Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Great War, on History Channel

World War One led to the rise of some of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th Century, including the Bolsheviks in Russia and the National Socialists in Germany. Yet, it also established America as a global super-power and the leader of the free world, a role we have maintained to this day, despite the growing chorus of isolationist voices. Essentially rebuilding the American military from scratch was no easy task, which is why Gen. John J. Pershing emerges as such a significant and underappreciated figure in American history throughout The Great War, the two-part chronicle of American involvement in WWI, airing this coming Monday and Tuesday on History Channel.

There is some discussion of the causes and consequences of WWI, but director Mandla Dube and the expert commentators mostly concentrate on profiling American soldiers and explaining how the tides of war shifted. Like the Doris Kearns Godwin portraits of presidents in crisis (including
FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) The Great War incorporates dramatic re-enactments with traditional talking head analysis. It also includes a lot of coverage of the Harlem Hellfighters, which is only fitting—and maybe convenient, since Dube probably already had a lot of good material, having also directed History Channel’s Harlem Hellfighters documentary special.

Archduke Ferdinand does not even get a shout-out and everyone lets Wilson off easy for campaigning on a promise to keep America out of the war and then changing his mind (and his virulent racism). However, they make a convincing case his appointment of Gen. Pershing was his best decision as president.

There is very little discussion of the War before America joined the fight, but it is made clear the Allies were on the ropes. England and France desperately wanted American reinforcements, but to his credit, Pershing refused to sacrifice his ill-trained men as mere cannon fodder. It is shocking how few American soldiers were serving in uniform at the time war was declared. That is why so many National Guardsman (like my great-grandfather) were deployed for overseas combat.

In the re-enactment sequences, Langley Kirkwood perfectly captures Pershing’s commanding presence and nicely conveys his empathy for his soldiers. The details of the General’s tragic personal life will probably be new information for many viewers. Gabriel Miya also cuts an impressive figure as artist and Harlem Hellfighter Horace Pippin. However, some of the battlefield re-enactments, including those of the all-white 1
st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) seem less grounded in history than those in History’s presidential predecessors. At times, the tone feels similar to Steven Luke’s fictionalized war movie also titled The Great War.

However, there are some top-notch experts providing insight and context, starting with General David Petraeus. There are further illuminating contributions from Col. Douglas Douds of the U.S. Army War College, Prof. Richard S. Faulkner of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and Col. Robert J. Dalessandro of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Unlike Dube’s previous
Harlem Hellfighters, The Great War never features the heroic James Reese Europe, but that might have been a deliberate decision to avoid overlap between the two productions. That is an understandable strategy, but Europe still ought to be more widely recognized as a national hero.

Perhaps the most important aspect of
The Great War is the way it explains the sheer scale of the war. There were 1.2 million Americans fighting at Meuse Argonne. That would be a staggering percentage of the population even today—in 1918, it was exponentially more so. It is a crime we know so little about WWI. It was the first of only two World Wars. Currently, there is definitely an axis of authoritarians working against the interests of the free world. If we do not want to fight a third, we should thoroughly understand the first two. This two-parter is a good start in that respect. Recommended for its profiles in courage and analysis of tactics and strategy, The Great War airs Monday (5/27) and Tuesday (5/28) on History Channel, obviously scheduled with Memorial Day in mind.