World War II started (in Europe) 70 years ago today.
There are two sorts of people in the USA today. A tiny minority who are very interested in military history and know a lot about World War II, and a vast majority who can barely even tell you who was in it (“was that the one with Hitler?”), when it occurred (“the Seventies?”), or what it was about, or even who won (“Japan?”). American children whom I talk to are apparently taught two things and two things only about our participation in World War II: (1) The Japanese Americans were imprisoned, and that was racist and wrong, and (2) we dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and that was racist and wrong. Some know about the Holocaust. College age youth are taught that the war was an exercise in American imperialism, meant to spread expoitative capitalism across the world, and that it is a myth that the GIs went to Europe to liberate the conquered countries or to bring democracy and freedom. Even depictions that are not entirely negative, such as Saving Private Ryan, depict the war solely as a personal tragedy and pointless death and destruction, and not about anything, and certainly not about anything good or admirable. Fed exclusively on this diet for over a generation, we now have a population that sees the war in this way.
This is precisely what Pres. Reagan warned us about:
We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom–freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs [protection]. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important–why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.
Reagan was right. I have gone beyond being distressed about all this to being fatalistically resigned. With historical memory either non-existent or actively corrupted, those of us who care about these things will have to preserve the record as best we can.
At The Corner (updated here) they are asking people to list their favorite books on World War II. This is a good idea, and I solicit your suggestions in the comments. The Boyz readership always suggests something I have not heard of already. Please list two or three favorites, in the comments. I could spend all day doing this, but I will abide by my own rule, and limit myself to three.
The best one-volume history is Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. The book is long and dense but it covers everything and does a good job of showing how it all fit together. Weinberg’s field of expertise is the German archives before and during the war. He has a remarkably deep as well as broad knowledge of the war. When I am asked to recommend one book that covers the whole war, this is it.
An excellent short book on the American war effort is Kent R. Greenfield, American Strategy in World War II: A Reconsideration. This is a reliable source to understand American strategy, what it was, how it was chosen, and why it worked. The book started as a series of lectures, which is often a sign of a book that will be brief, clear and to the point. It is an older book, from 1963, but nothing in it appears to have been outdated by later scholarship. Greenfield was one of the official historians of the U.S. Army’s war effort, so he brings an extraordinary level of knowledge to this book.
The two prior books give the Olympian overview. There are many, many worthy war memoirs. One I like very much is So Few Got Through: Gordon Highlanders with the 51st Division From Normandy to the Baltic by Martin Lindsay. Lindsay was a battalion commander who saw his fellow officers and soldiers consumed in the campaign, driving from Normandy to Germany. We think of World War I as a furnace that consumed lives. The campaign in Northwestern Europe did the same, at a similar rate, but (1) it was much shorter, (2) it was a war of movement rather than static trench combat, and (3) it was unambiguously successful. So we remember it differently. Lindsay shows an army growing in skill and confidence against an increasingly desperate and overwhelmed foe, yet one that is being ground down by constant exposure to combat. Lindsay was a good writer, and he gives a plain and clear picture of his experiences.
(David Foster did a post about the beginning of World War II in 2007.)
UPDATE: Michael Barone weighed in, via email: “I agree wholeheartedly on Weinberg–the best single book on the war. How about John Lukacs’s Five Days in May, on how Churchill prevented Halifax from making peace with Hitler?” Mr. Barone goes on to say “By the way, I’ve met Professor Weinberg a couple of times. Very gracious, full of facts. He was born and raised in northern Germany, left in 1939 with his parents for Britain at about age 10. Later served in USArmy in postwar Germany. A great American story.”
We seem to be getting a consensus on the Weinberg book. I also agree that Five Days in London: May 1940 is an excellent — and moving — book.
UPDATE II: A good example of the contemporary academic attitude toward the American war effort in World War II, one of a limitless supply, can be found in a recent review of A.J. Liebling’s World War II Writings. The reviewer refers to “the rather hackneyed (and chauvinistically outdated) idea that freedom-loving Americans saved the world from authoritarian Prussian types in Germany” and assures us that “[t]he idea that freedom-loving Americans fought to rid the world of tyranny is as outdated as a Willy’s jeep … .” I am not making this stuff up. This is typical of what is presented by the people now teaching American college students. (BTW, A much better, more insightful and knowledgeable review of this (very good) book can be found on the Michigan War Studies Review book review page, here.)
