Case Number 13064

AMERICA AT WAR

History Channel // 2008 // 1948 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 26th, 2008

The Charge

From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.

Opening Statement

America at War is a mammoth 14-disc collection of some of the History Channel's most celebrated shows about wartime. Even if some of the choices seem haphazard, it's still an impressive sample.

Facts of the Case

Here are the shows presented on the 14 discs:

Disc One: The Revolutionary War
"The American Revolution: The Conflict Ignites" (49:04)
As 1775 ends, the British colonies in North America resent being taxed and controlled by the Crown. Activists and intellectuals like Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams agitate for independence; when a series of tragedies and protests occur in Boston, the revolution begins in earnest.

"The American Revolution: 1776" (49:42)
George Washington, a planter from Virginia, is appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army by the new congress, and quickly discovers that his army of volunteers may not be up to the task of battling the more powerful British forces. Franklin and Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence.

Disc Two: The Revolutionary War
"The American Revolution: Washington & Arnold" (49:43)
Washington wins a crucial victory when he crosses the frozen Delaware River and launches a surprise attack on British troops stationed at Trenton, New Jersey. This is followed by an even greater triumph when Benedict Arnold leads the colonials to rout a colossal English army at Saratoga, New York. With these wins, Franklin convinces the French government to recognize and support the colonies.

"The American Revolution: The World at War" (45:39)
France and Spain send soldiers, ships, arms, and money to the colonists, turning a rebellion into a world war with England. At Monmouth, New Jersey, the newly emboldened revolutionaries prove their mettle.

Disc Three: The Revolutionary War
"The American Revolution: England's Last Chance" (43:02)
English General Cornwallis comes up with a plan to defeat the insurgents by ravaging the southern colonies and slowly moving up the East Coast. With the aid of sadistic commander Banastre "The Butcher" Tarleton, Cornwallis conquers the Carolinas and hands the colonists a string of defeats.

"The American Revolution: Birth of the Republic" (51:43)
Washington gambles all on one last strike at Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. In an ingenious plan that uses the French Navy and his toughest, hardest soldiers, he decisively shatters Cornwallis' army once and for all. England signs a peace treaty relinquishing control of the colonies. The next and most important fight occurs as the colonists decide how to govern themselves.

Disc Four: The Alamo
"The Alamo: Remember the Alamo" (91:45)
In 1836, the Mexican border territory of Texas, long a bone of contention between the U.S. and Mexican governments, erupts in revolution as American settlers and merchants demand independence from Mexican authority. One of the Revolution's most famous battles is fought at the old Mexican fort of the Alamo, where a group of American rebels and political leaders made a last stand against an overwhelming Mexican army.

"The Real West: The Battle of the Alamo" (46:41)
The myths and legends that surround the battle of the Alamo and some of its participants are examined in detail.

Disc Five: The Civil War
"Civil War Combat: The Hornet's Nest at Shiloh" (45:40)
In April 1862, Confederate forces launch an attack against Union troops encamped near Shiloh, Tennessee. The result is a battle so bloody and prolonged that many previously skeptical observers realized that the Civil War would be a long and grisly affair.

"Civil War Combat: The Bloody Lane at Antietam" (45:40)
In September 1862, Confederate troops launch a surprise assault on Union soldiers at Antietam, Maryland. The battle of Antietam became the worst battle ever fought on U.S. soil, as errors by both Union and Confederate commanders led to the deaths of 23,000 men on both sides, more Americans than at any other battle in U.S. history.

Disc Six: The Civil War
"Civil War Combat: The Wheatfield at Gettysburg" (45:40)
In 1863, Union and Confederate forces meet at a wheat field outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Over the period of a day, a series of repeated skirmishes lead to the wheat field changing hands repeatedly, and both sides lose plenty of men.

"Civil War Combat: The Tragedy at Cold Harbor" (45:40)
By 1865, U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant has Confederate General Robert E. Lee cornered outside of Richmond, Virginia, which happens to be the capital of the Confederacy. An overconfident Grant launches an assault too soon at a placed called Cold Harbor, leading to Lee's last victory of the war.

Disc Seven: World War I
"The Death of Glory" (96:40)
In 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip murders Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, precipitating a war based on alliances and partnerships rooted less in ideology and more in friendships and self-interest. Old Napoleonic tactics meet modern technology, resulting in blood-drenched battles of attrition and stalemate, as well as the birth of trench warfare. After four long and grisly years of fighting, an Armistice is signed that will cause more problems than it solves and lay the foundation for an even bigger disaster.

"The Last Day of World War I" (44:36)
The Armistice to end World War I is signed at 5 A.M. on November 11, 1918. However, it does not go into effect until 11 A.M. The result is one of the most appalling injustices in history as Allied military commanders order a series of attacks and battles during that six-hour gap that serve no useful military purpose and waste the lives of thousands of men.

Disc Eight: World War II
"The Last Days of World War II" (137:01)
As the Nazi government collapses in Berlin, and the German Army faces certain defeat, the Allies prepare for the Germans' unconditional surrender and the subsequent peace. What follows is a series of battles and military and political judgments to decide who shall deliver the final blow, how to capture as many top Nazi leaders alive as possible, and how to recover and administer the treasure and armaments that the Nazis pillaged from their conquests.

Disc Nine: World War II
"USS Eagle 56: Accident or Target?" (44:07)
In April 1945, the USS Eagle 56 exploded and sank off the coast of Maine, killing 49 crewmen. Though the U.S. Navy blamed a boiler explosion, evidence suggests that the ship was actually the victim of an attack by a Nazi U-Boat.

"Last Secrets of the Axis" (93:10)
In the early 1920s, Professor Karl Haushofer, who teaches geography and politics at Munich University, lays the intellectual groundwork for the Nazi Party and their alliance with the Japanese. He becomes one of Adolf Hitler's most trusted advisors and commands a sizable influence, but remains unknown to most outside of Hitler's inner circle.

Disc Ten: The Korean War
"Part 1: Making of a Bloodbath" (44:14)
At the end of World War II, Korea, having been liberated from Japanese oppression, is divided into two regions: a Communist north and an Americanized south. Though both North and South Korean leaders make bellicose statements about reuniting the country, it is the northern Communists who launch a bloody and brutal invasion of the south in June 1950, all but conquering the country and alarming the United Nations.

"Part 2: Triumph to Tragedy" (44:14)
President Truman organizes a multi-national United Nations army, led by World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur, to strike back at the North Korean Communists. MacArthur enjoys some quick and decisive victories, recapturing all of South Korea and driving deep into North Korean territory. Unfortunately, he overextends his men and runs into a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Chinese Army.

"Part 3: Retreat from Hell" (44:15)
The longest military retreat in U.S. history ensues over the winter of 1950-51 as American and other U.N. soldiers struggle to escape back into South Korea to avoid capture from a massive Communist Chinese Army while battling a viciously cold winter. Politically, Truman begins to feel the pressure from an increasing number of Americans who believe that the Korean incursion is no longer worth the effort.

"Part 4: Bitter Standoff" (44:14)
After increasing personal clashes and military defeats, Truman fires General MacArthur and installs General Matthew Ridgeway in his place, who immediately regains some of the territory that was lost earlier. But by now, Americans are tired of the war; Truman and the Communists sign an armistice that, after three years and millions dead, has ultimately resolved nothing. Korea remains divided to this day.

Disc Eleven: The Vietnam War
"Part 1: America Enters the War" (44:59)
U.S. Marines arrive in June 1965 to protect a U.S. air base, marking the first time U.S. soldiers will fight as combat troops in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army and the southern Viet Cong guerrillas launch a series of vicious attacks and terrorist bombings in retaliation.

"Part 2: Tet in Saigon and Hue War" (45:08)
In January 1968, both the NVA and the Viet Cong launch a series of massive attacks on every major city in South Vietnam during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. The two most important cities in South Vietnam are the scenes for some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Though both are decisive U.S. military victories, politically, the Tet Offensive is the biggest crisis of Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

"Part 3: Ringing Down the Curtain" (45:02)
Having won the 1968 Presidential Elections, Richard Nixon decides to withdraw troops from Vietnam slowly while invading neighboring Cambodia, which many North Vietnamese soldiers use to launch attacks. By 1972, the North Vietnamese are ready to launch a full-scale attack on the south.

"Part 4: The End Game" (44:58)
By 1975, the North Vietnamese are all but assured a complete victory as they overrun South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese Army falls apart. Americans struggle to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, as the NVA is only a few miles away.

Disc Twelve: The Gulf War
"Operation Desert Storm: The Air Campaign" (44:35)
On January 17, 1991, President George H.W. Bush orders Operation Desert Storm, an alliance of United Nations Coalition Forces led by General Norman Schwartzkopf, to liberate Kuwait after it has been invaded and occupied by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army. The battle begins with a series of air attacks by the newest technology in airplanes, helicopters, and guided missiles and bombs.

"Operation Desert Storm: The Ground War" (45:03)
After only days of air attacks, the Iraqi army has been softened up and is ready to meet the Coalition Forces' ground attack, an elaborate plan carefully put into action by Schwartzkopf that liberates the Kuwaiti capital in only a few hours.

"Operation Desert Storm: The Final Showdown" (45:02)
The Republican Guard, the fierce elite fighting forces of the Iraqi army, remains to threaten the Coalition Forces. General Schwartzkopf and his team map out a careful strategy to neutralize them, but political decisions made by President Bush and his advisors threaten his plans and lay the groundwork for a tragedy.

