Ken Burns's 'The War' as seen through teen eyes
We convene a panel of young viewers to watch the epic PBS documentary.
Sherman Oaks, Calif. — War may be the work of elder statesmen, but it is more often the dirty, daily grind of the young who are sent to fight. Fittingly, documentarian Ken Burns focuses on the youthful hopes, dreams, and often painful memories of veterans and survivors in his latest opus, "The War," a seven-part series on World War II from the American perspective. It debuts Sept. 23 on PBS.
But while World War II stories still reliably move older audiences to both tears and Academy Award nominations – and both Hollywood and historians seem never to run out of them – the Monitor wondered how today's teens relate to what is now the conflict of their grandparents' generation. We invited a small group, two boys and two girls, to view and then discuss the first episode of the film in the paper's Los Angeles bureau.
"It was terrifying," says 17-year-old Lauren Vally, referring to a photo of dead bodies, many of them young. As the group moves from the TV to a pizza-laden table to sit and talk, she receives swift agreement from 14-year-old Julian McLean, who says he had no idea so many young children died. The series does not trade on the shocking. Rather, Mr. Burns opts to paint a picture of the home front through interviews with veterans and their families, specifically focusing on four small towns across America.
He weaves these reminiscences in with archival wartime footage from the US and Europe, some never seen before. The intense loyalty of the home-front folks shines through, as does the unswerving devotion of the troops called to fight. Indeed, one soldier recounts the jubilation he felt when he finally received his draft notice.
Despite the age-gap, the teens all respond to these emotions. They say they relate more to World War II than the war in Iraq, or even 9/11, for a simple reason: this is the last war everybody agreed on.
"It was really clear why we were fighting," says 17-year-old Soraya Sadeghpour. All four shake their heads over the words "war in Iraq," trading sotto voce quips lumping Iraq and Vietnam together for the ways both wars divided the country. "Why are we even there in Iraq? I don't think people are even sure they know anymore," says 17-year-old Alex Regalado, who looks around the table finding solemn agreement in the three other faces.
For most teens, World War II is the stuff of classroom textbooks and Hollywood movies. But for Lauren, the war has a personal face. Her grandmother was a young girl in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and she often tells stories of being arrested for tearing down swastika posters in the street as her "attractive, older sister" rode a bicycle past the Nazi guards in an effort to distract them. And, says Lauren, with a mildly embarrassed laugh, her grandmother "has this weird ability to faint on cue." She used to faint while she stood in the endless bread lines of the day so that people let her go to the front, she adds.
If World War II is a more abstract notion for the other three teens, there's one thing they say they can relate to: The clarity of America's purpose. ("Who didn't hate Hitler?" says one teen, responding to a moment in the film when an American woman notes how much they all despised the German leader.) Even so, these teenagers do not relate to support for the leadership or the military depicted in the documentary. "We're much more sophisticated these days," says Julian. As a group, they say they don't need war to give themselves a sense of identity or purpose, as many of the interviewees in the series say they did. More than one of the film's veterans recalls how special the military titles and jobs made them feel. "I don't need a job killing people to feel important," adds Julian, the youngest panelist.
When the various veterans describe rushing to enlist, even lying about their age to make the cut, these teens can't relate to it, nor the draft. Alex and his family have discussed what would happen if a draft were implemented today. "My mother wouldn't let it happen," he says. "We would move to Canada first." The group also speculates what would happen if women were drafted in today's society. Women keep society together during wartime, says Soraya. "The family and therefore the whole society would fall apart."
As a group, they agree that what one veteran called the last "necessary war" shaped the modern world, more specifically gave birth to the US as a superpower. But they are all taken aback by America's unreadiness when war broke out.
"The Army still had thousands of cavalry horses!" says Lauren, repeating information from the film. "How did they ever do what they did?" she wonders aloud.
As the group breaks, a feeling of uneasy awe lingers at the table. Finally, one member voices a previously unspoken concern: "Will America ever be able to succeed like that again?"