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Ground War: A 4-Part PBS Documentary

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 19, 2010 
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The Soviet T-34 epitomized the combination of battlefield mobility and firepower in World War II. Photo by Louise Ireland; copyright Granada TV.
The Soviet T-34 epitomized the combination of battlefield mobility and firepower in World War II. Photo by Louise Ireland; copyright Granada TV.
 

Technology and warfare make a nearly perfect pair—sort of like peanut butter and jelly. A new PBS documentary series, Ground War, from WNET's THIRTEEN explores how man's ingenuity and development of technological solutions has made land combat a constantly changing element in the art of war, from the phalanx to the Abrams tank. The four-part series will air two episodes on two successive Wednesdays beginning May 19 on PBS. Check local listings for times.

The lethal technology explored isn't all death and destruction. Dr. John H. Morrow, Jr., in the "Warrior Weapons" episode, says of technological development, "There's always some benefit to society. It's perhaps ironic, though, that we always seem to feel we need to start by killing people. That's the first major aim that drives us, and then we're willing to apply this to more peaceful circumstances."

Using sophisticated animations and live demonstrations, with a sprinkling of sports allegories such as the rugby scrum and end-zone pass, the programs move through the maturation of weapons, infantry tactics, fortifications and battlefield mobility from the days of Egyptian and Macedonian domination through current U. S. Army training and operations.

A number of weapons, warfare and military history experts add their knowledge to the storyline in these shows, which take a linear path through the development of ground war technology but with a periodic window contrasting the historic developments with where we are today. We learn, for example, that the four major considerations for weapons development are range, accuracy, strength and rate of fire—as true for the deadly longbow as the latest version of the M-16 assault weapon.

Among the most interesting segments are the modern demonstrations of weapons from the past—showing, for example, the relative accuracy of a smoothbore with its ball-shaped ammunition versus a rifled musket shooting a conical Minié ball in the Civil War. The way wounds from these two weapons differ is also explored in fascinating detail.

The program points out those personalities who were quick to embrace military technology. George Washington realized the hunting rifle was the perfect weapon for his undermanned outfits to challenge the seemingly invincible ranks of British soldiers. German Colonel General Heinz Guderian developed tank warfare into a powerful element of World War II combat after the poor showing of Britain's "Big Willy" tanks in World War I left a bad impression of mechanized ground combat.

Ground War's four episodes are "Warrior Weapons" and "Battlefield Mobility" on May 19 and "Firepower" and "Command and Control" on May 26.

"Warrior Weapons" focuses on small arms and individual weapons. Spears and edged weapons were just as important in their day as guns have been to soldiers of the last six centuries. In fact, one demonstration shows how to make gunpowder with a mortar and pestle as might have been done in the 16th century.

"Battlefield Mobility" demonstrates the finer points of chariot combat, but of course most of the program is spent on mechanized warfare and its incredible machines.

Artillery has been a force to be reckoned with since gunpowder came on the scene, and "Firepower" guides the audience through the evolution of the cannon in all its forms. Modern computer-guided artillery shows just how sophisticated and destructive these giant stationery guns can be.

Finally, "Command and Control" puts the spotlight on the work of military engineers. The way fortifications and other defensive obstacles can change the flow and outcome of a battle is shown in many ways and demonstrated with captivating clarity.

Although reenactments are used frequently in these programs, I for one don't care for the surreal and abstract way the visuals are manipulated to achieve some questionable impact. A cast of thousands isn't necessary when reenactors can simply be photographed combat-camera style, which in these programs demonstrates the necessary point for me. Also, there is not much coverage on the support systems that are necessary to make battlefield mobility a reality—the thousands of horses, trucks, supplies and teamsters these armies needed to keep their infantry and armor moving. I also miss the development of battlefield communication, a necessary tool to success in any ground war. Perhaps this will be a future episode. Overall though, these are fascinating programs, thorough and entertaining. They will appeal to a wide audience interested in military history, science and weapons technology.

 


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