Ken Burns, the documentarian who brought us The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, brings to life the stories of the Second World War. The War will begin on PBS on 23 September 2007. The documentary tells the story of World War II using personal accounts from the men and women who were there,
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.
During the documentary there are four uses of profanity used by former American soldiers being interviewed about their experiences in World War II. The common military acronyms FUBAR and SNAFU are explained, each of which include profanity. The other two uses of profanity are uttered during descriptions of combat experiences.
PBS will be offering two versions of The War, one with and one without the profanity. PBS is hoping this will appease the FCC, and assure the affiliates that they will not be fined for airing the documentary. Individual stations could be fined up to $325,000 for broadcasting the profanity.
Mr. Burns included the language to convey the feelings of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines he was interviewing. Mr. Burns explained his decision to include the profanity stating the “four incredibly appropriate words . . . [are] what soldiers in battle say, an not just during World War II.”
Mr. Burns understands the hesitance of stations to broadcast the profanity, but defended including the words in his work,
“I could have said, ‘I won’t show this film [with the profanity removed].’ But the whole point was to bear witness to what the reality of the Second World War was like, and that’s what I want to share, with or without the bleeps.”
This decision by the FCC differs from the stance taken just a few years ago, when Saving Private Ryan was aired in 2002 with multiple instances of profanity. At the time, the FCC ruled that these uses of profanity were not “pandering, titillating or vulgar.”
What was the fundamental change between 2002 and 2007? There was the Janet Jackson incident during the Super Bowl in 2004, but that should not fundamentally alter the handling of heart-felt emotion expressed by defenders of our nation during a documentary. This stance by the FCC has exceeded the need to protect the public. Most would agree that a bare breast during a dance routine should not be part of a prime-time program. But, it is not the government that should regulate this, the free market, along with complaints to the broadcaster will take care of such incidents.
Allow our warriors to express themselves. We owe them that, and much more.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns