Thursday, September 27, 2007

Faith Works 9-29-07
Jeff Gill

If Only In Our Dreams

Tomorrow begins the second half of Ken Burns’ “The War” on public television, with last week repeated through the day tomorrow on most PBS stations.

You’ve probably heard that the story of World War II is covered largely from the point of view of the home front, using two small towns and two medium sized cities of the United States as the lenses to view this global conflict.

The selection of just the right pictures, now including color and movie clips alongside the classic “Ken Burns effect,” panning across old black and white photos, is complemented by precisely the narrator voice and exactly the music background for bringing out the unvarnished emotion of everyday men and women. Even the sound effects are just right, just so, justly praised.

An image from last week that sticks with me, as no doubt intended, is a shot of women in a Catholic church, kneeling in prayer while wearing black lace mantillas, loops of rosary beads between their hands. The picture homes in on those prayer cords, and then dissolves into IV tubing, held aloft by a corpsman tending a fallen comrade. Their helmeted, framed faces, drawn and weary, echo the women’s appearance as they prayed back home, the connections between them as real as a rosary, an IV, a vein.

Burns’ team at Florentine Films does a good job helping us sense the absolute lack of inevitability about war’s end, even in 1944, and anxiety about what that end would look like.

In my contact with Americans of the WWII generation, there’s a love of the song “White Christmas,” but the tune that can bring a room of them to absolute silence is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” When Bing sings, “you can count on me,” even us younger folk know he’s saying “as far as it’s in my power,” but we all know that the tone of the song is not about optimism for Christmas next, but a prayer for some Christmas soon, and not just in our dreams.

For many in service, Atlantic or Pacific theater of operations, the fall and winter of 1944 brought no easy confidence that the sharpest or the best would necessarily make it home. Many good men had fallen from the sky or been swallowed by hedgerows in Europe, and the vastness of the Pacific had consumed so much, so many already. They wanted to be home for Christmas, but feared that it would only be in the dreams of their loved ones.

Hispanic and other ethnic groups have already taken their shots at Burns and PBS for not emphasizing their own role in the conflict. I don’t want to get in that line, but I’m nagged at by the feeling that the place of faith in the motivations of Soldiers and Sailors and Marines, and how church and communion kept the home front connected, has not gotten much consideration.

You could even say that church groups had a role to play in how little they did to prevent “The War,” even that Mainline Protestants have some accountability in their eagerness to embrace warfare in World War I, the harshness they encouraged at Versailles, and the stage setting they helped provide for Hitler, both in Germany or around the world.

You could say that, but then you’d still be affirming that organized religion has an important role in public life, so we don’t even hear about the shortcomings.

Nor do we get much of the picture of when tens of thousands of volunteers, through a network of co-operating churches, fed and offered a smile to soldiers on trains crossing the country. In Kansas, in Illinois, in Dennison, Ohio, people of faith looked for ways to embody love in a time of war.

Chaplains served with honor, and without weapons, in every major ground and sea action of the war, giving the citizen combatants a place to wrestle with hard questions and harder realities of what they had done in their nation’s service. Mass on aircraft carriers, hymn sings in marble quarries, Yom Kippur observances under pine trees – all these are indelible images of the war from many veteran’s reminiscences.

The lack of such a perspective doesn’t take too much away from Ken Burns, but it does leave an interesting gap for someone to fill; we’d best not wait too much longer for that story, either.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of “The War” at

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