"Weapons at War: Smart Bombs" (45:44)
A history of guided bomb technology, from World War I until the Gulf War.

Disc Thirteen: The Iraq War
"One Year Later: Invasion" (45:18)
In March 2003, U.S. and British troops launch a massive invasion of Iraq designed to topple the reigning dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. A large and coordinated assault moves in from the south en route to Baghdad.

"One Year Later: Tough Going" (45:18)
U.S. and British forces meet unexpected heavy resistance in southern cities, leading to the captures of several U.S. POWs, including Jessica Lynch.

"One Year Later: Baghdad's Doorstep" (44:51)
U.S. forces finally defeat Iraqi Republican Guard troops in and around Baghdad and are able to take Baghdad Airport and many surrounding suburbs. From the north, U.S. Army soldiers team up with Kurdish resistance fighters to open up another front.

"Eyewitness in Iraq" (45:04)
Combat photographers from various countries discuss some of the candid and graphic pictures taken during and after the invasion.

Disc Fourteen: The Iraq War
"One Year Later: Fall of Saddam" (45:17)
U.S. Marines finally enter Baghdad and capture the capital, as Saddam's government collapses and he escapes. The final step of the invasion is complete as U.S. forces capture the remaining cities in the north.

"One Year Later: Aftermath" (45:18)
What began as a successful mission quickly sours as the total collapse of the Iraqi government leads to anarchy, looting, and riots. A series of disastrous decisions by the post-invasion civilian authority leads to the rise of a brutal and savage insurgency that leads to more deaths after the invasion than during the war.

"U.S. Weapons Against Iraq" (43:53)
An in-depth look at some of the technology and tactics used in the Iraq War.

"Iraq War: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency" (44:54)
By December 2005, the insurgency in Iraq has left a trail of blood and destruction that dwarfs anything that happened during the initial invasion. U.S. soldiers train Iraqi soldiers and police officers in counterinsurgency tactics to combat a new breed of well-trained and well-funded terrorists and guerillas.

The Evidence

So here it is: fourteen discs, over thirty-two hours of programming. This doesn't encompass everything that the History Channel has ever done about war (that would involve about a dozen sets of this size) but it does serve as a pretty good selection. Virtually every major conflict the United States has been involved in is represented here, from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq. It also serves a sort of sampler from various other multi-disc sets the channel has put out dedicated to specific conflicts. The set contains three discs from the American Revolution box set, the complete Last Days of World War II, Iraq War and Civil War Combat sets, and one disc apiece from the Alamo and Vietnam War sets. The World War I, Korean War, and Gulf War discs compile various shows that had previously only been available separately.

The best discs, strikingly enough, are those about lesser-known wars. The Korean War disc is superb. This much-misunderstood and forgotten war is finally made clear in an excellent documentary that's both entertaining and easy to understand. Detailed maps, interviews with both historians and ground troops, and plenty of extraordinary film footage (some in color) make this a must-see for anyone who is curious about his conflict. Similarly, the World War I disc is also well-done. The two-part "Death of Glory" series is a concise yet informative study of the war from beginning to end. The real find, however, is "The Last Day of World War I," an amazing, horrifying look at how the arrogance and vengefulness of Allies leaders led to the deaths of over 10,000 soldiers for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. This is the kind of show that the History Channel does best.

The Gulf War disc is very good, too. Because the Gulf War was fought less on the basis of soldiers and tactics and more on technology, the three shows do go into some detail about the weapons and equipment used by the Coalition Forces. Fortunately, they don't go overboard and instead also explain the military strategies behind the battles. The series is actually quite critical, addressing the controversies over the lack of access by the press during the fighting and debunking many of the myths propagated by the military commanders (most especially General Schwartzkopf, who does not come off well here at all). In particular, the final chapter delivers the most chilling moments when it reveals the mind-bogglingly shortsighted decisions made by Schwartzkopf and President George H.W. Bush and his advisors (including Colin Powell and Dick Cheney) at the end of fighting, decisions which may have actually laid the groundwork for the 2003 Iraq War.

Surprisingly, the more well-known wars are a bit hit-and-miss. The History Channel has done some superb shows about the Civil War; for instance, "April 1865" (available on the Last Days of the Civil War box set) and Sherman's March are both excellent programs. By contrast, the Civil War Combat series is hardly the cream of the crop. These shows are difficult to watch, let alone understand, as they use far too much badly shot footage of Civil War re-enactors. Endless shots of actors yelling through a smoky haze are not the most visually exciting elements to watch. What's more, though plenty of trivial information is piled on, the battles themselves are not explained clearly, so it's impossible to follow what's going on.

