The National Geographic Channel’s “American War Generals” is ambitious. And it is also fantastic.
The two-hour special opens in an SUV with retired Gen. David Petraeus, now dressed in a civilian suit, retracing the drive he’d made to deliver his report — now known as the Petraeus report — on the progress of the surge before a joint hearing. The day hadn’t started well — MoveOn.org had launched their full-page ad, “General Betray Us? — and it didn’t get much easier. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said that his and Amb. Ryan Crocker’s report required “the willing suspension of disbelief,” and then-Sen. Barack Obama asked, “How do we clean up the mess and make the best out a situation in which there are no good options — there are bad options, and there are worse options.”
But to tell the story of the war in Iraq, all the way up to the rise of the Islamic State, National Geographic then takes the audience back over 50 years to the Vietnam War, tracing the lives of those future American generals who fought hard and shed blood, then served through the end of the draft, the Army (and America’s) dark ’70s and Reagan-revitalization, and the rise of the men who would command the War on Terror.
“American War Generals” assembled an impressive cast of American war leaders, with Gens. Collin Powell, Stanley McCrystal, Petraeus, Wesley Clark, Jack Keane, George William Casey, Barry McCaffrey and Raymond Odierno, along with Lt. Gens. Karl Eikenberry and Michael T. Flynn, and Maj. Gen. Herbert R. McCaster. Between them, 385 years of American military experience.
And despite covering 50 years of military history, “War Generals” tells their stories, not just as generals, but as humans.
Near the beginning, while Powell, Clark, McCaffrey and Keane recall their young service in Vietnam, the directors turn to Casey, whose military career didn’t begin until 1970, but whose father commanded a cavalry division in the war.
Recalling driving his father, Maj. Gen. George Casey, to the airport for yet another deployment, the younger Casey shares a personal moment he will never forget: “I was standing there with my mom watching him go up the ramp to the plane, and I remember as he walked off, I looked at my mother and I said, ‘You know, you’ve done this so much, it must get easier.’ And she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said ‘No, it only gets harder.'”
“And that was the last time we saw him.”
Back in the current day, the cameras follow George William Casey as he makes the Virginia drive up to Arlington National Cemetery, where his father was laid to rest.
“Major Gen. George Casey, the commander of the U.S. First Air Cavalry Division, flew out in a helicopter over Vietnam on Tuesday carrying six others with him. They did not return,” crackles a July 1970 news broadcast. “Today, they spotted from the air the wreckage of the general’s helicopter crashed on a mountain side. There was no sign of life, and it appeared there were no survivors.”
“And I never made a decision to put forces in harms way,” George William Casey Jr. narrates, “without thinking off the consequences.”
There were a lot of wet eyes at a private D.C. screening Monday night, where a number of the featured generals sat among the audience. And the masterful storytelling, shots, music and pacing exhibited in this one scene continue on through the entire documentary, successfully keeping a self-important D.C. crowd riveted long after the open bar had closed.
The film doesn’t merely entertain, though. It also educates. I saw it with The Daily Caller’s entertainment editor, who was only in 4th grade when the planes hit the tower, and recalls not knowing what was going on until her older sister explained it on the walk home from the school bus. It’s amazing how quickly the years have passed since that September day. In five years’ time, Americans graduating high school will not have been born yet. For them, as well as for us, the history collected here is priceless.
And there are some interesting revelations, too, such as McCrystal’s confession on Iraq, 2005: “It’s funny, the U.S. military and U.S. politicians never talked about losing, but we absolutely knew we could lose… We all knew we could lose. The question was, had we already lost?”
Or McCaffrey on the sorry state of the U.S. Army following Vietnam: “I think the Soviets could have taken in us in a giant conventional war in the first half of the ’70s.”
“Within the military, we did something that desperately needed to be done — we looked in a mirror,” Powell says. “We looked in a mirror and saw what we had become. Saw that we were losing some of the… some of the values that made our military so great.”
The two-hour National Geographic special tells the story of the Army’s rise from those dark days, its high points in Desert Storm, its low points in 2005, and the men who led. It was produced by Peter Bergen and Tresha Mabile, and debuts Sunday, Sept. 14 at 8:00 PM