In the 1980s, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns created what may be the most riveting and revolutionary documentary in television history, The Civil War. While many have tried to recapture this lightning in a bottle including Burns and Ward themselves they've never quite reached that compelling mix of conflict and human emotion. That will change this fall when PBS airs another Burns and Ward documentary about another war the Second World War. The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, is the companion volume to the series, and if words and pictures are any indication of what is to come, this could be another watershed cultural moment.
The two authors freely admit in the book's introduction that an event like WWII is too big, too multifaceted, to even attempt anything like a comprehensive look. Instead, as they did with The Civil War, they present the big picture by focusing on the human element through the fates of four small towns: Luverne, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama. They weave in personal stories of people from those towns, the people they met, loved and married. The War tells us how raw recruits from the Midwest survived Normandy; how Japanese-Americans from West Coast detention camps formed one of the most decorated divisions in Italy; how East Coast kids lived through the hell of Bataan; how Southern shipbuilders got a taste of a future battle when blacks and whites had to work together. There's the wistful tale of a young girl's childhood in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines, and the hair-raising story of a pilot who walked away from more than his share of crashes.
The War is lavishly illustrated, and the accounts of its survivors who are dying, the authors point out, at a rate of 1,000 a day bring a human perspective to an event almost incomprehensible in scope. If Ward and Burns can bring our nation's all-too-often idle consciousness to bear on the true costs of war, we'll all be better served.
Baby boomer James Neal Webb is proud of his father's service in the Navy.