World War II gets some odd choices as well. "The Last Days of World War II" is an outstanding look at the collapse of the Nazi government, the surrender of the German Army, and the Nuremberg War Trials. It also discusses a little-known aspect of the end of the war: the plundering and looting that occurred in Germany by Americans and Russians after the surrender. It's an exceptional program, though it should more accurately be titled "The Last Days of World War II in Europe," as Japan and the Pacific Theater are not mentioned. The other two shows, on the other hand, are compelling and full of previously unreleased information, but don't really fit the theme of America at War. Since the set already has some discs from other box sets, then why not include the excellent shows on Pearl Harbor or D-Day? Those would fit the theme better.

The Vietnam War gets short shrift. Since this reviewer has already assessed this disc as part of the Vietnam War box set earlier, suffice it to say that it's too narrowly focused on combat stories at the expense of political and historical context. It simply leaves far too many important things out. In fact, the second disc of the original box set is superior to the first, but it's unfortunately not included here.

The Iraq War shows are not quite as shortsighted as the Vietnam War disc is, and they have the excuse of having only been made in 2004, when the invasion was barely a year old and much wasn't known at the time. But they do suffer, to a lesser extent, from the same narrow focus. Apart from the post-invasion shows, there is no mention whatsoever of any political or historical context. There are only interviews with U.S. soldiers and some think-tank analysts who chronicle every last detail of the battles and weapons of the invasion. It's definitely informative, and there's no facet of the military's story left untold, but the minute level of detail eventually becomes numbing, especially since there's no other perspective provided whatsoever. This also makes the shows not as complete as they should be. For instance, we are told that U.S. troops expected less resistance from the southern cities of Iraq, as those were areas known to be hostile to Saddam's reign. Yet the show has plenty of footage of fierce battles that occurred there. Why was there resistance after all? The show is unclear. It's only on the shows about the post-invasion period that we finally get to hear a larger overall view, including the concerns of Iraqi civilians and the reasons for the rise of the insurgency.

The strangest disc is the one devoted to the Alamo. The shows are decent enough, and more or less give every possible aspect of the battle. But truth be told, the Alamo wasn't even the most significant battle of the Texas Revolution. The story about the actual battle is much less interesting than the information the disc digs up about the mythologizing of the clash, especially the clips of a ludicrously racist movie about the battle made by, not surprisingly, D.W. Griffith. An overall history of the Texas Revolution would have been possibly interesting, but it still seems excessive to devote one entire disc of this set to this battle, considering there were other conflicts that had a far greater impact. The History Channel did a brilliant show about the War of 1812 that told some great stories (including the true story behind the Battle of New Orleans) and was immensely entertaining. Why not include that one? The battle at the Alamo may have plenty of pop culture resonance, but it was hardly a significant military or historical event, as even some of the interviewees admit here.

Nonetheless, whatever the flaws, these are still mostly great shows. All aspects of combat, from the perspective of the lowest grunt to the overall historical context, are presented in many of them. Even the weakest shows have plenty of good stories and previously unseen information. There are shows for every taste, from historians and political analysts to military buffs to hard-core tech fans and gearheads. Overall, easily more than half the discs here are at least worth watching and many are terrific, making this a great purchase for History Channel fans who have considered purchasing some of these shows.

The shows are presented in full-screen, and are of course a mixture of old film and photographs with newer video interviews and footage. The sound is standard TV stereo. There are no extras on any of the discs, but then, are any really necessary?

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The selection is a little irksome. The episodes of The American Revolution included here are top-notch, definitely a must for any history fan. But only three of the set's five discs are included here. If you already own The American Revolution, you'll be paying for stuff you already have, but not all of it, so you still have to hang on to your old set. If you don't and you like what you've seen here, you have to go out and buy it to get the full story, since you're not getting it here. True, including all five discs might have this made set even more expensive than it already is, but isn't the point of one of these behemoths to benefit fans rather than make them pay extra? Similarly, viewers who already own The Vietnam War or The Alamo will be ticked that they have to get some of the discs they already own to get some very good discs that they may have been interested in. Newcomers who don't own any History Channel sets will find this a very good sampler, but the size and list price might scare them off, unless they've seen some of these on TV and have already decided that they want them.

Closing Statement

Yes, it's a pain that some sets were not included in their entirety. Yes, some selections are peculiar. And yes, some important American wars are not represented here at all. But, not including the incomplete box sets, buying these discs individually would cost over $236. Not to mention that individually, some of those (like the World War I and Korean War discs) are sold only as DVD+Rs, without menus or scene selection, unlike the ones here. This box set has a list price lower than that, making it a bargain even with all the caveats. For war history enthusiasts, there's enough good stuff here to justify the purchase.

The Verdict

Not guilty through sheer raw tonnage.

Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile
Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 1948 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* None

Accomplices
* None