Today is Poetry Friday!  Please visit our wonderful host Anastasia at Small Poems for the story of her first poem sale.  It will make you smile!  You will also find lots of yummy poem goodness from our many Poetry Friday friends.

Recently, I had the opportunity to see Audie Cornish interview of Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker.  This is rather heavy, so brace yourself.

Ken Burns, Wikipedia
Ken Burns (source: Wikipedia)

Several topics stood out during the conversation for me.  Due to his multi-year research and work on both his Civil War documentary and his WWII documentary, Ken had interesting perspectives on those wars individually as well as their intersections.  Here are my notes on some of Ken’s comments:

Confederate Flags: The origin of what we consider to be the “Confederate Flag” today was not the primary flag used by the Confederacy during the Civil War.  In fact, it was unpopular in many states because of its resemblance to the US flag.  The “Southern Cross” version of the Confederate flag that we see today was a battlefield flag that gained popularity among various states around 1954, following the Brown v. Board of Education decision when the US Supreme Court decided that school segregation violated the fourteenth amendment.  Mississippi and Georgia added the Confederate flag to their state flags as a form of protest.  [Incidentally, the term “Southern Cross” also refers to the “Crux Constellation” visible from the southern hemisphere.]

Reich Citizenship Laws: The Nuremburg Laws, passed by Nazi Germany in 1935 to discriminate against Jewish citizens as a basis for the Holocaust, were modeled after US Jim Crow segregation laws.  For more on this, see here.

Hilter’s Intentions: During an interview for Ken Burns’s WWII documentary, a US soldier from Waterbury, CT, spoke of his discussion with a captured Nazi soldier.  The Nazi soldier, in accent-free English, asked the US soldier where he was from.  He replied, “The United States.”  The German soldier asked, “Where in the United States?” The US soldier replied, “The Northeast.”  During continued questions from the German solider, who nodded understanding throughout, the US soldier told the German soldier that he was from: Connecticut … Waterbury … near the Naugatuck River.  The German soldier asked if he lived near where Naugatuck River met a small steam (the US soldier said that you could practically jump across that stream).  The US solider was amazed that the German soldier had such specific knowledge of the United States, so he asked how the German soldier knew such details.  The German soldier responded that he had been through training, and he assigned to command that region of the United States when Germany took over.

Other Miscellaneous Commentary from Ken Burns:

  • Humans communicate best through storytelling.
  • Ken Burns quoted Mark Twain, who may have said, “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.”
  • Throughout history, people have tended to organize their societies under dictators. Sometimes people favor dictatorship when the dictator shares their opinion, but once power is relinquished to a dictator it cannot be taken back.
  • Be involved with government.
  • Nothing is binary. Something can be true while its opposite is also true.  It is important to understand the complexities of situations.
  • Although people’s attention spans seem to have decreased, there still exists an appetite for deeper understanding. Ken cited binge-watching as an example of this phenomenon.


Here is a poem by Witter Bynner (1881-1968) that feels apropos.


Fools, fools, fools,
Your blood is hot to-day.
       It cools
When you are clay.
It joins the very clod
Wherein you look at God,
Wherein at last you see
       The living God
       The loving God,
Which was your enemy.


To quote Ken Burns: There is no "them." There is only "us." 


  • Tracey, this is fascinating. I need to watch more of Ken Burns. These two documentaries sound important. There is so much wisdom in your list of Miscellaneous commentary. Today I'm feeling the truth of "It is important to understand the complexities of situations."
  • Sort of incredible that we have documentary-makers about the making of war... I am with Bynner: Fools, fools, fools. Sigh...
    • My impression of Ken Burns, in particular, is that he is trying to help us learn from past mistakes.  It is difficult to watch though.
  • As I read through your Ken Burns info, it makes me wonder, but probably know, that most people do not pay attention to the information he shares, and if anything, gloss over it as if he may be exaggerating. The telling word to me in your powerful poem is that final "was". Thanks for an illuminating post, Tracey!
  • My goodnes...a heavy but good post. I want to see this interview. Ken Burns is a tremendous artist. Your notes are also heavy but good. It's part of a poet's job to not look away. I think it's a brave thing to be a poet...those words, "fools, fools..." My goodness, no truer words ever.

    Edited on Friday, 01 December 2023 22:12 by Linda Mitchell.
  • This post is all sorts of powerful. I was most drawn to this comment from Ken Burns: "Nothing is binary. Something can be true while its opposite is also true.  It is important to understand the complexities of situations." This is especially true in these days of deep division. The Witter Byner poem is the perfect one to end your piece. "Fools, fools, fools" indeed! 
  • So much great stuff here, Tracey. I've been drafting a poem about war, and I almost never write about political and social issues. Besides the poem, which is fabulous, I love the Twain quote and your final quote from Burns. At NCTE, an author talking about her mg novel around restorative justice kept repeating the line, "We must all sit in the same circle." Seems to rhyme nicely with Burns. Thanks for sharing this.
  • Thank you for all these wonderful tidbits. I love the quote attributed to Twain that history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. So much to ponder today.
  • I was struck by the contrast between all that Ken Burns has learned through deep study and what he does with that learning, versus the German soldier's deep learning, and what his intended outcome was. Seems like a metaphor for the world today.
    • Yes, interesting to ponder how at any point in time, there is significant potential for world events to go a completely different direction ... and what that might mean.
  • Your post reminds me of all the things political I want to push away, the greatest of these is war. Yes to the fools who do not realize their enemy is also a child a God. 

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