Geoffrey C. Ward’s New History Of World War II

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THEWAR: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, 1941–1945, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf, 480 pages, $50), is the companion volume to Ken Burns’ documentary series about World War II that aired in September. The War should be read by everyone in the family, from high schoolers, many of whom, as Burns points out in his introduction, “think we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War,” to baby boomers, who may believe they know what their parents went through.

Unique not only among the volumes that have accompanied Burns’s documentaries but among just about all books on World War II, The War pursues two main currents through its text: the stories of four American towns during the war years and the bigger picture of both the European and Pacific fronts. In turn, those currents lead to the Japanese-American interment camps, the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, a GI held prisoner in Japan for four years. The course of the war is never allowed to become too distant a subject, but as it links to the lives of individual men who served, and their friends and family—in Waterbury, Connecticut, Mobile, Alabama, Luverne, Minnesota, and Sacramento, California—history becomes the stuff of personal drama.

Geoffrey C. Ward, the former editor of American Heritage, prizewinning biographer of Franklin Roosevelt and author of the books for three other Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, handles the historical narrative deftly. What, one might wonder, is left to say about this war? The answer is not so much new information as new interpretation. Ward is tougher than almost any recent historian on the generals and war planners whose decisions were responsible for such massive blunders as the feeble defense of the Philippines in 1941 and 1942 and the landing at Anzio in Italy in 1944. And the reader will be, too, seeing men we have come to know die needlessly.

Ward animates major events with illuminating details. In Mobile, for instance, Hank Williams and the father of Hank Aaron worked in the same shipyard, thanks to integration that only the necessity of war could have imposed. But it’s the personal side of the book, the stories of common people, including Japanese-Americans who went off to fight the Nazis while their parents lived behind barbed wire in internment camps, that pull the reader in.

Part history, part memoir, and part photo album, The War: An Intimate History, 1941–1945 is compelling on many levels. The photographs are a mesmerizing showcase of both the war the GIs saw—if they lived—and the changing world they left behind. Many are so upsetting that for a long time they were known only to the men who took them. In the Ardennes Forest, American soldiers try to distinguish between their own dead and those of the enemy in a pile of frozen corpses; in Dresden, a German city entirely destroyed by Allied bombs, the dead—men, women, and children—are heaped in piles more than six feet high; on Okinawa in the South Pacific, Marines around a radio look stricken as they hear the news that the war in Europe is over. When will their war end?

Much of The War will hit the uninitiated with a shock. Readers will at least begin to come to understand why a fighter pilot named Quentin Aanenson could never return to his father’s farm in Minnesota. “I find there are times when I’m pulled back into the whirlpool,” he said. “The intensity of that experience was so overwhelming that you can’t let go of it.”


 

—Allen Barra is a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine.