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DVD Review: Ground War — The Evolution of the Battlefield

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“What are we fightin’ for?
 Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn.
 Next stop is Viet Nam!” — Country Joe McDonald

My father was in Patton’s Third Army and I’ve been a fan of the movie, Patton, since it came out.  I was born just seven years after the war ended and as a child, played “army” with my friends.  By the late sixties, I thought battlefield technology had progressed past hand-to-hand combat but Viet Nam changed that.  Now I wonder if we have, in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought machine guns to a knife fight.

The evolution of weapons and the impact of simple inventions are detailed in “Warrior Weapons”, the first episode of Ground War.  The arming of man for battle moves naturally to the topic of movement of soldiers in the battle arena from foot, to chariots and wagons, to horseback and then motorized vehicles in “Battlefield Mobility”.  “Firepower” covers the topic of artillery and the set concludes with “Command and Control”.  Each episode lasts about an hour and is filled with great video clips ranging from historical archival footage to the present. Computer generated graphics illustrate the unavailable historical images and explain current technology.  While not a fan of CGI, I’m pleased to see that it is used sparingly and effectively in this series (illustrating the rifling of a gun barrel, explaining sloped armor on tanks, or fortress construction/defense).

While the desire to get soldiers where they are needed quickly and safely resulted in the development of the jeep,half-track, humvee and stryker, transportation is only one aspect of the equation.  Just as important are speed, armor and firepower, the three major factors of the development of the tank.  Just as the helicopter became the cavalry in Viet Nam, the tank was the cavalry in World War II. 

As in several episodes of Ground War, we learn about the technology of how warriors do battle in stories expertly narrated by R. J. Allison.  The seven week battle of Kursk in 1943 that began with 450 German Tiger tanks and over 800 Russian T-34’s eventually involved over 6,000 tanks.  The recounting of this story serves as a platform for both the history of tank design and comparisons with today’s Abrams M1A2 tank — the state of the art in tank design. 

“Fire Power” employs frequent use of working models (many of them full-sized) to demonstrate advances made in the effort to strike the enemy from a safe distance.  We learn that the Chinese invented two weapons that made significant changes in warfare, the trebuchet and gunpowder. Other simple but significant design features were rifling in cannon barrels and invention of the gunner’s quadrant.

I was expecting the last segment to concern itself with how the battlefield leadership uses technology to direct their troops. However, “Command and Control” again makes appropriate use of CGI to show how war-time engineers re-shape the landscape and change the lay of the land for war. Dating back to the use of a wall in Northern England by Roman Emperor Hadrian and the Great Wall of China, this episode explores the use of landscape and design for forts, castles and tunnels as well as the importance of a simple farming innovation (barbed wire) in war.

Ground War, released by PBS on DVD in July 2010 is a natural for history, war, and military buffs.   There are no extra features, however, more information and related stories are available at the PBS site online.

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