To paraphrase a certain former Iraqi dictator who is featured quite prominently in the later DVDs of this mammoth set, America at War may well be the mother of all boxed sets dealing with the United States' various conflicts, both at home and abroad. Spread over 14 discs, these documentaries from the past 17 or so years of both A&E and History Channel efforts deal with everything from the Revolutionary War to our latest battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first three discs contain the 6 part series The Revolutionary War, a 1994 effort hosted by Bill Kurtis and featuring some fine voice work by such noted actors as William Daniels (as John Adams, the same role for which he won a Tony in the musical 1776) and Kelsey Grammer (as Benedict Arnold). As is usually the case with these historical documentaries, reenactments are interspersed with expert commentary and "first-hand accounts" (voiced by the actors) of the events at hand. Also as is typical of the best History Channel pieces, a number of surprising facts and/or sidebars are introduced alongside the more pedestrian history accounts that most are familiar with. Therefore, we find out that taxation really wasn't a problem for the colonists (they were paying far less than their counterparts in England) and they really didn't want representation at all (with our without taxation). As the timeline progresses, other interesting curios are brought to the forefront, such as the fact that Benedict Arnold was as great a warrior as Washington, especially in his gallant march to Quebec, a campaign that gets little or no treatment in most elementary school historical accounts. The documentary also essays the growing involvement of other world powers in the conflict (and not always for pure motives), as well as some disturbing accounts of British torture of collaborationist Indians. Interestingly, since the documentary's focus is on the battles (chapter stops are usually set at specific campaigns), such epoch-making events as the signing of the Declaration of Independence are dealt with tangentially.
The Alamo is the focus of the fourth disc, and fears are initially raised that this will be a dreaded movie tie-in when the opening of the first documentary, 2003's Remember the Alamo turns out to feature Dennis Quaid talking about his then new film about the Texan-Mexican battle. Luckily, though scenes from the film are used to augment other recreations and archival paintings and the like, this turns out to be an unusually thoughtful and balanced presentation of the points both on the U.S. and Mexican sides of the conflict, outlining the encroachment of settlers as well as Spanish expansionism. As above, some surprising information is imparted along the way (e.g., Jim Bowie was actually a Mexican citizen at the time of the conflict), aided by some excellent commentary by those aligned to neither the American nor Mexican position in the conflict. The second documentary, from The Real West series hosted by Kenny Rogers, covers much the same territory (literally and figuratively), and even features some of the same talking heads, with perhaps a trifle less compelling approach, though it does start out interestingly by giving the Native American take on it all, fairly ironic considering that two different sets of "invaders" claimed the land as their own. This older documentary probably pales by coming after the more exhaustive first piece on this disc. It is also somewhat ironic, as is pointed out in both of these pieces, that one of the underlying causes of this conflict was a bugaboo that haunts this year's Presidential election--illegal immigration. Only this time, it was the Americans who were illegal and the Mexican government which was literally up in arms about it.
Civil War Combat, a 4 part 1999 series, occupies the next two discs. Each episode is bookended with brief comments by Roger Mudd, and then the bulk of each episode is given over to dramatic reenactments of various battles, including Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. This effort is certainly not in the league of Ken Burns' Civil War, being fairly narrowly focused on each given battle at hand, but the reenactments are visually exciting (and sometimes quite graphic, so be forewarned if you have smaller children watching), with excellent narration. As is de rigeur for most of these documentaries, a plethora of first-hand accounts is also presented, giving some more visceral insight into how the conflict affected individual soldiers and non-combatants. There is only very occasional contemporary talking head interstitials, making these play more like dramatic films at times.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is not until the single disc given over to World War I that there is an opening animation announcing it is part of the America at War "megaset." It's also somewhat surprising that The Great War only warrants a single disc, though in this particular regard, The Death of Glory, a two-part 1997 series, while certainly nowhere near as exhaustive as the multi-hour BBC series (also available on DVD), manages to get most of the salient points of the conflict across (at least with regard to the United States' involvement), while also presenting some heart-rending personal stories. This documentary is helped immeasurably by that little invention of a couple of decades before the War--motion pictures. Virtually all of this piece is made up of archival footage, some in surprisingly good shape, which brings both the opulence of pre-War Europe (and America), as well as the horrors of the battles that killed tens of millions, home with a significant punch. As excellent as The Death of Glory is, it's actually the third documentary on this disc, The Last Day of WWI from 2004, that is the most consistently fascinating. Dealing with the patent absurdity of combatants who insisted on fighting for six hours after the Armistice had actually been signed, The Last Day of WWI presents not only the sobering details of the final hours (where casualities actually exceeded D-Day's) but also the long tortuous path of the conflict leading up to that sad denouement.
