The War is swell

By CLIF GARBODEN  |  September 18, 2007

Coverage of the war in the Pacific, which gets livelier treatment overall, is highlighted by the story of the invasion of Saipan (in the standout episode “Pride of Our Nation,” September 26, which also covers D-Day), a segment that makes the stress, shock, and brutality of fighting all too real. Burns’s scenes of GIs liberating concentration camps are horrifying in ways that the often-shown film records no longer are.

Burns’s film says a lot, including much of the ugliness that for more than 50 years has been overshadowed by the victory or simply whitewashed. The attempt to impose truth on the legend is very much there. Still, the specifics of WW2 have been such a closely guarded (Greatest) generational secret that you want him to say more — to be more revealing, more critical, more iconoclastic. If nothing else, The War is blunt about the fact that people — a lot of frightened people — died. Perhaps that’s the ugliest truth Burns could expose about a popular tragedy that’s been so dear to the hearts and identities of so many.

Which brings us back to the film’s “does and doesn’t” internal conflict. By the late 1950s, VA hospitals were overflowing with alcoholics; there’s no direct acknowledgment of that in The War. In the final installment (“A World Without War,” October 2), several of the interview subjects do confess to untreated post-traumatic stresses — inescapable nightmares, survivor’s guilt, even to living years “on the brink of madness.” The military shrinks, if they saw any, told them, “Act normal and you’ll feel normal.” That seldom worked, it seems. For its combat veterans, “the war,” the film flatly concludes, “would not go away.”

Perhaps that’s why they never talked about it.

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