The Greatest Documentary

In the mid-1990s, 50 years after the end of World War II, the American essayist Lee Sandlin asked friends what they knew about the conflict. To his surprise, “Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big totemic names—Pearl Harbor, D day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—whose unfathomable reaches of experience had been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone. . . . What had happened, for instance, at one of the war’s biggest battles, the Battle of Midway? It was in the Pacific, there was something about aircraft carriers. Wasn’t there a movie about it, one of those Hollywood all-star behemoths in which a lot of admirals look worried while pushing toy ships around a map?” For Sandlin, this broad ignorance demonstrated “how vast the gap is between the experience of war and the experience of peace . . . . Nobody back home has ever known much about what it was like on the battlefield.”