Considering the wealth of documentaries the History Channel has presented about the Second World War over the years, the choices made for this particular set may strike some viewers as a bit strange. Though both discs containing the WWII pieces are labeled as The Last Days of WWII, only the first disc has a documentary by that name, a two-hour plus investigation of the final battles which put an end to the Reich, as well as their aftermath, as the Allies sought to divvy up the goods, both territorial and otherwise, left to the victors. There is some interesting color footage of Hitler and his armies interspersed with the more common black and white film. Quite a bit of time is spent in the Nuremburg Trials, and, most interestingly, in the "treasure hunters" on both the United States and Russian sides that sought out hidden masterpieces that Hitler had secreted away over the years. The second disc contains a bizarre selection of material, including the 1945 sinking of an American ship off the coast of Maine which at the time was ascribed to a boiler explosion, but which has since been shown to be the result of a U-Boat torpedo. The second documentary on this disc, The Last Secrets of the Axis, will probably be of more interest to most viewers, as it deals with the philosophical underpinnings that guided so much of Hitler's strange behaviors, guided by the profound influence of one man whom history has largely forgotten, Karl Haushofer. While Haushofer's name is not widely known these days, when one considers that it was his theories of lebensraum and racial superiority that set Hitler upon his mad quest, not to mention the fact that Haushofer may have written Mein Kampf, his contributions to the horrors of WWII can hardly be underestimated. This particular documentary covers the entire history of the war through the particular focus of Haushofer's various relationships, and is a solid piece of reporting. All told, though, World War II is given surprisingly short shrift in this set, and one is left to wonder why.
America's "Forgotten War" gets an excellent overview on the next disc, split into a four-part series entitled Korea: Fire and Ice. There's some nicely detailed history on how the end of WWII laid some perfect groundwork for this conflict which would erupt five years later. No punches are pulled in revealing mistakes the Allies made (including a disastrous decision not to send tanks to the South due to their fears that the South would attack the North), not only before the war itself, but after it started in earnest, when early tactical mistakes almost spelled a quick victory by the enemy. The documentary goes into quite a bit of detail about how defeat was repeatedly snatched from the jaws of victory, as various missteps by Truman and MacArthur led them down strategically precarious positions. The last episode deals mainly with the war of attrition slowly whittling down the relative positions to basically a stalemate, which of course we are still experiencing to this day. This particular documentary has a wealth of socio-political information on top of the usual historical data that makes it more of an in-depth story than the WWII features, for example.
The debacle of Vietnam, like Korea, gets a single disc, four part documentary treatment next, though this one is notable for featuring a lot of first-hand interviews as well as retrospectives from the CBS news crews that covered the fighting for close to a decade. CBS News' Roger Mudd, the former host of most of the History Channel's original inserts, is here again in that capacity. This particular effort is noteworthy for its more visceral impact, due of course to the fact that so many of its participants are still around to reminisce about various horrors, as well as the first use of exclusively color footage in this set. What this documentary lacks, though, is a cogent history lesson into the long international involvement in Indo-China and, later, Vietnam. Due to the almost nonstop use of first-person narrative, this particular documentary plays the most like a Ken Burns effort of any piece in this set.
Arthur Kent, who of course earned the nickname "Scud Stud" during his coverage of the first Gulf War, is the host for a 3-part series on the next disc entitled Beyond Desert Storm. It seems a bit surreal now to think that 16 years ago the United States was united in its belief that Iraq had both figuratively and literally overstepped its bounds, and that our battle to contain them was just and right. Add to that the amazing technology that was used to dominate the enemy, all of which was televised for the first time, and there is some extremely riveting footage in this piece. Somewhat surprising due to its age, there's actually quite a bit of ambivalence presented here over the ending of the war, with good coverage of strategic decisions that allowed most of the Iraqi Republican Guard to escape with most of their armor intact, as well as the first President Bush's decision not to march to Baghdad to depose Hussein. This disc also contains a bonus documentary, Weapons at War: Smart Bombs, detailing the increasingly computer-driven ballistics that have been used so effectively since Desert Storm, especially in initial attacks.
The last two discs of this set are given over to our current conflict in Iraq, the bulk of the coverage being a multi-part series entitled, One Year Later. While the documentary is not to be faulted in any major way, with excellent coverage of how things began, developed, and where they stood at the first anniversary, its shortcomings are simply ones of incompleteness. As anyone who's read the newspaper over the past several years will attest, things were relatively stable at the one year anniversary and it looked like the United States had succeeded in its mission (anyone remember the infamous Mission Accomplished photo-op?), with little collateral damage. Obviously history itself has taught us a completely different lesson, and this documentary stands mostly as a sad and ironic curio considering how things turned out in the interim. Both discs contain some bonus programming, including the superb Eyewitness in Iraq, featuring photos of "embedded" journalists, U.S. Weapons Against Iraq, which concentrates on the new generation of aircraft and armored pieces being used, and Insurgency and Counterinsurgency, which gives some more up to date information on what has been happening since the first year of conflict.
Overall View: While some individual efforts are lackluster (notably the WWII coverage), and this set is on the pricey side, there is such a bountiful supply of information, most of it compellingly presented, that any military buff is probably going to want to consider purchasing this set. While there's no real consistency between the discs, due to various production companies and ages and styles of the documentaries, there's still the patina of History Channel excellence that colors most of these efforts.