Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Monday, January 22, 2018

The better angels of our nature.

The last couple of weeks have been a bit quiet in house Prufrock due to a bug I picked up somewhere. I tend not to get sick very often, but when I do, I do it properly.

The evenings therefore have found me either sleeping or doing some kind of non-thinking activity, such as watching the TV. Actually, being in Japan, I don't watch the TV (it's almost as bad as New Zealand TV), but instead watch a DVD or look at YouTube. Recently, Ken Burns's Civil War series has been my poison.

My first introduction to the series was about ten or twelve years ago. A friend who uses the internet 'creatively' had downloaded the series from somewhere free of charge, burnt the episodes onto disk and loaned them to me.

"What's that?" someone asked him as he handed them over one night at soccer.

"Oh," he said, "it's about the American Civil War."

"Why would YOU want to watch that?"

"Well, it was you Americans fighting each other. Why shouldn't we like it?"

And he was right on both counts. It was Americans fighting each other, and it was a series that even people who have no particular reason for interest in the war could find value in.

The Ken Burns documentary style, mixing period photographs, voice overs, actors reading quotes from historical figures, footage of places. and interviews with authorities, is compelling viewing. The themed structure and the variety of voices from both sides gives a sense of fairness in the telling. I may be wrong about the fairness, but it's how it seems to me when I watch it.

You are shown the movement of the war, you follow the characters chosen, hear their voices, and invest in them emotionally. It is by turns humorous, sad, uplifting and harrowing. It is always informative, humane and respectful.

Anyway, last night I was watching the ninth and last episode of the series and had been drawn into it again. You know it is coming, and you have been prepared for it with artful foreshadowing during the past few episodes, but goodness, the death of Abraham Lincoln is always hard to take.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the series is that in watching it you become a bit American too. You see the grandeur of the country and its people. You see the capacity for suffering and sacrifice. You see that we all, no matter who we are or where we are from, are invested in that last best hope and willing it still to come into the fullness of its promise.

And with that written, if you can forgive me, I must excuse myself...

18 comments:

  1. It is a grerat series, isn't it/ It made Shelby Foote famous, and resulted in my purchasing his books, which I very much enjoyed. The use of period music and arrangements greatly enhances it. And, even if not period music, who can forget the haunting "Ashokan Farewell"? Definitel;y Burns' masterpiece.
    Hopefully you're feeling better!

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    1. Absolutely - and thank you, I should have mentioned the music! One of the most atmospheric aspects of the series. A masterpiece is the right description, and - as it did for you - it made me buy Shelby Foote!

      Cheers!
      Aaron

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    2. "Ashokan Farewell" is definitely a haunting tune. That melancholy diddy added to the futility of the War and Burn's recounting of it.

      The world takes pleasure in seeing Americans killing Americans? Hopefully, those days are over...

      The Civil War is a first rate documentary and one I have watched numerous times. A masterpiece as Peter notes. As long as Burn's politics remain in the background, he does an admirable job.

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    3. I couldn’t tell you his politics, but then I haven’t seen his other series where they may be more overt. Just a wonderful series and worth coming back to again and again.

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    4. Hi Jonathan, just to address your 'hopefully those days are over' point, the conversation reported was lighthearted and part and parcel of the sort of ex-pat banter that took place between players in that team at that time. I can assure you that no one would have seen the idea of Americans fighting other Americans as something to take pleasure in. That conversation always stuck with me though because the American concerned did not see why others might be interested in the war, and we non-Americans hadn't really been particularly engaged up until the time we saw the documentary either.

      I did not intend to cause offense, and I'm sorry if it has left a sour taste. ON reflection, it would probably have been better not to have included that in the piece. I could have made the same point in a less potentially antagonistic way.

      Please accept my apologies.

      Best,
      Aaron

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    5. Aaron, no offense taken and no need to apologize! My response was lighthearted as well. With the Great Divide in the USA today, one occasionally wonders about such things.

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  2. Sorry you had a spell of ill health, Aaron; hopefully, you're feeling better now. Glad you enjoyed the ACW series. For the record, I've been watching a bunch of YouTube videos too - since cancelling my cable TV last October. I have an HDTV antennae to catch local channels (news, and NHK World Japan of all things). Last night I watched a bunch of Panther and Tiger tank videos - particularly the ones on salvaged and restored one. Amazing to see them in working condition.

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    1. There’s a wealth of good stuff to see, so we’re pretty lucky. I’m picky though, and have not really adjusted to the new models of TV watching. Even with rental movies I tend to turn off about half of them and go and do something else, so I really appreciate my fall back options, and this series is great for that.

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  3. A true classic! Get well soon Aaron.

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    1. Cheers Tony - over the worst of it, but I'm not the most patient of patients :)

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  4. I watched a number of years ago when it was on British tv over the Christmas holidays - as you say, compelling viewing. His new Vietnam documentary is also worth a look.

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    1. Thanks for the reminder: I've heard good things about it but haven't actually seen it yet.

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  5. Not totally impartial or complete but compelling ain't it?

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    1. Sure is, and it's just sitting there waiting to be watched, too!

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  6. I was affected the same way (illness), sat in my lean back man chair and watched movies, no energy to do more than that. Just this last week or so have I felt back to normal.

    Great series and like your assemenent of it, as you say the grandeur and people, makes me know you get it. A very sad time in our history that still affects this country even today.

    Cheers
    Kevin

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    1. Hi Kevin - sorry to hear that you were man down as well!

      Yes, the series really gave me a whole new perspective on the USA. I mean you know there was a civil war, but until you start to learn about it you don't really understand the impact that it has had.

      That's been this kiwi's experience, anyway.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

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  7. You are in Japan!? Me too! I co-founded a group you may know called JIGG? Anyway, I found your blog at Webgrognards and when I realised you were in Japan too, I had to reach out. I`m in Machida, Tokyo, but will move to Shinyurigaoka, Kawasaki. We have some of the same interestes, I`m sure.

    Kevin B

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    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for getting in touch. Yes, I'm south of Osaka. If you're ever down this way, let me know - and good luck with the move!

      I'll drop you a line to your private email.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

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