Every owner of a TV set could follow week by week the fate of the protagonists of Ken Burns's landmark documentary series The Civil War, because it was Channel 1 that aired it 15 years ago. To catch his WW II epic requires a cable subscription or the wherewithal to purchase the boxed set. Either way, local viewers will get their money's worth, even though - or because - the series examines this worst of historical disasters through an American lens.
The first two episodes alone, which air this week on YES Docu, display archival treasures that set off a rethink of long-held conceptions about the era. That the New York Times decided that the ongoing slaughter of European Jews was not news fit to print, burying the odd mention in its back pages, is well-known. So it is surprising - shocking, actually - to see a photo spread of the Polish Jews herded into the Warsaw Ghetto in a 1941 issue of Life magazine. Among the photos of piles of Jewish corpses, the documentary camera hovers over one of a man holding an anguished Jewish toddler with exposed skull and starvation-bloated stomach.
The fate of the Jews is not the focus of the film, of course, but like any WW II documentary, it will be a subtext for most local viewers and seems to be one for Burns as well. Running archival footage of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast being loaded on to trains headed for desert internment camps, the narrator explains that these were "concentration camps, for all intents and purposes."
Of course they weren't, but at this point the viewer has shivered at the sight of American citizens being shipped off to a mysterious destination and feels no desire to quibble over terminology. At the same time, this segment follows an agonizing description of the Baatan Death March and the vicious - almost cultish - cruelty that tens of thousands of Filipino and American soldiers suffered at the hands of their Japanese counterparts after surrendering. Sixty years later, one teenage soldier survivor declares that had he known what was waiting for them, he would have chosen death.
With such anguish and loss taking place in a war which the Japanese literally forced on the Americans, the juxtaposition of the West Coast home front and the Pacific Ocean battle front, faithful enough to historical sequence, set one viewer to appreciating the fact that no need ever arose to intern Japanese-Americans for their own safety. In fact, a Japanese-American farmer interviewee recalls that when he and his family were sent to the internment camps, his strawberry harvest was saved by a neighbor.
Burns has declared in interviews that his intention was to undo the notion of World War II as "the good war." But in his film, Burns honors both his precious archival material and his I-was-there interviewees by not letting his own agenda get in the way of an incredible story. As for the unavoidable comparisons to the Iraq conflict, both pro- and anti-war advocates will find plenty of ammunition.