Throughout the recorded history of armed conflict, there has been this certainty: that no writer, no matter how gifted, can truly relate what it is like to be in war. “War happens inside a man,” the great correspondent Eric Sevareid said with resignation in 1945, sure he had failed the test of bringing back to his readers the essence of the fighting, “…and that is why, in a certain sense, you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers.” Earlier in the Second World War, the cartoonist and infantryman Bill Mauldin, who struggled almost daily to describe the experience of ordinary GIs in combat, had to admit to his readers that, no matter what he said or drew, they still wouldn't understand what it was really like “when things get tough.”
After our Civil War ended, Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn journalist and sometime poet who had worked as a nurse in the appalling Union hospitals and who had tried to write about what he saw, acknowledged that “the real war will never get in the books.” He, too, was positive that “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the Secession War....” His comrade, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had been wounded six times in the war and would go on to serve his country once again as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, spoke eloquently about the “incommunicable experience of war.”
Those “future years,” however, have not been scared off by Whitman's—or anyone else's—admonition. Writers, historians and even documentary filmmakers have continually and inexorably been drawn into war's compelling interiors, lured by the excruciating but also transcendent paradox that when life is most threatened, as it is in war, when violent death is possible at any moment, everything is vivified, the intensity of experience heightened to a level not felt in ordinary life. War creates a terror, a mesmerizing gut-wrenching terror, that is not only repellant but undeniably compelling, and even, to some, attractive. And yet each writer who ventures down this dangerous path has, in his or her own way, had to finally accept the limitation—indeed the failure—of their words to adequately come close to communicating a sense of that horror. War stays there, outside of all the books, defying description.
It was into this nearly impossible but self-imposed position that we found ourselves once more in early 2001, as we began work on a massive seven-part, nearly 15-hour documentary series and companion book on the American experience in the Second World War. After our film on the Civil War came out in 1990, we had vowed not to take on the subject of war again. We like to see ourselves as “emotional archeologists,” trying to excavate not the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but a more complicated human drama, and that now distant war, the Civil War, had gotten under our skins. We found ourselves living its horrors and yet unable, as so many have found, to fully do justice to our soldiers' stories. In the next decade, we politely turned away the suggestions of colleagues and strangers to take on this war or that one, usually World War II, absolutely convinced that we just couldn't “go to war” again or submit ourselves to trying—and of course also ultimately failing—to capture a sense of what it was really like in combat.
But then, at the end of the '90s, we learned that more than 1,000 veterans of the Second World War are dying each day in America; that soon, in just a few years, it will be impossible to interview a survivor of that war and hear first-hand anecdotes of what it was like to kill a man or live through the Bataan Death March. Soon, the war will become the province of historians, who no matter how skilled they are, will still have to abstract what the few who remain can still remember in their gut. It is of course that gut experience that we are all interested in, however difficult it may be to fully comprehend or rearrange into a coherent narrative. Just as all biography is a kind of noble failure—how can we possibly know the other when those closest to us remain inscrutable to the end?—we must nonetheless try: to endeavor to know what these men went through when they were so young and the world was propelled into the greatest cataclysm in its history.
More than six years ago, therefore, we reluctantly set off again toward battle, this time focusing on the experiences of so-called ordinary soldiers, most of whom come from four geographically distributed (and therefore representative) towns: Luverne, Minn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Mobile, Ala. We would get to know the towns, how they were laid out, where people ate, what movie houses provided the chilling news to those who stayed behind and worked and worried and grieved, while, most important of course, their young men went off to war. We would follow them there, not the “good war” of our subsequent mythologizing, but the worst war ever. Freed from a “top-down” Great Men perspective that sabotages, I believe, most war work, we could clear our film and book of the dead wood of celebrity generals and politicians; we could minimize the distraction of an overweening interest in strategy and tactics that reduces desperate human struggle to mere lines and arrows on an impersonal map; and we could ignore an obsessive preoccupation with weapons and armaments, and focus instead on the harm or help those weapons provide to real people. And we could pointedly ignore the fascination with all things Nazi that too often metastasizes into an inexplicable admiration for their formidable military abilities, forgetting in the process their unspeakable crimes.
Over the course of the production of the series and the book, we got to know nearly 50 men and women intimately, like family members or someone you might meet at a reunion, through whose eyes we see the war. We felt privileged to be ushered into their lives and experiences. They took us by the hand to war: they showed us the reality of combat in both the major theaters, Pacific and European, simultaneously; they imparted to us what every soldier who has ever fought in combat feels—I was scared, I was bored, It was cold, It was hot, I saw bad things, I did bad things, I lost good friends—sometimes sharing difficult painful memories they hadn't even told their families; and they let us know what it was like back home, too, the rationing and recycling, the awful telegrams and the gold stars, the letters and the furloughs, the anxiety and the hope.
We just listened. We tried simply to bear witness to the incredible testimony they so generously shared. And then we went to work ourselves, shaping these intensely personal stories into a coherent narrative that would, we hoped, not be a comprehensive survey of the Second World War but an epic poem, an American Iliad filled with the heroic deeds of these so-called ordinary people, who reminded us in each frame and paragraph that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives. We reveled in their greatness, a greatness posterity has not yet recognized, but a greatness nonetheless that helped us, we think, peel back the curtain that inevitably obscures war with bloodless gallant myth and permitted us, at moments, to feel as if World War II, over and done with for more than 60 years, was happening now.
And then we remembered the rest of Eric Sevareid's message: “If, by the miracle of art and genius, in later years two or three among them can open their hearts and the right words come, then perhaps we shall know a little of what it was like—and we shall know then that all the present speakers and writers hardly touched the story.” I don't know about art or genius, but I do know that something like a miracle happened, and the handful of human beings who grace our pages and the series did open their hearts. The right words did come out, and war in general, and the Second World War in particular, seems a little less mediated, a little less inscrutable: these remarkable men and women, at times, no longer strangers.
|The release of award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns's The War (Knopf) will coincide with his seven-part PBS documentary on World War II.