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War and Warning

PBS has netted impressive ratings for Ken Burns’ seven-part series, The War, which began on Sept. 23. That turned out to be one day before crazed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to students at Columbia University and, among other things, denied that there were any gays in Iran. He also questions the Holocaust.

His views are as dangerous as they are ludicrous. Indeed, it was not hard to see the connection between Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler.

Which brings us back to The War. Burns said he decided to produce the documentary because he read studies that showed that millions of high school seniors know virtually nothing about World War II—many think the United States and Germany joined against Russia in the war. Aging war veterans are dying off at a rate of 1,000 a day; Burns thought it was vital to capture this oral history while he still could.

In fact, of course, the war changed the world. As many as 70 million people died.

Unlike any war since, all of America was affected. Food and necessities were rationed. Women went to work in factories while men went off to war. This nation herded Japanese-Americans off to camps, so fearful were we that some of “them” might be the enemy. The news was censored.

Unfortunately for Burns, despite the large audience for this series, extremely few young viewers are tuning in. Just using Nielsen figures for New York’s WNET, through the first four nights of the series, while 453,000 watched during the average quarter hour, only 7,000 of them were between the ages of 18 and 34. We presume the numbers are about the same in other markets. Thankfully, PBS is reaching out to kids in schools and on the Web with extensive guides.

But the virtual absence of younger adults at a time the world is in a very precarious state reminds us of George Santayana’s well-worn warning, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

That the documentary began at the same time Ahmadinejad came to the United States to speak at Columbia and at the United Nations puts the PBS series in the context it deserves.

Perhaps the national conversation about Ahmadinejad’s speech—should he have been given the forum at Columbia, should the networks have covered it—will serve to educate some young people about the freedoms the Greatest Generation was fighting for. If Ahmadinejad has dangerous or dangerously misinformed views, it is vital that the world hears what he has to say, so it can know what sort of demon he is. If the world had heard and paid attention to Hitler in his earliest rants, history itself might well have been changed.

It is when free speech is curtailed that the virulent strain of hate that is the weapon of petty tyrants is allowed to spread. Ahmadinejad spent three days in New York and was hammered on human rights issues, and his views, given the wide play on television and in print, were laughed at. But that’s only because those views were exposed to the disinfecting light of public scrutiny.

It was an unusually jarring pairing of events. Seen in retrospect, The War shows the results of ignoring evil until, as it did for the U.S. in 1941 and again in 2001, reality intrudes. PBS and Ken Burns deserve plaudits for the documentary. Ahmadinejad’s evil gives us a reason to treasure this nation’s freedom of speech. The world can be a frightening place, but even more so if we don’t confront those fears.