William James: the mind of Pragmatism
…modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us. [Emphasis added]
History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.
There’s something wrong with you if you’re not transfixed by Ken Burns’ version of World War II — the gallantry of the “melting pot” in combat, the industrial genius and shared sacrifice at home. But there’s something wrong with you if you’re not troubled by this telling, too. Why — as I ask Ken Burns in this conversation — after 60 years and the movie Saving Private Ryan, plus Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Studs Terkel’s The Good War among the best-selling books… why do we still hunger to hear again how good we are, or were? Why the mind-numbing stress on the American effort and American victory when our casualties were less than four percent of the allied losses? Why is the ratio of Russian to American dead in the war against Hitler such an obscure statistic? (Cold War historian John Gaddis of Yale put the imbalance at 90 to 1.) Furthermore, if our nostalgia watching Burns’ World War II is not just rose-colored swing-jazz sentiment but real longing for republican virtue, why aren’t we forced to ask ourselves: where did we lose it, and how might we get it back? Rest assured that the hugely gifted and mindful Ken Burns is equal to all my questions. In his anti-ironic earnestness, the exemplary filmmaker felt many of my misgivings long before I did. And he was ready, before we finished, to answer William James’ point straightforwardly.
Ken Burns: the mind of PBS’s The War
We do acknowledge this paradox of war. It is, you know, absolutely frustrating in that [war] is compelling as well as horrific, but we can arm ourselves with the danger. Would you give up and not paint Guernica? Would you not show what it is like because it wouldn’t work? …So let us not stop bearing witness to what takes place. Let us not stop organizing that material into some coherent narrative that suggests the possibility that we might mitigate or check that seemingly natural inclination toward the bellicose, toward the pugnacious. And that’s — I’m sorry to say, in some ways — the best we can hope for.
Ken Burns, documentarian of The War, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the First Parish Church, Cambridge. October 23,2007,