The Great War

The American Experience PBS version of WWI

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I’ve long held a fascination for this time period as it marked the heightened moment of the beginning of modernity and how industrialization changed society forever. The two greatest art movements came from this time; Cubism and Dadaism, and some have argued that every subsequent art movement has simply been a rehashing of these two movements. As we have just passed the 100 year anniversary of the US’s entry into The Great War, I felt compelled to watch the PBS American Experience documentary “The Great War” to get a good overview of the time period and immerse myself in the stories of people who lived through it, including my mother’s mother who I barely knew. I also recalled having read “All Quiet on the Western Front” way back in middle school and considered how the brutality of trench warfare had produced some of the deepest emotional and existential contemplation in the author and in many ways sparked my lifelong interest in philosophy and literature. And yet way back in my early teens I was equally inspired by the heroic and perilous stories and footage of the early days of aviation and dogfights; so much so that I began playing a fascinating “picture book” game called Ace of Aces that simulated a dogfight by flipping through two identical books of drawings from the point of view of the pilot which allowed you to fight against an opponent in a turn-based strategy game. I still have the game and it’s still awesome!

So after I coughed up 5 bucks a month to PBS I began watching “The Great War” online immediately, but found that it focused primarily on personal stories that were tangential to the actual conflict and left out the events and circumstances that led up to the war. I’m only halfway through the second out of three episodes, but it seems like there is more emphasis on the political events and stories happening in America than “over there”. I guess that’s why the underlying program is called “The American Experience”. Still, there was a good segment on the early aviators and their enthusiasm towards France, where I learned just how small and insignificant airplanes were in terms of the actual scope of the military conflict, but how they where instrumental in creating the necessary vision of bravery and recklessness of a new modern hero that would later help to inspire the imagination of millions of young men to rush off to a muddy smoke filled grave. As much as I found that segment intriguing, it was short and largely glossed over the propaganda aspect and instead kept reminding us of a single man’s story. In contrast to that narrow view, by the 2nd episode there were lengthier segments that portrayed the suffragist movement, anti-war efforts, early inclusion of black soldiers and some really interesting correlations between the “voluntary” food rationing and war bond sales to the government propaganda and citizen led surveillance and intimidation tactics. The stories were still very personal, but were interwoven more seamlessly into the broader narrative that followed the timeline of America’s slowly building but inexorable march towards active participation in the war. It was striking how much those stories reflected other moments in history such as the red scare and the era of Trump with the xenophobic hysteria. Ironically, Trump’s grandfather was a German immigrant who most likely faced discrimination based on his ethnic heritage.

Okay, so I’m only halfway through the series, but I’m feeling like it won’t live up to my expectations. I’m gonna stick it out, but I’m much more intrigued by a YouTube series of the same name that has had some positive reviews and sounds much more like the in-depth thing I’m looking for, but in nice short 10 minute doses. I’ll stick it out till the end of the PBS version, but as soon as I finish that I’ll start with episode 1 of 184 once the wife falls asleep: