The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 25 Jul 2010
Although battles did not take place in the United States proper, the American people were still affected by WW2 dearly. Husbands and sons were sent to the front lines in a war that American leaders described as a crusade; few of them found their courage and became heroes, but many returned scarred emotionally. Meanwhile, ethnic minorities increasingly contributed to the war effort, but yet they continued to struggle for the just place for them in the society. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns took on the topic of America's involvement in WW2 and how the war affected the American people; the resulting television mini-series was very well received in the United States when it aired in 2007. Several months ago, a colleague of mine gave me as a gift the hardcover companion to this television mini-series, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945. As I finally had a chance to read through this book, given this book's origins as a television studio production, I decided to take a different approach with this book by also checking out the audio book edition of it from the local library and progress through both editions more or less at the same time.
The book, authored by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns, followed ordinary Americans in various different roles; although the book publicized that it focused on the folks of four towns (Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota), the cast of characters actually included people from many other places. I have immensely enjoyed the inclusion of people who mattered little individually, such as Al McIntosh, an editor of a small town newspaper, and Babe Ciarlo, an Italian-American infantryman fighting in Europe. Although individually insignificant, this book took the approach of presenting the era as the sum of the individual memory. From this sense, the authors beautifully captured how the war had changed the United States from the perspective of its people, one person and one event at a time. The inclusion of Sascha Weinzheimer, who lived through the entire 1941-1945 period in an internment camp in the Philippine Islands for Americans, was also welcomed as it provided a glimpse of the lives of American civilians in Japanese captivity, a topic less frequently visited. Finally, the authors also made mention of the treatment of African-Americans and Japanese-Americans during the years of war, making sure that their contributions and sacrifices, loyally committed despite racial prejudice of the period, were recognized.
The book had its roots in a piece of entertainment, ie. the television series, thus there were serious flaws that came with this origin. While the book was undoubtedly a stunning collective memoir of the American people, the actual history portions of the book was only enough to provide a very brief introduction so that those less familiar with the war could get a sense of the progression of the wars across the globe. Furthermore, the book focused almost entirely on America's involvement in the war, thus discussions of the contributions of foreign allies were either cursory or omitted altogether. There were many factual errors as well, such as restating the already-debunked myth that, at Midway, the Japanese carriers were caught with flight decks full of refueling planes when it had already been proven that Japanese carrier operations doctrine precluded that from ever happening. Another error I caught was much more elementary, in which the authors confused a Japanese admiral's given name and family name. Perhaps it was my mistake to assume, but I imagined that with the kind of budget that this project enjoyed, more resources could have be devoted to better historical research. But then of course, even Ken Burns noted that, with his projects, he focused much more so on feeling and less on fact.
In terms of the book itself, it was beautifully printed with many photographs and maps that helped the authors illustrate the savagery of war, the determination of the American workers, and the location of various major battles on the map; many of the photographs I had not seen before. Specifically in reference of the photos that illustrated the savagery of war, some of the photos included were rather unexpected; considering the target audience of this book, I certainly did not expect to see some of the photos that so hauntingly and vividly portraying death. As disturbing as these photos might be for the general audience, I rather welcomed their inclusion, as they made certain that, while this book celebrated personal courage on the battlefields, it did not glorify war. As for the audio book, it was done very well much like the printed edition. Ken Burns narrated the book himself, which was a very nice touch, linking the co-author and the main force behind the overall project directly with the listener. His voice was clear and dramatic, but his pronunciation of certain foreign words left much more to be desired; again, could this project not spare the resources to consult with a few foreign language experts just for a few hours?
Overall, I enjoyed The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, but it was not without serious weaknesses. To me, the book's greatest triumph also led to its failures. To the general American audience, which was indeed the book's intended audience, it had the ability to stir emotions. At the same time, however, many sections of this book was overly US-centric and bordering nationalistic, thus it would likely turn off many non-American readers, among others. Given this imbalance, plus the few technical errors found, this book, whether in print and in audio, was still worthy of a recommendation from me, albeit with the warning that it would be wise to view it more so as an educational piece of entertainment rather than what WW2DB readers might consider a good reference for the history of the war.
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Winston Churchill, 1935