A Letter to Ken Burns

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 Velvet, 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 all.

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 press.

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.

The 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 animals.

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 documentary.

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.

As 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.”

October4, 2007

Gary 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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