Tuned In

Ken Burns, the Interview: Episode 3–War and Gore

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It’s interesting from the standpoint of today to see the images of death and gore that made it into the popular media and newsreels at the time.

KB: And the sequencing of that, which went from absolute buttoned-down control, where no one knew until after the war the actual casualties and loss and materiel at Pearl Harbor, to that one Life magazine photograph [of dead soldiers' bodies] to the stuff at Tarawa [a U.S. newsreel about the battle], where they were literally showing stuff that our government doesn’t show now. Dead bodies coming back in caskets, dead bodies at the beach, lapping up at the shore. I think it raises a lot of questions about what’s the role of the populace in a democracy. If you’re going to elect representatives to send you to war, you got to be damn well sure it’s a necessary war, and the only reason why you know that is that you’re inculcated with the mathematics, the costs, the calculus of what war is. And that’s I think, in some ways what we’ve done.

It was amazing to see with the Tarawa newsreel, the White House not arguing that the footage would demoralize people but that it was necessary to bolster support for the war.

KB: Now, can we tell you the follow-up? Enlistment went down. Of course, right? No mother, after seeing that, is going to let her son enroll. And war bond funding went up. It wasn’t what they had in mind, but it was one of those unintended consequences, and it issued from real political courage.

LN: I think they have to prepare people. By 1943, we only had, I’m going to guess, 15-20% of the total casualties. The government knew it was only going to get exponentially worse, as we moved forward, invaded France and got further in the Pacific. They wanted to prepare the public, to internalize what was going to happen, the bodies that were going to come home. To keep it at arm’s length would have been counterproductive.

KB: In the Civil War, they looked at all those [Mathew] Brady photographs, the dead bodies, the maimed–people just couldn’t get enough of it.