'The War' on PBS: Burning History

by DeeDee Halleck, Hand-Held Visions

Ken Burns' doc on WWII is playing as I write this. His sentimental gung-ho-for-war film comes just in time to rev up the sagging military support in this country.

All the discussion about the series I have read has been about what was left out--i.e. Latinos, Native Americans and women. But looking at the series now, I wonder why anyone would ever want their history to be included in that war mongering schlock. Oh, I know that it will be used by a generation of junior high school teachers as the definitive view of the war, but the whole series should be protested, not just the affront to Latinos and women.

Eric Breitbart wrote a detailed critique: The Burns Effect. It was written about a documentary about Andy Warhol, but as his son Josh says: but the first half is a thoroughgoing critique of the entire Burns body of work and its impact on documentary
filmmaking."

If you want to see a more incisive look at WWII go to The Battle of San Pietro, John Huston's film (public domain) which has been posted on archive.org Although commissioned by the US gov to provide propaganda for the war, Huston's searing film was so disturbing, initially the Defense Department wouldn't let it be shown. As my friend filmmaker Cambiz Khosravi has pointed out, one of the things completely missing from Burns' epic is any reflection on the role of the cameramen in the war and the use of their images in period newsreels.

In fact, some of the footage is used to represent places and times which are not accurate. It is not error. It is deliberate. I am on a Visual Anthropology list and received this from Jay Ruby, one of the founders of that field:

"Ken Burns' latest epic "The War" (World War II) is currently being broadcast on the U.S. public TV network. He is routed as "Mister Documentary Film" in the states. Since his first epic series on the U.S. Civil War I have been extremely uncomfortable with his misuse of photographs. I have heard him say in a public forum that it does not matter to him if the photo is actually a portrayal of what he implies it is as long as it "looks" good and fits into his storyline. As scholars of the image this should bother us a lot and yet I can find almost no criticism of his work. Am I missing some critics that I should read?"

I am fairly familiar with military footage from the Caribbean and Central America which I researched for both my films Haiti; Bitter Cane and The Gringo In Mañanaland. In one of the segments in The War, there was footage of Marines in training. I know that footage-- it was from the 1920s in Haiti! I recognized the parade ground in Port Au Prince and had seen that footage at San Bernadino Air Force Base years ago when Marine footage was stored there. It is fairly easy to identify such footage. I guess Burns and his "historian consultants" don't really care.

At the end of each episode, the corporate "moments" come on. PBS can't call them commercials and still be a "non commercial" network.
The Anheuser Busch "moment" is a shot of their iconic horse drawn beer wagon crossing paths on some desert road with a group of humvees and troop trucks. The troops wave at the teamsters with jolly hellos. As they pass a text come up saying as best as I can remember it, "We salute those who serve."

Here're some excerpts from a piece in The Hollywood Reporter called Big Sponsors Flank "War" by Gail Schiller:

...."For the corporate partners, the association with "War" and Burns is an image builder.

"A program like this, given its content and subject matter, allows us to create a serious and emotional connection with our customers when they know we're getting behind preserving a seminal moment in our history," said Rena DeSisto, arts and culture executive for Bank of America.

Bank of America is promoting "War" with tune-in messaging on its Web site, the checking statements of its customers -- who number 57 million -- and on its 17,000 ATM screens nationwide. Bank of America also has purchased outdoor media in Boston, New York and its hometown of Charlotte, N.C., and print ads in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and Newsweek.

Anheuser-Busch is promoting "War" with vignettes on the company's Times Square digital display and on Budweiser.com and with advertising on Budweiser delivery trucks, signage in its theme parks and with the special edition Budweiser can and packaging. Bank of America and Budweiser also are sponsoring premieres in the four towns where the veterans are interviewed in the docu. And Bank of America is sponsoring a New York gala premiere Sept. 17 at the Museum of Modern Art.

GM is buying print ads in the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Automotive News and radio ads on XM Satellite Radio and in six spot markets including Los Angeles, Miami and Washington. The automaker also is running online banner ads on GM.com beginning Sept. 22 and sponsored a screening of the film with Burns for more than 400 guests at the Library of Congress in June.

"Ken has sort of become America's historian, and at GM we feel it's an advantage for us to be associated with these stories of the American experience because of our position in society and our place in American popular culture, even though none of the films has been about GM at all," said Ryndee Carney, manager of advertising and marketing communications for GM.

In additional to all its traditional media buys, PBS on Sept. 1 began running ads for the docu in more than 4,300 movie theaters nationwide. It is distributing bingo cards branded with "The War" to bingo halls and postcards with tune-in messaging to Jewish community centers, American Legion halls, Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations, VA hospitals, Shriners and Rotary Clubs in PBS' 16 media markets. PBS also is targeting college students with posters in history departments on 300 campuses."

Here is a comment I received from UCSD:

I'm a new grad student in the Comm Dept with a background in documentary film and video production. Two nights ago, I watched about 20 minutes of The War before I turned it off. I'm not going to watch the rest of it, and I certainly hope it doesn't "rev up the sagging military support in this country." I have faith that more people are watching Grey's Anatomy and American Idol.

The "publicly acceptable" portrayal of America's military past--beyond WW II--has disturbed me deeply since the 9/11 attacks. I've been working on a doc video for years now about men who reenact battles from the Revolutionary War in New England, a topic I was drawn to after I went to see a reenactment of the Battle of Lexington in 2002. The post-9/11 patriotic buzz was in the air, and somehow, the press played the story of the 1775 encounter as a parallel to that 2002 moment: innocent Americans died, so others had to avenge their deaths to preserve the land of liberty.

The Pearl Harbor segment (the bit that I saw) of The War played the same mythic storyline.

I don't doubt that Burns may actually agree with this overall theme, but I do wonder how much control over content PBS corporate sponsors hold over the project. Understanding the past and selling something new have always been at odds, it seems to me. I can't imagine that beer companies want their product associated with anything but the most PG of veterans. I read a review in the New Yorker about how sanitized this series was--practically no cursing in a 15 hour series about men killing each other. Makes me wonder what else he left out and why...

AND THESE ARE OTHER COMMENTS FROM THE VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY LIST:

"In general, what bugs me more than anything is that PBS has been dedicating weeks of time to several films about WAR...... part of US media campaigns to keep US citizens in a rah rah mood to support the Iraq war. The "support the troops while they continue to die for what?" campaign is raising the pressure all over the country. "

Yes, it's about Iraq, but perhaps more for revving up the country for the imminent invasion of Iran.

and another thought from the list:

"There's a great thesis: Does the Ken Burns "style" of using visual media with little or no reference to historical or political context (perhaps even blatant disregard for it), and the use of this tool to glorify war, and elicit emotional response to that glorification in his public television audience, actually work to depoliticize things like war in a time of war, by hyping the glory of war (in a sensitive and respectful way, of course!)"

article originally published at http://deedeehalleck.blogspot.com/2007/09/burning-history.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey