Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ken Burns and Bunker Hill

Last evening documentary film maker Ken Burns spoke at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium as part of the 12th annual Middlesex Community College Celebrity Forum. Burns spoke mostly about his latest film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea", but also addressed the broad themes that connect all of his work. The primary question he's explored is "who are we?" as a people, but also how race and space - the sheer size of the country - has shaped us as a people. Burns also said that while he determinedly avoids sentimentality and nostalgia, his work is not about pure rational thought. Instead, he seeks to elevate people's thinking to a more emotional, spiritual level.

Ken Burns never mentioned Bunker Hill, but I couldn't resist drawing a connection between his remarks and the way in which we remember the battle that was fought not far from here 235 days ago today. Just two months after the confrontation at Lexington and Concord, the British Army sat securely in Boston and the colonial militia was camped in Cambridge, just far enough away to not present a threat to Boston. On the evening of June 16, however, the Americans occupied a hill in Charlestown, just across from Boston and built an earthen fort. This forced a response by the British and in a costly battle that lasted all day on the 17th, half of the British force of 2400 men and one-third of the 1200 Americans were killed or wounded.

The battle had substantial strategic significance for both sides. In England, any talk of reconciliation ended and everyone knew they were engaged in a war. On the American side, the new Continental Congress was forced to become a national government, and every inhabitant had to choose a side, whether he wanted to or not. The Battle of Bunker Hill played a critical role in propelling our country on its path to independence.

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