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America at War Megaset

(History Channel; US DVD: 26 Feb 2008)

It would not be an exaggeration to say the American war machine is the mightiest to ever trod upon the Earth. Not only does the US arsenal have the most destructive weapons available to man, but it also conveys the most sophisticated application of modern science and technology.


Furthermore, from Gettysburg to Normandy, the US has been involved in the most harrowing and challenging campaigns in warfare history. Arguably, the cultural and social landscape of modern America has been shaped mostly by its numerous battles and their generals.


As a consequence, the multidisciplinary complexity of American military history spans over 230 years and imposes a gigantic challenge to those who try to disseminate its understanding to the general public. Even a mammoth effort such as America at War, a massive 14 volume DVD set running over 32 hours, ultimately falls short of giving a reasonable depiction of US warfare history.


In a nutshell, America at War is a collection of documentaries originally aired by the History Channel. The reach of the set is quite wide, including the revolutionary wars (vols. 1-3), the Alamo (vol. 4), the Civil War (vols. 5-6), World War I (vol. 7), World War II (vol. 8-9), the Korean War (vol. 10), the Vietnam War (vol.11), the Gulf War (vol. 12), and the Iraq War (vols. 13-14).


Such a thematic breakdown makes evident one of the unfavorable issues with this collection. That is, in spite of its staggering size, the US has been involved in so many wars and conflicts that comparably the depth of this DVD set is very thin. And also, the time distribution of the content appears to be completely arbitrary. For instance, history shattering events such as WWI or the Vietnam War have a single disc devoted to their discussion, while the Iraq campaign receives two. But nevertheless, one could argue that a more general discussion of American warfare history would require dozens of DVDs, which would be economically unfeasible for a commercial product.


But then again, a clever, concise, elegant, straightforward, and self-contained presentation of a particular conflict could be presented within a couple of hours, about the maximum amount of time available on a single DVD disc. However, this is not the case with America at War, and this observation actually reveals the main shortcoming with this collection. That is, the included documentaries do not form a consistent and comprehensive overview of US military history. Instead, almost every single volume of this DVD set presents a stand alone documentary discussing a specific aspect of a conflict.


For example, the first of two discs devoted to WWII delves into the final stages of the conflict, and naturally misses several defining battles that ultimately led to the Allied victory. On the other hand, the second DVD is about truly obscure details related to the conflict: the explosion and sinking of USS Eagle 56 off the coast of Maine (which was attributed to a Nazi submarine attack) and the intellectual foundations of Nazi ideology cemented by the works of Munich University Professor Karl Haushofer.


As such, America at War is merely a collection of completely disconnected features which fails to provide a better understanding of the general picture. With such a fragmentary and inconsistent structure, this DVD set remains a mixed bag of goodies.


Therefore, it is to be expected that the viewer wishing to obtain a better understanding of how warfare has shaped American history and culture is likely to be sorely disappointed with America at War. On the other hand, for those arm chair generals like me, who enjoy relearning and revisiting the same battles multiple times, America at War provides a few interesting and insightful discussions that are worth watching.


For example, the three volumes devoted to the Revolutionary War are truly outstanding, discussing the major battles of the conflict, the political and ideological process that led the colonies to achieve independence, and the genesis of the creation of the Republic. But still, at times, somehow these documentaries feel incomplete and fragmentary. Arguably, the reason behind this awkward feeling of frustration and disappointment is that, in all their wisdom, A&E and The History Channel decided to release on America at War only three of the five volumes that originally made the acclaimed American Revolution documentary.


On the other hand, the volumes devoted to the Civil War and the Iraq Conflict offer the complete documentaries. The first one is quite informative, giving a good overview of the gestation, engagement, and resolution of a war that totally transformed the US. On the other hand, however, the discussion of the American campaign in Iraq feels unsatisfactory and inconsequential because it culminates in 2004. Indeed, this documentary is substantially out of date and misses several important events and revelations that helped to define the political and ideological motivations of this controversial war.


Overall, America at War offers plenty of good and insightful discussions relating to key moments in US military history. As such, this set may be of interest to the warfare aficionado. However, by arbitrarily collecting documentaries from diverse sources with different perspectives, America at War feels incoherent, incomplete, patchy, and without a clear intellectual or ideological goal. As such this set emerges as a product remarkably inferior to the sum of its parts.

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Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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