UPDATE III: Zenpundit weighs in with some facts from the front, which are worth more than my hearsay impressions. Very much worth reading.
55 thoughts on “September 1, 1939”
I did a post on the start of WWII a couple of years ago, here.
[David, I added a link in the post. Lex]
Some worthwhile WWII books for starters…I’ll probably think of more later:
Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser..about his service in the campaign in Burma.
Defeat into Victory, William Slim…the same campaign as seen from the level of the top commander.
The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat…a very well-written novel about antisubmarine warfare.
Science and Government, C P Snow…a short essay focused on secret decision making involving air defense and strategic bombing.
Off the top of my head…
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Contains the single best MacArthur scene ever, fiction or non-fiction.
Strange Victory by Ernest R. May
The planning of a victory that turned a lopsided Franco-British military advantage into the West’s existential struggle for survival.
Six Armies in Normandy by John Keegan
Enjoyable read from when John Keegan was a military historian.
Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives
Lines their biographies up to reveal the underlying continuity of evil.
A few more..
The French campaign of 1940:
Assignment to Catastrophe, a 2-volume series by General Edward Spears..who is a superb writer and saw a lot first-hand as Churchill’s personal representative in France.
1940: The Fall of France, by Andre Beaufre, then a young Captain on the French staff.
Flight to Arras, Antoine de Saint-Exupery…the author’s thoughts while flying dangerous reconnaissance missions in a war that he knew had already been lost.
To Lose a Battle, Alastair Horne…best single overview of the events leading to the fall of France.
Underground & resistance operations:
Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo Marks…the activities of Special Operations Executive, as told by its Codemaster.
Men and Volts: the story of the General Electric Company in WWII
I would add the two novels:
Winds of War and War and Rememberence
I’d second Gerhard Weinberg.
Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, L. Farago
Guadalcanal Diary, Tregaskis & Bowden
of more recent vintage– Band of Brothers, Ambrose
I have written before about “The Wages of Destruction” by Tooze, probably the best non-campaign book I have ever read about the era. It discusses the German economy in the 30’s up through the war years. Warning, a very depressing read.
So only two more, eh. No can do.
I would recommend either of Bergerud’s “Fire in the Sky” or “Touched with Fire”. Fire in the Sky is about the air war in the South Pacific, and Touched with Fire is about the land war there.
I would also recommend the Morrison Set – you need to read all 15 volumes, it is quick and easy reading. Morrison’s writing is pretty good and there are a lot of neat maps. He isn’t revealing all the secrets that the USN knew at that time, but the descriptions of the action are very interesting.
I will end by mentioning some newer books by James Hornfischer. “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” and “Ship of Ghosts” are about USN exploits in the Pacific and I could not put down either of them. Ship of Ghosts is a bit depressing when he discusses the horrible treatment our prisoners received at the hands of the Japanese.
Pete – +1 on Guadalcanal Diary, the first war book I ever read.
With all due respect, what planet do you live on? one without at least a couple WWII movies a year and where WWII isn’t (rightfully) crammed down kids’ throats in history class? And no, not just about the Japanese internment camps. I think we are more familiar as a country with WWII than any historical event in American history besides the American Revolution, and I honestly can’t recall anyone I have ever met saying it was an exercise in American imperialism or even making the case that it was a bad thing we entered the war. Sure, maybe you hear that pov from a fringe, but come on man…your argument is a straw man.
Also, Saving Private Ryan does not depict the war “solely as a personal tragedy and pointless death and destruction”, but does focus on the horror and tragedy of combat and loss – whats wrong with that? If it is critical of anything, it is some decisions of officers – namely those who dispatched the men on their mission.
Most WWII movies rightly depict the war as a noble cause – but war is hell no matter what the cause.
I think you are setting up a straw man, making an argument that isn’t acquainted with reality. There is plenty of relativism and disinterest in American historical episodes – military and not – to rail against, but the popular perception of WWII isn’t one of them.
I remember getting started as a teenager with my dad’s copy of Morrison’s “The Two Ocean War”. I need to reread it to see how it holds up.
Any votes for Winston Churchill’s memoirs? I haven’t read them.
Ryan, thank you for your vehement response.
