Tuesday, September 4, 2007

“Horribly stuffed with epithets of war.” Othello, Act I, I.

As we mark the end of our summer holidays, the approach of autumn, or the return to school, spare a thought for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. According to The Washington Post (Friday, August 31), Mr. Burns and his partners at Public Broadcasting (PBS) are concerned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may launch a second front on his new World War II documentary “The War” over the reported use of obscenities by veterans discussing their wartime experiences. In an apparent effort to defuse possible FCC concerns, Ken Burns and PBS have reportedly decided, “war is heck.” The Washington Post reported that there will therefore be two versions of “The War” broadcast - an ‘adult’ version for evening hours and a cleaned-up obscenity-free version for the subsequent weekend/daytime hours when the program is more likely to be seen by children and perhaps other innocent viewers.

As Ken Burns must realize, his decision could be said to contradict experts such as General William Tecumseh Sherman, who declared to an 1880 assemblage of Union Army veterans that “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.” Similar thoughts can be found expressed in language that might be more acceptable to PBS and the FCC. For example, Robert E. Lee, writing in the aftermath of his victory in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Even Lee’s good right arm, Stonewall Jackson, reportedly wrote in April 1861 about how “It is painful enough to discover with what unconcern they speak of war and threaten it. I have seen enough of it to make me look upon it as the sum of all evils.”

The film “Saving Private Ryan,” mentioned in The Washington Post, featured one of the most intense scenes of combat in film history. The television mini-series “Band of Brothers” included a very effective and dramatic recreation of combat in Normandy in the wake of the D-Day landings. The attack by Captain Winter and Easy Company on a German artillery battery is especially dramatic in its camera work that mixes action footage that is confused and even blurred in its fast-moving intensity with moments that are almost presented as snap-shots when something especially captures the attention and focus of whoever the camera is following. The resulting affect as I watched this segment was to recall the words of veterans of several conflicts that seemed to describe exactly this impression.

Nevertheless, the representation of warfare has long presented a challenge whether it was to be on the written page, on stage, in music, or on film – to mention only a few of the relevant art forms. For example, many veterans report that all artistic representations fall short because they cannot convey the full range and intensity of noises and smells that in particular afflict the battlefield. William Shakespeare specifically acknowledged the limitations of his stage in his Prologue to Henry V, when Chorus declared:

….But pardon, Gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.”

But there are questions left unanswered by Ken Burns, William Shakespeare, and the community of artists in all media who have confronted the challenge of representing the realities of war.

“Should artistic representations of war and warfare be more or less detailed and realistic?”

And, against the background of an ongoing conflict launched in great part by individuals who never wore a uniform much less served in combat, would American society be better or worse served by the frankest possible discussion of the realities of war, or is it better that we continue to shield people from this realities?

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