Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Erasure, Indifference, Willful Ignorance: Ken Burns and PBS

According to his bio,

Ken Burns is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a premiere historian of U.S. American history. According to historian Stephen Ambrose,“More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

Burns’ new documentary film, The War, to be shown on PBS in September of 2007, and recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival, documents the Second World War from a U.S. American perspective through the eyes, memories, and recollections of a few “American” WWII veterans and civilians.

According to PBSs website , The War :

“[T]ells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history — a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America — and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

Throughout the series, the indelible experience of combat is brought vividly to life as veterans describe what it was like to fight and kill and see men die at places like Monte Cassino and Anzio and Omaha Beach; the Hürtgen Forest and the Vosges Mountains and the Ardennes; and on the other side of the world at Guadalcanal and Tarawa and Saipan; Peleliu and the Philippine Sea and Okinawa. In all of the battle scenes, dramatic historical footage and photographs are combined with extraordinarily realistic sound effects to give the film a terrifying, visceral immediacy.” [italics mine]

Given this impressive resume, it is odd that an award-winning documentary filmmaker of the past 30 years would be challenged by Latino, Mexican American, and Hispanic groups across the U.S. as being racist and insensitive to the diversity of U.S. American armed forces of the Second War and to the contribution of these individuals to the seminal event of the 20th Century. Although these challenges are on point, the charges against Burns should be amended to include that of erasure, indifference and willful ignorance.

Although PBS, Burns and some Latino organizations have reached an “agreement” as to exclusion of Latinos in The War, both PBS and Burns still contend that to edit The War to include historical and documentary footage and recollections of Latino World War II veterans and families would “compromise artistic integrity.” The problematic of government and public funding aside, the “artistic integrity” claim would hold water if Burns was a Hollywood and fictional filmmaker, indebted solely to his investors, U.S. eurocentrism, and the limited imagination, intelligence and attention span of citizens of this country. However, because of PBS’s historical and seminal position as the only viable educational media forum within the United States, and because of Burns’ accolades by media “scholars,” it is imperative that a historian, through any artistic medium, be precise and rigorous when it comes to the muddy waters of historical narration and the construction and re-construction of the concept of nation. Although inclusion would be an adequate claim, it reeks of political correctness.

But this is not a mere politically correct claim that Latinos make at this juncture, but rather a challenge that highlights the problematic of any storytelling quite evident since Nietzsche (and reconfigured by Foucault and post-colonial theory): that any utterance and/or inscription that attempts to permanently inscribe a history into the mental framework of a human subject and collectivity (film, any film, fictional or not, is well within the dictates of inscription) dictates an ethical understanding and genealogical trajectory obligated and responsible not only to the self that is an author, but to the other that is the reader/viewer and the Other that is subject of that history. It is, as Gayatri Spivak warned a decade ago, this responsibility between one and the Other that focuses not on an external burden superimposed by oscillating moral values, but rather on the response between the one and the other–the infinite volley of utterances, receptions, inscriptions, translations and reconfigurations that construct historical (historia) knowledge. It is precisely this volley that cannot be swept aside in the name of artistic license or integrity.

In fact, if the writer/maker/filmmaker cannot implicitly and explicitly accept the ethical burden that comes with the privilege of making culture and history, then this “maker” falls prey to the derogatory and exclusive cultural and historical production methods so well employed by U.S. imperialism and neo-colonialism well-versed and apparent in the Germanic and Italian methods of early and mid-20th Century fascism.

Simply put, for Burns and PBS to claim that a seven-part historical documentary, and a six-year project, can accurately portray and represent the “American” psyche and landscape during and after the Second War through the “personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns,” is not only preposterous and remarkably ignorant, but disingenuous. To call it inaccurate would be a compliment only because the absurd claim by PBS and Burns that the sophisticated and complicated dynamic of the Second War can be adequately told through the eyes of a few hand-selected narratives at the expense of over 750,000 Mexican Americans who served in WWII (including 350,000 Chicanos)and who won more Medals of Honor and other decorations than any other ethnic group in proportion to their numbers (and not counting the number of Mexican American women who directly aided the war effort through their labor). In fact, it is estimated that during the time of military recruiting the Latino population in the U.S. was at approximately 2.7 million.

Moreover, as the defense industry grew causing shortages of manual labor, temporary workers from Mexico and Puerto Rico, called Braceros (derived from the Spanish word brazo, meaning arm) were transported to the U.S. through a 1940’s labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to work primarily in agriculture and certain other industries. It has been documented that approximately 100,000 contracts were signed between 1943 and 1945 to recruit and transport Mexican workers for employment on the railroads living in substandard conditions in ‘box car camps,’ where laborers had little contact with the general population and limited access to healthcare, recreation, translators, or legal aid. (see “A History of the Mexican American People,” by Julian Samora and Patricia Vandel Simon)

Thus, it is not that Latinos, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and yes, even so called “Hispanics” intend to regulate and control artistic expression. They are not asking George Lucas to include more brown-skinned peoples in science-fiction narratives. But if any progress has been made by ethnic and racial groups to index the ethical responsibility inherent in any historical story-telling of a seminal moment in the construction and identity of a diverse and complex nation such as the United States, that much fought-after progress cannot be acquiesced to those institutions of power and lazy creators of culture who happily appropriate the dictates and ignorance of post-modernism in order to obfuscate and erase a history, a people, a culture, and a sacrifice all under the rubric of “artistic integrity.” — Sergio Muñoz-Sarmiento

Note: For a succinct, compelling and historically accurate documentation of the role of Latinas and Latinos during and in World War II, see U.S. Latinos & Latinas in WWII, from the University of Texas at Austin. For a scholarly and lucid text on this subject matter, see Mexican Americans and World War II.


(Image taken from PBS website on Friday, May 11, 2007)


Comments: 1

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  • Kramer King

    I question your estimate of 750,000, since the military didn’t keep records of cultural heritage. They didn’t record Irish, German, French, Spanish, Russian, etc, heritage. They did, however, record race: White, Asian, Negro…. Latinos were considered, “white”. Most of the esitmates I’ve heard of Latino soldiers are somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000, but perhaps you’re right; Of the 16 million soldiers, I’m sure the 750,000 Latinos served well alongside their non-Latino, fellow soldiers, in the same battles, going through the same trenches, trauma, shock, and pain as the stories told in the documentary.

    Regardless of that, go ahead and disregard their story and disparage the validity of the documentary because Mr. Burns’ doesn’t say “Hispanic” or “Latino”. Sheesh! Talk about borrowing trouble or seeking out abuse to claim as one’s own!

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