I live on Earth. I have children in school. I ask their little friends questions. Not scientific, but I stand by it. From what I can tell, they do not know much about the American Revolution, either. These are middle class kids from Oak Park and River Forest and other nearby towns who go to what are considered to be good or excellent schools.
As to the academic treatment of the war, look at the book reviews on Bookforum and HNet or the London Review or the New York Review of Books, by academics. You see very much the picture I depict.
If your experience is better, good, glad to hear it. Relieved to hear it, even. I hope you are right.
I also stand by my assessment of Private Ryan, which is a pretty good movie I have seen twice, including the night it came out.
Now, tell me your two or three book picks.
A lot of good ones already recommended… I would add:
From Suez to Singapore by Cecil Brown – great narrative
An Army at Dawn and the Day of Battle by Atkinson
Most things by Ambrose are great too. Sorry about the tone of my last post, but I am totally unacquainted with the phenomenon you point out about the perception of WWII and my experience has been completely on the other end of the scale – and I have lived in different cities in the US in very different parts of the country.
Ryan, no problem. As I said, I hope my experience is an outlier.
I’d say stuff with more about the Eastern front is necessary. I recommend Overy’s overview “Why the Allies Won” and also Glantz and House “When Giants Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler.” For those of a more analytical bent, try “Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War”
The No End Save Victory anthology (Robert Cowley, ed.) has been very useful to me. It was particularly good on the fall of France in 1940, and the Japanese end game. I learned things I had never seen elsewhere.
The other ones I would suggest are a bit offbeat. Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill gives Americans a much better understanding of Chamberlain’s and Churchill’s actions leading up to and during the war. It was very interesting to me because it is very much a parliamentary point of view on events. Jenkins served in the House of Commons from 1948 on, moving to Lords late in life and remaining until his death. His time in Commons overlapped Churchill’s by fourteen years, and he knew him well.
Throughout the book, Jenkins is always thinking of exactly where, at any given juncture, Churchill stood in terms of his Cabinet, his position with the parliamentary party, his overall standing in the House (which during the war often meant leaning on Labour against the Tory wets) and the temper of the electorate. These things are second nature to any politically aware Brit, but Americans hardly ever have this perspective. Having it helps explain many questions about the run-up to the war (especially Munich) and the conduct of the war. Of course, from June 1940 to June 1941, the question of whether Britain could maintain the political will to continue fighting pretty much was the war. It is also uniquely informative on matters for the rest of the war as well.
If you like Five Days in May (I did!) you will find Jenkins’ treatment of those days fascinating.
I also found it well-written and enjoyable reading.
The other offbeat book is Tameichi Hara’s Japanese Destroyer Captain, which was my first look at a non-American perspective on the Pacific war. Very good at the tactical level, and conveys the sense of early triumph fading to doubt and then despair.
Also interesting as biography is Jean Lacoutoure’s bio of Charles De Gaulle, translated by Patrick O’Brien of Aubrey/Maturin fame. It covers little-known ground such as De Gaulle’s near-capture of Guderian in 1940, or the details of how he organized Free France after he reached England. (Particularly how as soon as he obtained a status-of-forces agreement with Britain allowing him to court-martial Frenchmen in Britain, he immediately became so firing-squad-happy that the Brits had to convince him to tone it down. I think of this when the Europeans start to whine about the death penalty.)
A very good book on the war from the German foot-slogger’s point of view on the horrific Eastern Front is Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier.
I’d also add Bugles and a Tiger, and The Road to Mandalay, both by John Masters.
Lexington and Ryan,
Maybe Lexington’s experience in the Peoples Republic of Oak Park isn’t typical of other places.
1. Churchill’s 6 volumes… yes, slanted for the greater glory of Winston Churchill, but indispensable nonetheless
2. With The Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge
Also, a 3rd:
Downfall by Richard Frank, wonderful and necessary to tell Lexongton’s kids about the real decision to use the A-bomb
The best book or books, as it is a trilogy, on World War II is Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour”. He understood that the European part of it was being fought in the east between the two monstrous regimes and it was fought to the death.
I think Lex is correct here. I have 2 children and they learned very little about the war – pretty much as Lex described. And they were (are, grad school now) excellent students. Even in terms of the holocaust most of their awareness came from projects of fellow students since we live in an area with a significant Jewish population.
