Friday, September 14, 2007

One aspect of "The War" that Ken Burns probably won't be telling us about.

Nine days from now, PBS will begin presenting the latest documentary from one of the masters of the genre, Ken Burns. The War is a seven part series that, according to the official series web site, will “[tell] the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history — a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America — and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.”

Well, I’d chime in that even in “ordinary times” (please tell me when those happen, okay?), there are no “ordinary lives," but that’s another post…

Anyway, I really like the work of Ken Burns. If I could afford them, I’d own copies of his other “masterpieces,” The Civil War and Jazz and Baseball. Yes, I know some people quibble and fuss over his work, particularly about what he “leaves out” or emphasizes “at the expense” of something else. Critics complained, for two examples, that there were “too many white musicians” discussed in his Jazz series, or that it seemed like an awful lot of Baseball focused on the teams from New York (one in particular) and Boston. Those might be fair points, but I have to ask in response, can you please tell me, of anyone else who has ever devoted 1, 140 minutes to the subject of jazz, or anything close to that, anywhere? I’ll wait… Didn’t think so. I think Ken Burns does amazing work, and I can still watch those three series over and over again and never be bored by them. It helps that I’m fascinated by the subject matter to start with, but I know many people who were especially entranced by The Civil War, who came away with a new understanding of our most important and definitive national tragedy.

Now comes The War, Burns’ treatment of World War Two. He says he wanted to do this after he learned that something like 2,000 WW2 vets die every day (correct that figure if I’m mis-paraphrasing). Realizing that there would soon come a time when all these folks would be gone, Burns wanted to get their up close and personal recollections and reflections on film, before it was too late. It’s a terrific idea. To me, oral history by the “every day people” who lived it is the most interesting kind. And now, instead of having actors and actresses read what someone else wrote about their experiences, we will see the faces of those who were there, and hear their words from their own mouths. And hearts.

I will watch every minute of this series, and I’ll be watching particularly closely to see if Burns spends any time on the issue of conscientious objectors. Several thousand Americans refused to allow themselves to be conscripted into military service during “The Good War,” a war that the overwhelming majority of people believe had to be fought and had to be won to save the world from evil. Some entered non-combat military service, and served bravely and valiantly in the military as combat medics, ambulance drivers, or hospital workers. Some were part of Civilian Public Service (CPS), and worked as smoke-jumpers, attendants in mental hospitals (who were responsible for many important reforms in the treatment of the patients in the “snake pit” institutions of the 1940s), as laborers on civilian construction projects (such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike), or as human ”guinea pigs” who allowed themselves to be test subjects in various medical experiments. Some others refused to be part of the “system” in any way, and went to federal prison for their beliefs, where they suffered as if they were common criminals. Some suffered more than that, because of why they were there.

I spent many, many hours reading about these brave Americans this past summer. I still have a couple thick books left to read. I was amazed that, even with all the stuff I’ve read about World War Two over the years (yeah, a Quaker military history nut: go figure), I’d never heard about this aspect of our history. In fact, until I became a Quaker, I’d never heard about this at all, at least in the context of World War Two. Conscientious objection was not a wide-spread movement during this war, but it does say something about the spirit and character of these men that they could stand up to what had to be enormous pressure to resist participating in something they felt was morally wrong, based on their (primarily but not always) religious beliefs (most COs were members of traditional "peace churches," such as Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren).

There were many COs who refused to fight in Vietnam, but with the end of the draft, anyone who now wishes to opt out of service can simply refuse to enlist (although males still have to register for Selective Service or face legal penalties). At least for now, that is. Some current military personnel are refusing deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, or they are refusing to return after having been overseas. The media is ignoring them, as are many folks who should know better here in cyberspace. (You can read about - and sign up to support - them right here, gang.) They deserve our respect and support, if we really believe in peace.

So, we’ll see if Ken Burns mentions this particular band of brothers starting on September 23rd. I’ll be watching. But I won’t be surprised if that particular brand of heroism is ignored. I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with what’s in my books. And with spreading the word.

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