Thursday, October 04, 2007

The War: Stories vs. Maps

Here is an interesting article by Edward Rothstein of the NYT on Ken Burns' new documentary. Burns does his thing, masterfully, this time with World War II as his subject, weaving together vintage photos and clips, actor's voices, interviews with survivors, and powerful music brilliantly chosen (in this case by Wynton Marsalis). (Among many pieces memorably used: two by Edward Elgar, one of the world's most underrated composers. There is "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations, played on the piano, and Sospiri, for string orchestra. There wasn't a dry eye in our rec room!)

Rothstein points out that this narrative method, though not ideologically motivated, is hardly politically neutral. Burns' dominant motive, as always, is to create something that appeals to your emotions and will become a beloved classic. To human beings, no image is more meaningful than a human face, and no speech is more powerful than the story behind that face. Dealing entirely in faces and stories,The War goes straight to your gut.

But in fact such narrative accounts of great events have a built in bias of sorts. What is the nature of this bias? This question involves issues that Martha Nussbaum has written about, as I have (from a rather different point of view).

Martha points out that, because these stories hook us in by appealing to our sympathies for the travails of others, they have a certain built-in bias in favor of the under-dog. The under-doggier they are, the better their story plays out. This bias also tends to be individualistic. That human face we see belongs to one person.

This means that narrative has a certain tendency to block utilitarian thinking. Utilitarianism finds the best action by performing a calculation: do what will have the best results for everyone who is affected by what you do, when you add everybody together. You can count the effects on yourself, of course, but you may just be one person in millions. The same is true of counting your friends and loved ones. The utilitarian calculation is a melting pot in which people merge into the whole. What we care about is that whole.

So if you present a great human issue in terms of affecting stories, your method of presentation chokes off the source of material for the utilitarian melting pot. In viewing The War, we don't melt down the individuals that we see. In a way, this makes the viewing experience more painful. What is real and vivid to us is the terrible things we see the war doing to these people. Occasionally, the narration asserts that it was all "necessary" but, as Rothstein points out, this feels somehow very abstract. What we are aware of at every turn is, as the inevitable cliche has it, "the horrors of war."

Rothstein objects to this. The more conventional way of telling the story of the war, the one that emphasizes maps, with armies advancing like tide across them or evaporating into isolated puddles, makes it easier to see the nobility of the thing, to see the horror as somehow worth it. We focus on the big picture.

Of course, the conventional method has this effect because it to some extend derealizes the human individual, and brings collectivities into the foreground.

For my part, the fact that it does not do this is just what I like about The War. Regardless of what you think about this "necessary" war, we shouldn't forget for a minute the vast horrors such things inflict on innocent people. Yes, this will make is more difficult to launch the next "just" war. But ... should such things ever be easy?

Another thing that I found refreshing in this narrative was the preference for the underdog. Most war war narratives (such as those on the sadly mis-named History Channel) are given from the general's point of view. They present the things the generals are aware of -- the maps, the lines, the tides -- and tend to deemphasize the things the generals do not see too clearly -- the young men, virtually children, that they are sending to their deaths. In this narrative, the generals do not come off too well. General John Dahlquist, for instance, comes off little better than the vicious morons who send men to pointlessly horrible fates in Catch-22. This, too, seems to me a healthy corrective.
Footnote: Over at Lew Rockwell, historian Gary North writes a review of The War that is as unfavorable as mine is favorable. Interestingly, he gives more or less the same reasons for his assessment that I gave for mine: that Burns ignores the generals and focuses on randomly selected individuals, avoiding the big picture. In effect, he says, this approach takes the history out of history. I guess this is true: it replaces history with biography. But if you are an individualist, this is not a entirely a bad move. North repeatedly asks: So what? The So what?, he suggests, can only be answered by seeing things from the general's point of view, by looking at such things as maps. I would reverse this strategy. Look at a map. So what? The answer can only be given by what these tides and forces do to individuals. And in war, what they do is mainly horrific. ... One more major difference between North's account and mine: he focuses on the intended theme of the series, that the war was "necessary," and complains that it does nothing at all to support this idea. Like Rothstein, I point out that the functional theme -- which is subversive and individualistic -- actually undermines the intended theme, presenting a work that is in a way anti-war. This is a result of the narrative technique it employs.


"Q" the Enchanter said...

I think your resistance to Rothstein's argument stems from the fact that Burns-style narrative attention to individual stories helps us gauge the aggregate cost in a richer way. That is, though you do a utility calculation by reference only to aggregate cost, you can't adequately measure the aggregate cost unless you have an accurate measure of the individual costs.

Craig D said...

There have been enough documentaries about WWII that cover the "brilliant war strategies" of the involved parties, the causes of the war, the maps, the changes in world politics and policies, yadda yadda yadda, etc.

Why should Burns trod that path yet again? This is how I've approached this series. It absolutely does not bother me that this wasn't thee definitive WWII documentary to end all WWII documentaries.

Musing... Hasn't PBS pretty much given Burns carte blanche to produce documentaries on ANY subject that strikes his fancy?

If so, let us hope he never sustains some sort of cranial trauma and starts producing 15 hour shows on subjects like "Lime: The Mistunderstood Jello" or "Why Does It Smell Like Muenster Cheese Behind My Ear?"

Whoops, sorry 'bout that second part, there...

Lester Hunt said...

Drake, Oddly enough, I think I agree with Rothstein on the particular issue you seem to be indicating here. Hearing a story that makes a person a unique, vivid individual, it becomes more and more difficult to say "... and the horrible things that happened to him are justified by the fact that they lead to the overall collective good...." He regrets this effect because he is so secure in the view that that this particular war was, as they say, the good war. I am ... well, not so happy with saying that. --- Still, you do have a point: if someone wants to do the utilitarian calculation right, they ought to know plenty of true narratives about the people they are going to sacrifice on the altar of the higher good.

Craig, LOL! I think I might learn something from a Jello documentary. I've neglected Jello studies altogether. As to your first point: yes, exactly. The big-picture type story about WW II has been done to death. Esp. on the so-called History Channel, where they seem to do nothing else (that and retell stories from the Bible as if they were history).

Tina Boyer said...

I thought the series was a complete failure, both as filmmaking and as history. It struck me as an odd, even perverse, treatment of the war, compiled by an odd and very perverse person.

I have never been a Ken Burns fan--the British can do documentaries so much better than we can--and I thought that this project was more or less a mess.

I doubt that most viewers learned anything, or acquired a new or deeper understanding of this global conflict, during the entire gruesome hours and hours of film.

What did "The War" do for me? It gave me a renewed appreciation for "The World At War".

It also convinced me that PBS definitely needs new leadership! If Ken Burns documentaries are the best the network can trot out, it is better to pull the plug on the whole thing.


Lester Hunt said...

Amy, Didn't the series at least give you a view of the war, "from the inside," so to speak -- the sort of thing you normally only get from a movie or a novel (except that this account is all true)? I think that's what it was aiming at, not at military history in the usual sense.