My youngest spent time in Thailand teaching and happened upon the bridge over the river Kwai near Kanchanaburi. The novel and movie, of course, are fiction but there was a bridge (actually 2) there and they were built by slave labor – primarily Thais IIRC. Thousands died in the effort. While telling me about it my daughter remarked that she didn’t realize the Japanese had been so brutal during WWII. Which indicates, of course, that they learned nothing about the Japanese in the China or the Phillipines or any of many places.
They do not know a great deal about US history and their friends, top students all, with the rare exception of a couple who are history buffs, are the same.
¿And what about Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World? Great for grasping the big picture.
Books in the children’s book section of chain bookstores probably provide a pretty good indicator of what is being taught in schools, and tend in general to support Lex’s observations. Main topics I see are:
–internment of Japanese civilians
–American home front
Well, if anybody is interested in what was going on in Eastern Europe, i.e. Soviet Union et al, Anthony Beevor’s books on Stalingrad and Berlin are essential. Big and tough – very hard going. There is a new book out by Andrew Roberts – I am giving it a miss – and there will be one by Michael Burleigh about the cultural aspects (in the widest sense of the word) by December – that will be good, I expect.
If you can, see “Katyn”. A slightly different view of what the war was about in some parts of the world.
Helen – I too have read Berlin and Stalingrad by Beevor and they are outstanding.
My experience has been much closer to Ryan’s than Lexington’s. As one much closer to the age group being discussed (or so I suspect), I can offer these observations after living in two very different states* over the last several years:
*Most high-schoolers have a basic knowledge of the forces involved during WWII. Most recognize terms like “Axis”, “D-Day”, and “Churchill.” Basic knowledge does not extend past this point – “Good Neighbor Policy”, “Dunkirk”, and “Hirohito” are unknown to these students.
*I can count the number of students I have met who think WWII was an imperialist war (on our side) with the fingers on one hand. Those with any knowledge of WWII know that American engagement in the War was the result Pearl Harbor. Most can also say that Germany was the aggressor in Europe.
*Most folks know of, and condemn, the atomic blasts over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Other American “atrocities”, such as the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden, are completely unknown.
*The Japanese internment is given quite a bit less thought than the Holocaust. Students regularly and lightly use the Holocaust – and the Gestapo – as metaphors for school policies, politics they do not like, ect. Hitler is universally seen as the worst evil this planet has produced.
Over all, I would say that knowledge of WWII – what happened, who was involved, and the driving forces behind the war – is higher than knowledge of most historical events. But that is not saying much at all, is it? History is a subject Americans have little use for.
I recently had the chance to read Kenneth Macksey’s Military Errors of World War Two.
The title says it all, really.
Has anyone here come across Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction? I chanced upon it in a book store the other day and was rather intrigued by the book’s thesis. Have any Chicago Boyz readers happen to have read it?
*MN & NM
Seconding, at least, Churchill’s 6 volumes, while being surprised to apparently be the first to mention Murray and Millett’s A War To Be Won.
When I was in school, either late grammer or high school, I read a book about the Bataan Death March. I can’t remember the title any more, but it was by one of the survivors, and was very graphic in its descriptions of the brutality experienced by our captive troops. I have been fascinated by the Japanese, and asian cultures in general, ever since.
I also recall a very good novel based on the alt-history theme that the atomic bomb trials were a failure, and invasions of both China and the Japanese home islands were necessary. I’ve been listening to all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about Hiroshima et al for years and do not find the arguments compelling in any way. The war might have lasted 2 more ultra-bloody years if the US had been required to invade and defeat the various Japanese forces in the field, and the numbers of dead and wounded would easily have multiplied the casualties from the bombings by several times.
I have read some of the items already mentioned, fiction and non-fiction, so I will add only two more non-fiction, both by Barbara Tuchman, who is very readable.
The first is “Stillwell and the American Experience in China”, and the second is her biography of Gen George Marshall entitled simply, “Marshall”.
The first is about sacrifice and devotion to duty by the General oficer who was ranked as the top field commander in the US Army, and who had defeated Patton in major war games just before the war started. The second is about the man who was, arguably, the most powerful man on earth on a certain day in 1944, and who stood aside, as his duty required, to take orders from an unknown Senator from Missouri.
