Tuned In

Ken Burns, the Interview: Episode 4–That War and This War

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Did you conceive this project before–

KB & LN: –before 9/11.

KB: And most of the interviews were done–and I’m thinking particularly of Sam Hynes’ interview–before the invasion of Iraq. So that when he says, in the beginning of the film, “There’s no such thing as a good war, only necessary wars and just wars,” and then we call episode 1 A Necessary War, we are not making even a veiled reference to Iraq. But I promise you, that when people see that, they’ll think of that. That when Sam Hynes in Saipan starts talking about Japanese atrocities, and says, “And we thought we weren’t capable of that, although I don’t know what Americans would do under similar circumstances,” people might think of Abu Ghraib or My Lai. When people complain in later episodes about not getting the right equipment–which is endemic to all wars–or generals making the wrong decisions, or politicians thinking about the upcoming elections, these are universal realities of war that just happen to be there accidentally. But we’re not unmindful that they will engage people with questions about the current situation. That’s the only reason why you do history. You’re not going to change what happened on June 6, 1944, but you’re going to ask questions that are going to help us on Sept. 11, 2007.

Do you think you made the same film you would have had the 9/11 attacks not happened?

LN: Definitely.

KB: I think so, with one exception. [To LN, who seems surprised or maybe chagrinned] And I’ve taken my cue from you. Which is that Sept. 11 is a watershed event like Dec. 7 [1941]. So in a country reeling as we have become in the last six years, by the time we are doing many of the interviews, by the reaction to Sept. 11, a lot of these people were very mindful that they had lived through the bookends, the parentheses of universal age-old things. So the same feelings that 9/11 provoked in us were not dissimilar to some of the same feelings that were provoked in them by Pearl Harbor. I think some of those post-Pearl Harbor feelings were available to them in a way that 9/11 helped to promote.

Do you expect The War to affect the discussion over the Iraq War?

LN: We’re curious to see how people–we don’t know how it will play out now. We got really interesting responses from [a screening at West Point]. Military community people loved it, because they feel that it’s showing a realistic portrait of what war is. The cadets and the professors kept saying, “We want the American people to know what war is.This is what we have to go deal with when we go overseas. [Civilians] don’t know. We have this alternative, parallel universe totally apart from the mainstream of society. This will really help people to understand what we go through and what happens when we come back, and who we are when we come back.”

KB: We have a separate military class now that suffers all of its losses apart and alone from the rest of us. When we travel around, I always ask the audiences, “Who knows somebody in Iraq?” It’s maybe two percent. I think people yearn for the kind of memory of shared sacrifice that the Second World War represents, and shared sacrifice that made us richer. I mean, that’s the amazing thing. Now we’re all free agents. We don’t give up nothin’. We were asked after 9/11 to go shopping. I mean, we could be celebrating today our total freedom from dependence from foreign oil. We could have saved money to attend to our infrastructure so that our levees wouldn’t breach and our bridges wouldn’t collapse. You never know what could have happened if we had been asked a set of questions. But it was sort of, “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it–we’ll take care of it.” And in fact it hasn’t been taken care of, and our military is strained, and when you arrive at West Point, the flag is perpetually at half staff and soldiers the age of my middle daughter are going to Iraq, and they want us to tell the story so that the American people actually know what’s happening–that blew away a lot of our preconceptions.

LN: They [West Point students] asked the most interesting questions. They weren’t interested in the tactics, which is what the future generals at West Point are learning about, the maps and the arrows and the strategies and the decisions. You’d think they would be drawn to that. But maybe because of the kind of film it is and the level of the military that they’re at, they were interested in the spiritual, psychological and emotional aspects of combat. … We get asked if the film will change people’s view of Iraq, but it seems that you can look at it and find reflections and implications from many different points of view.

KB: The film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes was this Romanian film about abortion. After [the screening] this woman came up to me and said, “Do you think that film was pro-choice or pro-life?” I said, “Both.” Because it’s the obligation of the art to transcend the dialectic. I wouldn’t be surprised if enlistment went up and antiwar political will went up as a result of [The War].