The 20th Century With Mike Wallace: America At War

The 20th Century With Mike Wallace has produced some extraordinary documentaries over the years. Their latest, America At War, may be the finest one yet. Originally aired on A&E and The History Channel, this triple DVD set has just been released to the home market by the Athena Learning Company.

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Hosted by multiple Emmy and Peabody award winning journalist Mike Wallace, these 10 one-hour episodes document the saddest of all human tendencies -- the nearly constant drive to war. Although both World Wars are discussed, there is a special emphasis on Vietnam, The Korean War, and The Gulf War. The impression one gets is that these conflicts are still so misunderstood that Wallace is attempting to answer some of the lingering questions.

The first four programs of the series focus on Vietnam, which says a great deal in itself. Episode Five is devoted to The Korean War, and is subtitled “The Forgotten War.” The Gulf War is allotted a full hour as well, and it is one of the more fascinating pieces in the series. “The Untold Story” is the sub-head, and there are a great deal of facts that the media did not loudly proclaim during that short-lived, but oh so victorious escapade.

Besides in-depth coverage of these major engagements, America At War discusses the deep changes the military underwent during the course of the past century. The titles alone offer a pretty telling description of the contents: “America’s Elite Forces: A Checkered History,” “Military Debacles,” “A Few Good Women,” and “The Changing Face Of Warfare.”

While I find the constant drumbeat of “liberal bias” by the right wing to be tedious at best, a series like this all but demands a questioning eye. So what gives? Is Mike Wallace, icon of the legendary 60 Minutes, out to “get” the armed forces in an one-hour program called “Military Debacles?” The answer is no. In fact it is the supposedly dovish Democrats who come in for the main critiques, going back to JFK with the Bay Of Pigs fiasco, LBJ with the escalation of Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter with the bungled Iran hostage rescue attempt.

The truth is, America At War is actually fair and balanced. The series even ends on a high note for the gung-ho. “The Changing Face Of Warfare” discusses the technological superiority of the US, offered up as proof positive that we will continue to be the dominant world power well into the 21st Century.

Bonus features are fairly minimal. The main attraction is an update on the major military figures discussed during the series. What I found most intriguing was the series of essays included in the 12-page booklet. The best of these is titled “Other Forgotten Conflicts.” From Lebanon in 1958 to Kosovo in 1999, there are details of seven skirmishes in total. One of these, involving the Persian Gulf standoff in 1988 hit very close to home. A very good friend of mine was there aboard an aircraft carrier, and as he later told me, it was very much touch and go the entire time. Those of us who have never served do seem to forget much of what occurs, but there really is a life and death element to every armed conflict -- whether it is emphasized or not. I know that I was as tuned in as possible during those tense months in ‘88 as anyone could be. I was worried about my friend.

Like just about everything I have viewed from Athena, America At War is entertaining and informative. This is a modestly priced, and deeply satisfying series.

By Greg Barbrick

About the author

Greg Barbrick has been watching TV so long he remembers watching first run episodes of Star Trek.

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1 Comment
On: Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

This looks really interesting, Greg. It's such a fundamental question that typically gets little examination in the churn of news coverage, and even history books and essays are most often focused on individual conflicts rather than the question of why humanity often seems poised for violence and war. 

Not sure if this was addressed but I've read a few times that death and casualty from war has actually decreased in recent decades, though it likely seems the opposite due to massive increases in technology and media platforms that bring news faster and in a way that's more visually arresting.

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