Monday, September 24, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 9-30-07
Jeff Gill

“The War” Comes Just In Time

My new computer came, some months ago, with a feature for managing photos and presenting them.
It includes a button whose label made me laugh. The caption says “Ken Burns Effect.”

I was amazed to hear that, with the rollout last week and next of Ken Burns’ next PBS feature “The War” on World War II, that his landmark “The Civil War” is now seventeen years in the past.

That program still feels like the breath of fresh air that it was in the popular understanding of the crucial events of 1861-1865 to this nation, but has worn so well, from the music, that included Licking County’s own Kenny Sidle, to tales like Sullivan Ballou’s final letter to his wife.

So seventeen years it is. In the same way, the events of World War II, which don’t seem any further away from me now then they did when I was a kid, are now surely further off.

1969 put the end of “The War” a quarter-century behind us, while I was just a child. Almost forty more years gone by, and those veterans who seemed so old then were younger than Vietnam vets are today, yet the survivors carry – many, maybe most, or so it seems to me – a bounce and vitality that makes their age of eighty or ninety-plus not seem quite the point.

Yet the hard fact is that we lose a thousand of the remaining witnesses to World War II now everyday, and that pace will not last long. It was that urgency which made Ken Burns retract his promise, seventeen years ago, to never try to tell the story of a war again, hearing Bob Dole and others speak in the planning for the now completed World War II Memorial in Washington DC. Burns and his team at Florentine Films set out across the country to find, ultimately, four towns (two towns and two cities, really) to frame his story of the war which, like nothing since the Civil War, touched “every home on every street in every community in America.” Which it did.

So what hath Burns wrought? I’ve only seen five hours of the fifteen that will be the whole (it continues on public television through this week, with a Sunday recap of the entirety in a block, and the inevitable DVD release). Some will no doubt dislike the fact that Burns does not call this “The Good War,” a title taken from Studs Terkel that is not a capsule summary of his point, anyhow; nor does he call this the “Greatest Generation,” a term Tom Brokaw may have copyrighted.

But Burns also wrestles with the moral dilemma of the necessity of this war, and does not lapse into trite foreshadowings of later wars less necessary from some points of view. He relentlessly hones in on the fact that war, no matter what the cause, takes a toll that is beyond understanding, but he wants us to try.

Oddly, if I had to sum up Ken Burns’ style, it wouldn’t be the characteristic pan and scan effect adding motion to still photos, or even his ruthless honesty. It is “restraint.”

So often there’s a scene, or a quote from an interview, or a fact that could, justifiably, bear further comment. The choice, over and over, is to hold back the “creative” input, and simply let the pause hang, the image burn, the statement stand.
A dog in a front yard, which turns out to be a house where a young man soon will enlist (as the Ken Burns effect pulls back, fluidly with an embrace of the viewer), can faintly heard to bark. Just a little louder, and it would have been corny; just a potentially cheesy, a whoosh from a passing car, brought to life in black and white with a swivel of the camera.

Then a soldier speaks of what it meant to watch friends die, and says his piece simply, without tears or elaboration. He stops and looks at his invisible interviewer, just over our right shoulder, and the camera holds. We think, and open a space for reflection.

“The War” is worth our time, as we think together as a nation in the coming election season about when, and how, and why a war is ever worth our time, our treasure, our blood. That space is hard to find, and Ken Burns both creates it, and makes us feel that we can safely occupy it for as long as we need to come to a calmer conclusion than we would in heated, harried, compressed debate.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your story of war or of peace with him at

No comments:

Post a Comment