Judge Victor Valdivia thinks we should all just get along in peace and harmony—and if you disagree with him, he'll kick your ass.
From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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: 1776" (49:42)
Disc Two: The Revolutionary War
"The American Revolution: The World at War" (45:39)
Disc Three: The Revolutionary War
"The American Revolution: Birth of the Republic" (51:43)
Disc Four: The Alamo
"The Real West: The Battle of the Alamo" (46:41)
Disc Five: The Civil War
"Civil War Combat: The Bloody Lane at Antietam" (45:40)
Disc Six: The Civil War
"Civil War Combat: The Tragedy at Cold Harbor" (45:40)
Disc Seven: World War I
"The Last Day of World War I" (44:36)
Disc Eight: World War II
Disc Nine: World War II
"Last Secrets of the Axis" (93:10)
Disc Ten: The Korean War
"Part 2: Triumph to Tragedy" (44:14)
"Part 3: Retreat from Hell" (44:15)
"Part 4: Bitter Standoff" (44:14)
Disc Eleven: The Vietnam War
"Part 2: Tet in Saigon and Hue War" (45:08)
"Part 3: Ringing Down the Curtain" (45:02)
"Part 4: The End Game" (44:58)
Disc Twelve: The Gulf War
"Operation Desert Storm: The Ground War" (45:03)
"Operation Desert Storm: The Final Showdown" (45:02)
"Weapons at War: Smart Bombs" (45:44)
Disc Thirteen: The Iraq War
"One Year Later: Tough Going" (45:18)
"One Year Later: Baghdad's Doorstep" (44:51)
"Eyewitness in Iraq" (45:04)
Disc Fourteen: The Iraq War
"One Year Later: Aftermath" (45:18)
"U.S. Weapons Against Iraq" (43:53)
"Iraq War: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency" (44:54)
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.
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.
Not guilty through sheer raw tonnage.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.