The parts of the book dealing with the periods before and after the war are very instructive also, especially after, as Marshall was intimately involved in several major events in the post-war period.
Actually, the war started in May 1939 in a remote part of the Mongolian border with Manchuria along the river known as Khalkhyn Gol.
The Japanese named the battleNomonhan after the closest village to the fighting.
It was the decisive moment in Japanese military history in the war, setting them on a collision course with the British, Dutch, and Americans, since the Soviets proved too tough a nut to crack out in the open plains. Their weapons, organization and strategy were much better suited to jungle fighting in broken terrain, and they learned this in the summer of 1939.
That is, the War started there if you don’t count the Japanese takeover of Manchuria as the first battle of the war, which I don’t.
I’d also recommend Blond Knight of Germany for the air war on the Eastern Front.
I never got to meet Hartmann, but I did meet Adolf Galland once at an art gallery outside DC. He had a lot of fascinating stories to tell, but it was disconcerting to meet someone who had been personally promoted by Hitler.
Very Retired – I second the Stillwell book. Marshall was the man who selected Stillwell for promotion to General Officer.
Also, Defeat Into Victory by the Viscount Slim is a great book about a forgotten chapter of the War by an undeservedly forgotten commander.
JJ – I was going to recommend Slim’s book until I got to the bottom and saw that you’d beaten me to it. (though, I think I may have first heard of it here also).
I offer two:
“Armageddon” by Max Hastings. I find Hastings stuff to be very good. This book focuses a lot on the eastern front, the real focus of the fighting in Europe. Hastings interviewed lots of veterans from both sides (German and Russian) for the book. It was truly a hate war on that front, civilians included.
In fact, go the the Pritzker military libraries website (or on iTunes) and find Hastings lecture on this book (free to download). It’s fascinating.
I also offer a fictional book:
“H.M.S. Ulysses” by Alistair MacLean. MacLean is known for his adventure fiction (including Guns of Navarone). However, his wartime experience was on the sea, in the north. This is among the best maritime books ever. The book follows a doomed supply fleet making the run to Murmansk and reading it will leave you feeling cold.
Fiction is also useful for getting a feel for the place and experience, maybe better than nonfiction in some ways. Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea was memorable for me as a picture of corvette and frigate warfare in the Atlantic in WWII. It was based on the author’s own experience in the Royal Navy.
Another one I read as a kid that made a big impression was They Were Expendable — PT boats in the Pacific in the early days of the war.
I will second most of the books already named, and note that I read S.E. Morrison’s series as soon as I had a library card as a pre-teen. To understand WW II, you not only have to read the Allied side, but also the Axis. This does not imply, as some would say, a sympathy for their cause, but it gives insight into their thought processes and teaches not all of our foes were fanatics but most were simply soldiers fighting for their country.
To Tameichi Hara’s book, I would add “Samurai” by Saburo Sakai who was the highest scoring surviving Japanese fighter pilot. To Hartmann’s story, I would add that of Hans Ulrich Rudel,”Stuka Pilot” who although an unrepentent Nazi, even after the war; was the acknowledged master of tank killing. [He helped the design team of our current A-10 Warthog] From both you can glimpse the sheer wear and grind that the other side endured before being defeated. I will note that Rudel was shot down 7 times during the war, escaped from behind Russian lines several times, and flew and fought in the last year of the war with an artificial leg.
I find that we are repeating many of the same policy mistakes that led to WW II, which is depressing. Our politicians are deliberately ignorant in history, and it shows.
Lukacs’ book is indeed excellent (though it’s called Five Days in London: May 1940, not Five Days in May). While that seems to be his most widely read book–probably because it offers a uniquely close look at the inside politics of Britain during those five days–I’d say that his book on the war prior to direct Russian and American action is even better: The Last European War, September 1939 – December 1941.
[Thanks. Fixed. Lex]
Geez I almost forgot “Beans, Bullets and Black Oil” by Worrall Reed Carter. You will have a tough time finding it as I think it has been out of print for a while.
Essential book (among others) to understand the logistics of getting millions of tons of stuff to the South Pacific to conduct the war. The reading is a bit dry, but if you are interested in aspects of the war outside of the actual combat such as supply you will find it fascinating.
Not many think about all the food, medical supplies, trucks, pants, and all the rest that an army needs, and it is especially impressive that our men were an ocean away at the time.
