"The War" Begins


It is a sign of how politically polarized our times have become AND of how coo-coo for cocoa puffs most of the anti-war, anti-Bush mob now is, that Ken Burns, darling of the PBS crowd is being criticized from the left in the pages of the New York Times.

Yes, that’s right. New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley reviewed the latest Ken Burns documentary in advance and she found the multi-part epic about what Americans experienced during World War II to be . . . well . . . way too focused on what Americans experienced during World War II.

I wish I were kidding. Here are the opening lines of Stanley’s review:

 World War II didn’t happen just to us.

But it would be hard to glean that from Ken Burns’ 7-night, 15-hour tribute to the greatest generation that ever bought war bonds, joined the Marines or tightened rivets on a B-17 Flying Fortress.

We’re fewer than 50 words into the review and we’re already ankle deep in snarky derision for the admiration most of us feel for those who pulled the country through those years. I’ll wager Stanley wrestled with whether or not to put the phrase greatest generation in quotes.  

As you may know Ken Burns became a nerd-celebrity for nerds like me back in the 1990 when he released his groundbreaking PBS documentary, “The Civil War.” The monumental work pioneered a new way to communicate history—in fact it elevated history-telling as an art form. A few years later, Burns’ series on the history of Jazz had me riveted to my television set every night for its entire original run. It remains, to this day, one of the most fascinating and well-crafted pieces of story telling I’ve ever experienced.

One of the things that made Burns an icon on the left was his passionate commitment to telling the story of blacks in America–their struggles and their progress. This comes through naturally in his histories of the Civil War and jazz but is especially prominent in his series on the history of baseball, where he devotes a significant percentage of the work to chronicling the “Negro Leagues.”

Thus, it is all the more striking to find Allesandra Stanley painting Burns as not quite a jingo-istic flag-waver who might show up at a Sean Hannity “support the troops” rally. Just what is eating Stanley? We don’t have to wade very deeply into her piece to find out:

The tone and look of Mr. Burns’s series, which begins Sunday on PBS, is as elegiac and compelling as any of his previous works, but particularly now, as the conflict in Iraq unravels, this degree of insularity — at such length and detail — is disconcerting.

 Ahhh, so there it is. The “conflict in Iraq,” which “unravels” apparently rather than unfolds or continues or, heaven-forbid, progresses. 

I keep forgetting that right now everything has to be about Iraq/Bush. For the Left, it is the dark, coke-bottle-thick lens through which every subject must be viewed:

“Hey, how ’bout them Cowboys?”

“Yes, Romo made the Bears’ defense look as inept as the Bush administration’s handling of the post-9/11 milieu.”

“Uh. Yeah. They managed to score some points, there. . .”

“Just like Barbara Boxer scored points when she pointed out what shill Betrayus was for the failed Bush policy in Iraq.”


But Ms. Stanley is only getting warmed up:

Many a “Frontline” documentary has made a convincing case that the Bush administration’s mistakes were compounded by the blinkered thinking of leaders who rushed to war without sufficient support around the world or understanding of the religious and sectarian strains on the ground. Examining a global war from the perspective of only one belligerent is rarely a good idea.

Let’s set aside Stanley’s childlike faith that the testimony of a preponderance of Frontline documentaries constitutes irrefutable truth. . .

What she is declaring here is that Ken Burns, who has built an astonishing reputation chronicling the American experience; whose singular genius is telling the stories of individual Americans, and whose passion is to communicate the reality of American history through the photos, home movies, letters and spoken words of Americans—should have laid all that aside in the service of both the liberal war on the Bush administration and  of general global awareness raising.


By all means do read the whole thing, especially if you’re of a mind to see how completely around the bend the media elites have careened. Even better, watch the series if you can. I caught part of it last night and am recording every episode.

From what I saw, this review in the Wall Street Journal was much closer to the mark. In it, Dorothy Rabinowitz knocks Burns for going out of his way to avoid any hint of triumphalism or glory in the Allied victory. She writes:

The result is a war documentary whose tone of unyielding glumness is, itself, at war much of the time with the story it tells — with, indeed, the character of the Americans who come so vividly to life in it.

Even so, I’ll watch every frame—each one of which will remind me what a country serious about winning a war looks and acts like. Then I’ll look our nation and weep.