Battlefield Diaries shines a light on the corners of the wars we think we know so well.

James Plath's picture

History is edited. But there's something about eyewitness testimonies that makes events of the past seem relevant in a whole new way. That's the premise behind "Battlefield Diaries," a Military Channel show that relies heavily on letters, diaries, and interviews from soldiers to tell their side of history.

The format is pretty straightforward. The producers combine archival footage with animated maps, as appropriate, interviews, and letters read by soldiers. Close-ups pan across a still life of military objects (medals, a vintage photo of the soldier, service patches, uniforms, etc.) in some shots, while others capture the much-older veteran as he speaks in front of the type of tank, airplane, or other military equipment that he used in battle. There are six episodes on this three-disc set, for a total of 297 minutes of battlefield reminiscences. But the surprising strength of the series isn't the format or the eyewitness accounts. It's the fact that each episode highlights a division that was forgotten, somehow, or underappreciated. "Battlefield Diaries" shines a light on the corners of the wars we think we know so well.

For example, D-Day has been the subject of countless documentaries and fictionalized accounts. What more could there possibly be to say about the Longest Day? Well, "D-Day: First Men In" concentrates solely on the 82nd and 101st Airborne units, the Pathfinders who missed their drops by as much as 20 miles but regrouped to form improv units that went on to carry out their mission: to secure bridges and crossroads in the interior, well beyond the beaches, so that a landing force would have a place to go rather than be pinned down in sand.

Using a large number of veterans from the units, producers trace their progress through "D plus 4." And for all the footage we've seen of this major military offensive, some of the shots in this episode seem unique. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring shot is of a rebuilt church, where paratroopers have been incorporated into the religious stained-glass panels. As one soldier recalled, "The French aren't going to forget" any time soon. The episode draws footage from the National Archives, ABC News, Center for Military History, U.S. Army Heritage & Educational Center, and The National D-Day Museum. The show aired in 2004, and includes shots of comrades honoring the fallen at the Normandy American Cemetery.

"Raid at Cabanatuan" sheds new light on what we know of military events in the Pacific. In Philippine POW camps, 50-60 American soldiers died per day, and it was up to the 6th U.S. Rangers to stage a rescue. There's plenty of POW camp footage here to illustrate the reminiscences, with one man talking about how the first thing the "Japs" did was to rip off his dog tags and club him with their rifle butts when he tried to retrieve his identification. At that point, he said, they knew that many of them would die anonymously. Their vision deteriorated because of poor nutrition, and if a Japanese soldier wanted a ring that wouldn't come off of a soldier's heat-swollen hand, he would cut the hand off at the wrist and take it. Testimony after testimony reveals more details about the POW experience and the military effort to rescue prisoners.

The third episode, "Last of the Buffalo Soldiers," really shifts gears though. It's an attempt to tell the story of the last segregated regiment in U.S. military history—a group descended from the original Buffalo Soldiers who were organized in 1866 to fight Indians. This episode, which has the feel of post-mortems following a military trial, explores—but does not fully contextualize—a "controversy" over the 24th Infantry Regiment. The "Deuce Fours" were deactivated at a general's request, on the grounds that they were incapable of carrying out their military mission. This episode explores racism in the American military, from the segregated training the men received at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to the field of battle where the Deuce Fours were always the first ones to spearhead an offensive, then criticized for running or backing off. More than a few of the veterans appear on camera to say that they never saw anyone run, but it speaks volumes when one of them summarizes what the unit generated: "Two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, 15 Distinguished Service Crosses, 185 Silver Stars, over 2000 Bronze Stars and 2000 Purple Hearts . . . now, are you a coward?"

There's good background on the strategy behind establishing the Pusan Perimeter, and footage of the U.S. soldiers climbing the mountains of Korea, grappling with cold weather (testimonies reveal that with minus 38-degree F. temperatures, none of them had any winter gear—no gloves, even). And there's talk about when they felt the war escalated: when the Chinese army surrounded the unit, and, before attacking, announced themselves with a "New Year's Eve" style clamor of drums and horns. Focusing on the unit's "First United States Victory in Korea" at Yech'on and later battles at Battle Mountain, the show tries to be unbiased while also vindicating the reputation of a unit.

But by the time we get to the fourth episode, "Lam Son 7 19," it's clear that the format starts to bog down a bit. Compared to HBO's highly successful "Letters Home From Vietnam," the pacing seems interminably slow. Professional actors read the letters in "Letters Home," with the voiceover a complement to non-stop visual action. Too often, though, the veterans are shown here reading a letter they wrote during they war—but as they read from it slowly, head down, it actually detracts somewhat from the drama they're recalling. The archival aerial footage is also more familiar, though there are some great sequences of helicopters flying through heavy fire as they tried to fulfill their mission: to cut the supply lines of the North Vietnamese Army while also serving as the main transport for South Vietnamese troops in this offensive, which spanned January through March of 1971.

The final two episodes deal with Iraq. Battle of Al Khafji" tells the story of a three-day battle where Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy became the first female POW since WWII. In this episode there are great shots of the A-10 "Warthog," a stealth-style bomber that could fly at high altitudes and surprise the enemy. Iraqis called it "Silent Death," we're told, but what's just as striking is the reminder that while Gen. Schwarzkopf pointing to blown-up photos of "precision strikes" made this seem like a high-tech video-game war, there were plenty of bullets flying on the ground. We see Cobra Helicopters launching Hellfire missiles to take out T-55 Iraqi tanks and protect ground troops, and we listen to Joe Galloway, a war correspondent, talk on camera about what he saw. Troops who took part in the battle many consider the most important of the Gulf War also appear on camera—including Rathbun-Nealy.

The final episode, "Ambush in Iraq," zeroes in on the fighting that the 2nd Tank Battalion of the 1st Marine Division and the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 5th Marines took part in, suffering, to date, the most casualties in a day of battle. Much of the footage is shot with infrared night cameras, so there isn't the same sense of clarity as on other episodes, and it seems to lack the strong narrative trajectory of the other installments—which suggests that it was perhaps hastily assembled in order to "round out" the series. The editing for the series and the narration isn't as astounding or crammed with information as some of the best war histories, but the personal approach is certainly compelling enough.

Video: "Battlefield Diaries" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio in color and black-and-white. The picture quality varies, of course, with the materials—though all of the recent shots of interviewees were clear and distorted only a little on the edges when stretched to fit a widescreen. There are closed captions for the hearing impaired.

Audio: The soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with less variance, of course, because the narrative is consistent. There's nothing spectacular about the sound, and nothing deficient. Call it average.

Extras: There are no extras.

Bottom Line: The quality varies from episode to episode, with the WWII episodes the strongest because of testimonies and archival footage, while the Vietnam episode and first Gulf War episode were very good, and the second Gulf War episode was the weakest. The Buffalo soldier episode was almost like "Unsolved Mysteries" meets "Battlefield Diaries," but perhaps because of that, it emerges as one of the most interesting, despite archival footage that isn't as striking.


Film Value