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20th Century With Mike Wallace: America at War

10 episodes, 470 minutes; Athena

Nearly 100,000 Americans have died in undeclared wars since the end of World War II. This often discomfiting series takes an unvarnished look at the hows and whys and asks, Were they worth it? Its informed, fair-minded approach ensures that the question is worth pondering.

Take Vietnam, the era when rifts that shook the country hardened into today’s intransigent political divides. The first episode, “How We Went To War,” deftly follows the tricky trail of events from Presidents Dwight Eisenhower to Lyndon Johnson. “A Soldier’s Diary” is drawn from the raw in-the-field footage that spilled into America’s living rooms nightly; it serves up the haunting, grunt’s-eye view of an increasingly savage, frustrating stalemate. “Tet and the Anti-War Movement” recounts how the growing realization that America was locked in a far-off civil war on the losing side swelled protests in the streets and the halls of government. Finally, “Portraits of Courage” examines the horrific treatment of 600 American POWS, most of them aviators shot down during bombing campaigns.

Korea and the Gulf War get only one episode apiece, though each receives clear-eyed scrutiny. “Military Debacles” investigates moments many Americans would rather forget: the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut by Islamic Jihad, which killed 241 Americans and led President Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon, in the process raising Hezbollah to heroic status among Arabs; President Carter’s 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran going so badly wrong, leaving them in captivity another nine months; and the 1990s trauma of Somalia with Black Hawk Down—a tactical victory for the U.S. and its allies and a fabulous movie, but a strategic real-world win for Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid. Beyond the battlefield per se, the series examines the changing ways Americans fight: the increased use of special elite units, women’s changing roles in the military and futuristic sci-fi weaponry that still doesn’t solve the problems of “asymmetrical warfare” dogging our troops overseas daily.

Anchored by veteran journalist Mike Wallace and featuring evocative visuals with commentary from Robert McNamara, John McCain, David Halberstam, Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and military veterans, America at War is blunt, challenging, sobering and rewarding.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.