I think it was Patton who said that our greatest weapon was our 2 ton truck.
This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 9/2/2009, at The Unreligious Right
T Greer..I read “wages of destruction” and thought it was worthwhile.
Amateurs study tactics,professionals study logistics.
Someone earlier mentioned Eric Bergerud’s two books-certainly- excellent.Also Jonathan Parshall “Shattered Sword” a much needed corrective to all the myths about Midway.
I thought Wages of Destruction was GREAT and there’s a lot to compare to how the current US administration is approaching the “reorganization” and “rationalization” of the private sector to align it with “national goals”
I would recommend three books. I’ve read a good bit on the Eastern Front, including talking with numerous German WWII veterans (including two that had been flown out wounded from Stalingrad) as part of my interest/duties while in Berlin during the Cold War. Also have read a good bit on the US Army in Africa, Italy and North-western Europe and US Marine Corps in the Pacific. The history part is easy, it’s more to getting a bit of the feel. If you are like me and grew up on WWII stories – from family, friends and Hollywood . . . then the missing element is what it could have been actually like . . .
For that reason:
To Hell and Back
With the Old Breed
The Holocaust is not “WWII” to me, but a separate if related historical subject.
In addition to Max Hasting’s Armageddon, there’s his Retribution on the last two years of the war in the Pacific.
Just about anything by John Keegan, but also just about anything by Norman Davies as scene setters and on consequences.
For specific battles or campaigns, there are just too many to name.
One of the really interesting things about WW2 is that it was so vast and there is such a variety of stories to be explored.
“MacArthur’s Jungle War: The 1944 New Guinea Campaign” by Stephen Taaffe
New Guinea deserves more attention that it has gotten, but that is true of other parts of the war as well.
“Paratrooper!: The Saga of US Army and Marine Parachute and Glider Combat Troops during WW2” by Gerard Devlin
Bought this after I graduated from Airborne School and have enjoyed it ever since, especially the story of the 509th at Avellino and the 503rd at Corregidor
“Fate is the Hunter” by Ernest Gann. One of the best aviation memoirs. Gann was a civilian airline pilot who served in the ATC during WW2. The meat of the book covers this time.
Seydlitz89 hit on an important point. When I was a kid pretty much every middle-aged male adult I knew — family, friends, people on the block — had been in the military and had participated in WWII. More than a few of the women, too. I knew directly, personally, people who had been on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, at Pearl Harbor, on the Bataan Death March, the Eighth Air force bombing over Europe, serving in London during the Battle of Britain and later the V-2 attacks, a sailor on the Wasp, Midway and Coral Sea, a coxswain landing men at D-Day, B-24s over Italy — I’m barely off my home block yet. The point is, I wasn’t particularly unusual. It was all around and you couldn’t avoid it. They were constantly telling their stories, and when one man from that time met another they’d very quickly say “Where did you serve?” “What outfit?”
I remember a high-school English teacher and his wife, who was the school librarian. Germanic accents. Thin, both of them, and sometimes when the weather was hot and people had sleeves rolled up you could notice the numbers tattooed on their arms. I suppose the revisionists would say they faked them, for some reason. They seemed real to me.
Many of these people I knew are dead now, and many of the stories they didn’t tell me are lost. If young people today got started, they could probably hear a few such stories from the men who are in their 80s and 90s. But soon they will be all dead. And most young people won’t get that experience. They will know the war mostly from bad movies, which today are mostly merely bad homages to movies that weren’t very real when they were made.
These books we’re talking about are important. There won’t be many more people who can learn all this from direct conversation with the participants. Soon the books will be all that is left. The majority of the stories will have gone unrecorded.
I hope the ones that were recorded continue to be read.
Jim, I am afraid that the people like you who remember that world are not the ones writing the teacher guidelines for elementary schools.
I am not sure if there is or can be a solution. There can only be mitigation of a bad situation.
Yes, that’s how it was. I grew up with pretty much the same experiences . . . hearing all those stories. Pretty much all gone now and not to be repeated since I don’t know if we even have that story-telling/listening ability today. But then for better or worse I don’t think the West would be up to fighting a WWII, let alone a WWI, again.
