the overall
story. With respect to both factors — people and events —
these words should apply: “It could have turned out differently,
and if it had, the present would be visibly different.”

There were
secondary weaknesses, as I shall mention, but your failure to recognize
these two facts undermined The War.

“It could
have turned out differently.” Perhaps these six words are too much
to handle in a video documentary. I shall boil down the six to two:
“So what?”


You took a
peculiar strategy to organizing this documentary. You took four
towns as home base for the entire series. With respect to the towns
and the individuals, this was a multi-million dollar “So what?”

You could have
selected four other towns. It would have made no fundamental difference
to the outcome. It would have required a slightly different narrative.
But because the outcome of the war and any battle would have been
the same, the question remains: “So what?”

You were trying
to present the war from the perspective of the folks back home.
That is a legitimate artistic goal, but you did not clearly provide
an answer for the crucial words: “So what?” The folks back home
in the United States did not suffer much, compared to other civilian
populations. (Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians
were also out of the line of fire. But you never mentioned them,
for obvious marketing reasons.)

You ignored
the churches back home, the volunteer societies back home, the schools
back home, and the entertainment back home — in short, life
back home. We repeatedly are shown a photo of the Palace movie theater
in Luverne, Minnesota. The marquee advertised National
, a 1944 film starring Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth
Taylor. Why that movie in 1944? You never mentioned movies during
the war. To see who a people are, we need to know about their dreams
and fantasies and goals. Other than “bring the boys home” and “ration
stamps are a nuisance,” your film ignored the dreams of the folks
back home, except for some segments on civil rights for Afro-Americans,
which were no worse in 1944 than in 1934, that is to say, terrible
— for the entire New Deal era.

Consider the
battles. In a few cases, your script did devote a very small portion
of the narrative to “it could have gone either way.” One battle
comes to mind: Anzio. The narrator says that General Lucas was a
cautious man. He built up supplies in preparation for the move from
the beach to the countryside. This gave the Germans, who had been
caught by surprise, time to reinforce their defenses. This cost
thousands of American lives and months in the trenches. Yet you
showed no photo of General Lucas. He was the key, yet you spent
the rest of the segment on Anzio with stock footage of troops shooting,
digging in, and lying dead on the ground. “So what?”

You could have
spliced in the public domain film clips in a different order. You
could even have selected clips from different battles. The film
clips illustrated . . . what? Fighting? “So what?”

If you had
used this four-town, common-men strategy with Baseball,
at least 95% of the documentary would have been devoted to the story
of reserve infielders on four minor league A teams. So what?


Military history
is mostly the story of generals and grunts. Occasionally, there
is a civilian who makes a difference.

The War
mentioned General Erwin (actually pronounced Ervin, not “Erwin”)
Rommel in the North African tank battles. The narrative mentioned
briefly that his tanks ran out of fuel. It did not explain why.
He ran out because German tankers were being sunk at a record pace
by the British. The British Navy could do this because British cryptanalysts
at Bletchley Park had broken Germany’s Enigma code. These code-breakers
could have been represented on-screen by the genius mathematician
Alan Turing. You never featured any of them. You also never mentioned
Joe Rochefort, whose team in Hawaii in early 1942 used an IBM computer
to break enough of the Japanese Navy’s code to pinpoint where the
Japanese fleet would attack Midway and when. Without Rochefort,
that battle would have gone the other way, if it had occurred at

To the extent
that a grunt is representative of lots of others, it is legitimate
to give him some time. You did this well in The Civil War
with extracts from the writings of Elijah Hunt Rhodes (Union) and
Sam Watkins (Confederacy). But if you had tried to build the entire
series around them, the documentary would have resembled The
War. It would not have been a path-breaking artistic event.
It would not today be a classic.

The reason
why generals are important in military history is that they make
the decisions that are of the “it could have gone either way” variety.
Rarely, there is an exception. Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s defense
of Little Round Top was an exception at Gettysburg, and he won the
Congressional Medal of Honor for it. He is in the history textbooks
because of it. But such exploits of field-grade officers are rare.
They are sometimes heroic, but they do not affect the outcome of
a battle.

The cigars
wrapped in Lee’s plans for Antietam changed military history, but
no one but Antietam buffs remembers the names of the Union soldiers
who found them. Like the cigars, they were interchangeable.

You tried to
tell the story of World War II without the generals. The result
is not much superior to Victory
at Sea
, but with an inferior musical score. It is mostly
public domain film clips.


Your Civil
War documentary did not use moving images. You therefore covered
for the lack of movement with still photos, paintings, tight narration,
and voice-overs of primary source documents. This was how professional
historians write history, and always have in the era of the printing

Here is the
key artistic fact: the stills reinforced the narrative in The
Civil War. With The War, the narrative reinforced the
stock footage shot by military cameramen. Contrary to the slogan,
one picture is rarely worth a thousand words, but a carefully selected
image can illustrate a tightly written 100 words. A brief moving
image of one readily substitutable film clip conveys little information,
and it forces the narrative to conform to what is on the screen.
This debases the narrative. It puts the film editor in charge. Ultimately,
it puts the military conscripts who shot the film in charge.

