Even at 16 hours, The War can’t cover everything. It dwells on individual trials, weaves in some strategic history, and (quite lucidly) chronicles the war’s trajectory. The ugly side is discussed as well as the victorious; one vet bluntly describes a mission as like being dropped into “Hell’s own cesspool.” We get accounts and film depicting death, filth, shell shock, and mental breakdown. Vets lament the loss of life on both sides. A Pacific Theater vet admits that his unit murdered Japanese POWs. Burns pays attention to the stateside internment camps where Japanese and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned, and to the racism that confronted African-Americans at home and in the services. The Hiroshima footage pulls no punches. And one interview subject, 75-combat-mission pilot Quentin Aanenson, offers brilliantly thoughtful and unsettling commentary on the situation ethics of killing.
But it’s all personal. The War neatly sidesteps politics, diplomacy, dissent, propaganda, and doubt. When it comes to ideology, Burns’s war is black and white: aggressors bad, defenders good. It was a “necessary war,” behind which everyone in America was united. With the exception of one hysterical Gold Star mother who refused to accept her son’s absence, survivors of the conflict’s 405,399 deaths, it seems, took their personal losses in sorrowful stride. We learn about massive homefront scrap-metal drives; what we’re not told is that most of the pots and pans collected were buried in landfills. There’s mention of the black market provoked by food rationing, but everything’s mostly “will sacrifice” and “can do.”
Some of that certainly rings false, but it may well be a reflection of the prevailing wartime ethos, unimaginable though that is today. So if the success of a film is measured by how well it fulfills its self-defined mission, The War, subtitled An Intimate History, is something of a documentary masterpiece. It covers what it covers — perception. Ambivalence is kept out of the frame.
What else the film doesn’t cover has become a sore subject. After Burns had spent six years producing the thing, a University of Texas journalism professor discovered that no Hispanics had been interviewed, and identity-politics advocates began sounding the expected one-note complaint. There was a bit of a public-relations kafuffle, and Burns, who rightly refused to recut his movie, did shoot interviews with two Hispanic Marine vets and some Native Americans. These segments are presented, at the ends of episodes one and five (“A Necessary War,” September 23, and “FUBAR,” September 30), respectively, after the original cut of each installment (but before the credits). Necessary or not (500,000 Hispanic-Americans and 44,000 Native-Americans served in WW2, as opposed to 2.5 million African-Americans, who are part of the original production), these compromise additions stick out like the token accommodations that they are. They don’t hurt anything, but you’ll probably squirm a little — especially when one of the interview subjects brags about the Hispanic warrior ethic. Gays, by the way, aren’t mentioned at all.
The sheer mass of The War insulates it from detailed critique (or even description — see www.pbs.org/thewar/ for the particulars, or buy the $50 companion book). Opening sequences for each episode are leaden-paced, and that may lull viewers into channel-surfing. But there are shining hours to compensate. “FUBAR,” which deals with our military leadership’s fatal mistakes, takes the war back to the Catch-22 environment where 21st-century viewers are comfortable, and we get broad hints of the camaraderie of cynicism rampant within the ranks.