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Can war be 'unlimited'?

Although I wasn't able to catch all of Ken Burns' documentary, "The War," I saw enough to appreciate that the series met his usual high standards for storytelling.

Like many Americans, I have watched enough History Channel documentaries to be inured to images of war casualties, but this series seemed unusually graphic. It's the first such program I recall that showed decapitated corpses, for instance.

Another aspect that struck me as memorable was the way in which Burns told the story of the home front by tracking the impact of the war on four U.S. communities.

I contrast his approach with Tom Brokaw's in his best-seller of a few years back, "The Greatest Generation." I found Brokaw's book disappointing, in part, because of its premise that America was saved by a unique generation of heroes. "The War" rang truer because we heard from the lips of those who experienced the war how they viewed themselves -- not as heroes, but as ordinary Americans who were called to service and who didn't hesitate to make the sacrifices asked of them.

Heroism is a word bandied about so lightly these days that the traditional meaning -- acts or extraordinary courage against overwhelming odds -- has been devalued, while such qualities as steadfastness, perseverance and competence are not given their due. The former makes for good plots; the latter win wars.

In one segment of "The War," a veteran said he had not appreciated Gen. Eisenhower's description of the invasion of Europe as a great crusade until after he had participated in the liberation of one of the Nazi death camps some months later. It was only then, he said, that he understood the evil that he and his comrades had vanquished.

I have long thought the untold story of WWII was not so much that of battles waged but of the price paid by families disrupted or shattered. "The War" put in human scale the enormity of the price exacted of so many. Others have remarked how little, in comparison, most Americans have been asked to shoulder ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other wars

Burns might be the first to agree that his series wouldn't be worth the effort if it didn't cause viewers to reflect on more than a war. Lessons taken from "The War" vary greatly, of course, depending on the disposition of the learner.

Last week, a friend and I engaged in a spirited discussion. He compared the frustration the United States faces in Iraq today with President Truman's dilemma in deciding whether to unleash atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or to order the invasion of the Japanese homeland, which would have resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of American lives. My friend cited Vietnam as an example of how "limited" war could have a bad end.

Yet, how does a nation wage "unlimited" warfare in a country where friends and enemies often are indistinguishable? Short of exterminating the Iraqi population, which is unacceptable for all sorts of reasons -- moral and practical -- all-out warfare is not an option.

Unfortunately, our experience in wars past may have hard-wired our national psyche to think war can be conducted without conditions or limits.

That model may have worked in World War II, in which much of Europe and Asia were leveled. Within a remarkably short time, with U.S. help, our former enemies morphed into progressive democracies and rebuilt their industrial infrastructure. What happened in post-war Germany and Japan was every bit as remarkable as "The War" itself.

Carl von Clausewitz described war as "an extension of diplomacy." We may fail to grasp that even when examples stare us in the face. Take the Korean peninsula and Vietnam, where "limits" placed on our warriors still are decried by many. North Korea, which President Bush not long ago denounced as part of the "Axis of Evil," last week agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons capacity. And, whether we like to admit it, Vietnam has become a important trading partner.

Ken Burns probably won't do a series on diplomacy.

Perhaps he should.