One thing we will probably never have again is that the left and right were united during WWII on supporting the war, thanks to Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. The Communist party had substantial influence in Hollywood, the intellectual classes, and the labor unions, and they used these assets all-out to make sure the war was supported. Native patriotsm and leftist ideological zeal were united, which meant that the US could really apply its strength unhindered. Unions enforced labor discipline and suppressed wildcat strikes, and the CPUSA cadres were the most vigorous disciplinarians. The Communist Party enthusiastically supported the Smith Act prosecutions and imprisonment of Trotskyite antiwar activists; the same act that was used against them in the 50s. In fact, almost every mechanism of “McCarthyism” including HUAC was enthusiastically supported by the CPUSA against Trots and the handful of overt fascists during WWII.
If you look at the history of the US’s wars, almost every one had very substantial segments of the population opposing the war and hindering the war effort. Loyalist Tories, Hartford Convention, Lincoln’s “spot” resolutions against the Mexican war, Copperheads and draft rioters in the Civil War, Twain and others bitterly opposing the Spanish-American war and the Philippine Insurrection, Debs going to prison in WWI, and of course all the protests against wars since WWII. WWII is the huge outlier, and that was all due to Hitler invading the USSR.
We’ll never have that again.
Others here have listed some of my favourites. I’d add Private Army (1950) by Vladimir Peniakoff (aka Popski).
Peniakoff led Popski’s Private Army, a raiding unit that operated with the New Zealanders of the legendary Long Range Desert Group behind Axis lines in North Africa, then went motorized in Italy. His memoir is an earthy and gripping account of war, desert exploration, intelligence gathering and raiding, the harshness and beauty of deserts and mountains, and the camaraderie of life among soldiers and Senussi tribesmen.
Here is my three + 1
The North Africa and Italian Campaigns, part of a trilogy.
“Army at Dawn” and “Day of Battle”, by Rick Atkinson
Best personal account of battle.
“With the Old Breed” by EB Sledge
“Guadalcanal” by Richard B Frank
Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark Of Life.
M1, Swedish Meatballs Confidential
Two of my absolute fiction favourites (The cruel Sea and Sword of Honour) have been mentioned already. A work of fiction by a veteran (former bomb aimer Col. Jules Roy) may be added: La Vallée Heureuse, Charlot, Paris 1946. Apparently it has never been translated. I prefer it to St. Ex in most respects.
Nonfiction: several of my favs mentioned already. I must admit that my own reading is rather French, Eastern Front and German centric so I do not think it wd be of great interest here. I will look up Weinberg though, thx for the hint. Sounds good.
One interesting new book: Finest Years by Max Hastings, Harper Press £25 pp688 a new Churchill book which has just come out (ft.com and Timesonline).
I hope you are wrong and wonder whether children here in Europe are better informed. Probably will see this when mine get older. In my time (Germany, 80s) we had a small number of history buffs with an interest in mil affairs and politics and large indifferent majority with a very limited knowledge and an all consuming interest in a man called Jackson. Plus ca change … Incidentially, the leftist/pacifist teachers we had then angered me into reading more, not less, history though not with the results intended.
I think you’re letting your politics get the better of your analysis. The reason we were united in WWII and not in the other wars you mentioned, is that we were attacked. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour followed by Germany’s declaration of war on the US four days later are what solidified US support for that war.
Jim, Seydlitz99 — It’s both reasons. Remember, webs of causation, never monocausality.
Yeah we were attacked in 2001, too, and that unity lasted maybe a year. If the CP assets in the intelligentsia had been told to adhere to the peace line it would have all been much, much different. There was a bit of trutherism about Pearl Harbor (“Roosevelt knew the attack was coming”) but it was very marginalized; had it been expedient to oppose the war, Dalton Trumbo would have written the 1942 version of “Fahrenheit 911” (and it would have been superior in quality, I’m sure.)
Perhaps you’re not fully aware of the extent of CP influence in the media, Holywood, and the unions during WWII.
Agree as to the necessary emphasis on multicausality.
Jim’s mention of 9/11 in connection with Pearl Harbor is interesting since we do have a bit of distance now after 8 years. Would we have been better off characterizing 9/11 as a criminal act instead of an “act of war”? At the time I rather forcefully argued for the latter definition since I feared we would lose our way in “legalizations”, but in fact it seems we have lost our way in a very different way . . .
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