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PBS asks what caused men to act like Martians

War_of_the_worldThe title of The War of the World, a three-part PBS documentary series, is no sloppy typo but deliberate wordplay on H.G. Welles' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, which describes a devastating attack by Martians armed with death rays and robotic fighting machines that leaves most of the world's great cities in ruins. To Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, the book was not science fiction but ''a work of astonishing prescience'' that accurately foretold the horrendous world wars of the century that would follow, with a single mistake: ''Those responsible were not Martians -- they were other human beings.'' And, Ferguson wonders, how could a century marked by so much scientific and economic progress have gone so violently wrong -- "What made men act like Martians?''

In The War of the World, written by Ferguson from his book of the same name, he tries to answer his own question. Tracing a century that began with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and ended with vicious religious bloodletting in the Balkans that hinted of the horror to come on a September morning early in the next millennium, Ferguson offers up a documentary that is provocative, engaging, maddening and altogether spectacular television. Read my review from Monday's Miami Herald.

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