You devoted
not one word to the cameramen, their function in the military effort,
their work, and their centrality to your documentary. Here were
grunts that provided images to the folks back home. You gave us
a little Ernie Pyle and a tad of Bill Mauldin, plus a couple of
Willie and Joe cartoons, but you ignored the cameramen and their
work’s effect on the folks back home.

You also did
not mention Lowell Thomas, the man whose voice covered the newsreels
in extract after extract — the Keith David of World War II.
Why not? Because he was the supreme documentary propagandist of
his era?

You have called
this documentary a poem. If it is, then it is doggerel. The poetry
of The Civil War rested on the power of the narrative. The
doggerel of The War rested on the film clips, one no more
illuminating than another, for 14 hours.


Your use of
maps was first rate. Military historiography without maps is like
military history without maps: almost blind. As surely as officers
need maps, so do military documentaries. You get an A in maps.

Your selection
of popular music from the era was sometimes appropriate, but only
for those viewers who remember the music, which might include some
of the children of the era’s participants: my generation. These
days, this is a limited and shrinking audience. Yes, showing a machine
and a worker hammering in sync with Gene Krupa’s introductory drumming
in Sing, Sing, Sing (1938) was creative. But that was it.
You never again reached this degree of creativity in integrating
the music with what was on screen.

The music was
not integral with the film in the way that the music was integral
with The Civil War. It did not set the mood. It was background
to a series of moving images. It functioned more as Muzak than as
emotion-shaping art. The music in The Civil War was aesthetically
more powerful because it reinforced a more powerful narrative.


The closest
thing to a philosophical summary of your documentary that you allow
on camera comes in the introduction to Episode 7, the final episode.
You begin with a photo of a German soldier about to shoot a man,
who sits at the edge of a pit filled with corpses. We hear a voice.
Then, mid-sentence, we see who is speaking: a Marine pilot who has
appeared in several episodes as an eyewitness.

You used him
in Episode 1 to present your thesis that World War II was a necessary
war. There, you bring him into view immediately after “A Florentine
Films Production.” He tells us that he never questioned the necessity
of the war. It was something that had to be done. In Episode 7,
his statement is deeply religious — more religious than anything
you present in the other film clips.

world contains evil, and if it didn’t contain evil, we probably
wouldn’t need to try to construct religions. “No evil — no
God,” I think.

It would be
extremely difficult to construct a confession of faith that is more
diametrically at odds with the American view of religion than this.
This declaration is not mere atheism. This is Sigmund Freud’s theory
of religion, stated more baldly than anything I have ever seen in
a media product aimed at the broad American public. This is not
a documentary on the wide varieties of fringe religious opinions
in America. This is your carefully crafted introduction to the final
episode. He continued:

No, of course,
“No evil — no war.” But this is not a human possibility that
we need to entertain. There will always be plenty of evil. And
there will always be wars . . . because human beings are aggressive

Here is the
Darwinian worldview in a nutshell. Man is not a creature made by
God in God’s image. He is therefore not in moral rebellion against
God. Man is autonomous — an aggressive animal. Ours is a universe
in which war stems from an innate evil in man, and so does the idea
of God itself. This is a worldview that places man at the apex,
with evil as his defining characteristic.

This confession
of faith undercuts his introductory statement in Episode 1 and also
your film: that some wars are just wars and necessary wars. If this
Marine is correct, then all wars are inescapable and hence equally
necessary, because men are aggressive animals. Excuses for wars
are cover-ups justifying brutality and evil. Ultimately, so is your

From now on,
whenever I think of The War, I shall think: a necessary documentary.
It is necessary, on its own terms, because war is necessary, and
men, in their need to create God, also need to justify their aggressive
behavior. Your documentary justifies America’s participation in
the greatest military slaughter of all time. You no more questioned
it than that Darwinian Marine pilot questioned it.

The military
commanders on all sides conscripted cameramen to risk their lives
in order to document this devastating war, in which 50 to 60 million
people died, mostly civilians. They did this to provide footage
for the newsreel producers back home. Lowell Thomas was the apologist
of his day. You have become the retroactive apologist of our day.
You are the spiritual heir of the military propagandists who sent
those cameramen into the valley of the shadow of death. There is
nothing like royalty-free public domain film clips to get the original
message across to the PBS audience. And then, for the more sophisticated
among this group, you included the testimony of a Marine who has
picked up way too much Freud for his own good.


When I think
of The War, I think: “It could have turned out differently.”
In other words, “So what?” There were bullets fired, men killed,
bombs dropped, civilians incinerated. Yet the central thesis of
the film — necessary war — you did not attempt to prove.
At the very end, we learned of the death camps in Germany. But they
were not why the United States entered the war. Hitler, in the 20th
century’s supreme act of military stupidity, declared war on the
United States on December 11, which the Axis pact did not require
him to do, since Japan had attacked the United States. The pact
governed defensive wars only. The U.S. government systematically
suppressed information about the camps throughout the war.

for the war in Asia, you made no attempt to show why we fought.
In The Civil War, you gave some background in the initial
segment. Not in The War. You did not call the Civil War necessary.
You did not attempt to prove that World War II was necessary for
the United States. You ignored Roosevelt’s aggressive,
interventionist foreign policy

So, in the
spirit of the battle of Antietam, I close with this comment: “Nice
try. No cigars.”

4, 2007

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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