DEDHAM, Mass. — During World War II, American civilians collected scrap metal, ate rationed food, and purchased war bonds. During the war on terror, they're going shopping.
The contrast between the way that civilian populations have weathered both conflicts was put into sharp relief yesterday at an unlikely event, a book signing by a noted filmmaker, Ken Burns, the producer and director of the PBS miniseries "The War" at a Costco wholesale store just outside of Boston. Mr. Burns sat dressed neatly in a blue blazer in front of a large display of Vizio 60-inch and 42-inch big-screen HDTVs as eager fans lined up to meet him.
Unlike other events organized on behalf of Mr. Burn's latest project, which may have catered to a more elite set, such as September's screening at New York's Museum of Modern Art, his Costco appearance drew a cross-section of the public: aging war veterans, dental hygienists, and suburban parents.
Costco, like Manhattan's Union, Century, and Harvard clubs, is a private organization — as I was informed several weeks ago — but it is one anybody in search of great quantities of Coca-Cola, paper towels, and baby formula can join for $100 or less. For this reason, Mr. Burns's gathering offered a glimpse into the American spirit at a time of war. And while a fair share of gift seekers in search of an autographed book for a loved one showed up, so too did Americans, ranging in age between 11 and 86, in search of a connection with the history of armed sacrifices for our republic.
Hugo Sweeney was typical: an 86-year-old former chief boatswain's mate who manned the cutter Tampa as she escorted ships harassed by German U-boats between the American coast and Greenland. Mr. Sweeney remembered being on the convoy that saw the torpedoing of the transport ship Dorchester. Mr. Sweeney's job was to help ferry the survivors to Boston from Iceland. Mr. Sweeney said he saw no difference between the American servicemen of his day and those currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The only problem is that the people aren't backing them wholeheartedly."
For his part, Mr. Burns said the public reception of his recent film was the most profound of any project he has been involved with. "It's been more than the 'Civil War.' It's been beyond belief," he told The New York Sun. "It evokes a much more intimate response. People have watched it with their dads, repaired relationships with their fathers, or felt their dead father was present." One viewer, he recalled, sent him dirt from Omaha Beach; another mailed him buttons from a grandfather's military uniform constructed in Waterbury, Conn. — one of the places Mr. Burns focuses on in his film.
Because of the subject matter, Mr. Burns captures a sense of the public mood when he does book and movie appearances. "I travel around the country, I always ask people how many know somebody in Iraq. If it's 2%, it's a big deal," Mr. Burns said. "In World War II, on every street in any town in America, there wasn't someone who didn't experience, suffer from that war in some shape or form."
Mr. Burns said a disconnect exists between the armed struggle taking place right now and the public. In his film, for instance, Mr. Burns included a Movietone newsreel titled "Everybody Joins the U.S. War Effort," in which the narrator reports, "The country has asked the people to invest a billion dollars in one month to help pay for the war." Mr. Burns said, "Everybody was involved. Today, we're all independent free agents. We don't give up anything."
At the same time, Mr. Burn's film depicts monumental disasters, such as the surrender of 78,000 American and Filipino troops to the Japanese at Bataan and the early defeats and embarrassments of the American forces in North Africa. "No one teaches that. We thought it was really important to tell the truth of what really happened," he said.
One wonders if the American public could withstand such low points today.
Mr. Burns has taken a painstakingly bipartisan approach to his project, appearing at the World War II Memorial in Washington and visiting the United States Military Academy in West Point three times. "Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said there's too much pluribus and not enough unum," Mr. Burns said, adding that his focus was on bringing Americans together.
Surprisingly, the patrons at Costco demonstrated grit when prodded about what their country could accomplish. Judy Kaz, who drove all the way from New Hampshire to purchase three signed copies of Mr. Burn's book, said, "Americans are resilient people. We can do whatever it is we set out to do."