Thursday, November 15, 2007

"The War": A Third Reaction

My first and second reactions.

I write this post after having watched the first six episodes of Ken Burns's The War. I will not repeat what I've already said; it still applies.

I focus here on the fifth episode because it features three new themes. The first:
"No plan survives contact with the enemy." -Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-91)
That's a reasonable observation, especially given its source. But the fifth episode of The War, after making that observation (in slightly different words and with the wrong attribution), goes on to conflate it with a second theme about defective leadership. To that end, the episode leans heavily on scenes about a few dunderhead commanders (notably this one) who wasted men's lives to no good end.

The fact that war is an unpredictable endeavor is a thing entirely apart from the fact that some commanders aren't fit to lead men in battle. We can thank The War for reminding us that the unpredictability and bad decisions can be part of any war, including a necessary one. But the fifth episode focuses too much on bad leadership, and slights the unpredictability of war and the necessity of working through it to the end, which is victory. It is almost as if the possibility of a few bad leaders coming to the fore should preclude our going to war for any reason.

The idea that war is unconscionable is underscored by a third theme: disgust with the horrors of war, especially as expressed by Eugene Sledge and Paul Fussell. Fussell has become an outspoken critic of the military, and of the war in Iraq. He seems to have forgotten, conveniently, that it can be a necessary thing. In any event, the parts of the fifth episode that focus on the horrors of World War II are unleavened by any clear reference to the necessity of war. They stand on their own, denying the message of the first episode, "A Necessary War."

The sixth episode, though generally balanced, gives a lot of attention to the fire-bombings that took the lives of so many Japanese and Germans. But the episode glosses over -- or misrepresents -- the military rationale for those fire-bombings.

I reserve judgment on the entire series, pending the seventh episode. But the trend does not bode well for a good final grade.