World War II 1941 To 1945


Those Yanks of World War II are white-haired now. Great-grandchildren play about their feet. The grand parades and great commemorations are over. Only a few monuments to their achievements are yet to be built. But we can still see them as they were, striking the casual pose, caps and helmets tilted toward the big adventure, cigarettes dangling from a smile. The picture is all innocence. And then later: the hours and days of fatigue piled one on top of the other, “for the duration,” eyes that have seen too much and will see more, bandages and blankets on the bloody cots, empty helmets, the wreckage of faith. We can see them like this too, and all in between, in the high councils of state and command, on the high seas and miles above, and in holes that turn into graves in an instant. In all the time since the Yanks were young, you see, history has been erecting its own monuments.

The Second World War may be the most thoroughly recorded and studied war in all military history. By now we might think our picture of the war is almost finished. Far from it. History never stops rearranging itself. But every modern war has created its own historical and literary reflection, a blurred image that gradually passes through stages, growing sharper each year. Just after the last shot come the hot-off-the-press first drafts of history. Memoirs and novels march out next, followed soon enough by stories of the war’s bestknown events, battles, personalities, and policies. Only much later do the grand histories appear, seasoned by years of study, broad of scope and learning. Inevitably, however, revisions and counterinterpretations will challenge conventional wisdom to defend itself. Controversies great and small will compete for our opinions. Eventually the war’s reflection assumes a familiar, mature form, perhaps stable for a time before the reinterpretations begin anew.

If the literature of World War II has indeed reached such a place, one might think it simple to choose the best books about the war. That, however, depends on what one expects from such a list. Those who think proportionality is more important than perspective, for instance, might like a list that represents the war by military service, with equal parts for the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Corps, Merchant Marine, and Coast Guard, not to mention the WAVES and WACS. They would quickly find themselves overwhelmed with books but no idea of how to make sense of the part the services contributed to the whole war. The same would be true if one were organizing a list around the weapons used. One might learn everything about armored warfare without knowing much of anything about the war in which it was used. That would be putting the tank before the horse, and as we all know, many more horses fought in World War II than tanks. All this is why I have made this list as though it were for me, many years ago, when I knew less than nothing about the war but wanted to learn. If I had read my way through these books, I would have known more, sooner and more systematically, than I did. They have added immeasurably to my understanding of this most important of modern wars.

I think the key to reading about America’s part in the war, and thus America’s role in it, is to realize that America’s was not the only part—a salient fact all too often glossed over in literature and film ever since. This means that one must begin learning about America’s part by seeing the war as a whole, in its vast scope and in its unending complexity. The book that best captures the war’s totality is Gerhard L. Weinberg’s monumental global history A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994; Cambridge), which draws upon the wealth of archival and historical work that has appeared since the war and fuses the whole into an intelligible historical picture of that cataclysmic era. No one, scholars included, should presume to know about the Second World War if they have not read this book.

At more than a half-century’s remove from the war, it is useful to remind ourselves that the Allied victory was not preordained. The Allies could have lost. No Olympian judge sat with history book on lap, dictating the war develop in this way or that. So, how were the Axis powers defeated? Richard Overy, for one, will not accept the casual, fashionable notion of recent years that the Axis lost the war and that the Allies simply enjoyed the results of their enemy’s mistakes. Overy’s analytical history, Why the Allies Won (1995; Norton), explains how the Allies won a victory that was far from inevitable. “The Allies did not have victory handed to them on a plate,” he writes; “they had to fight for it.”

And it is the fighting—or more exactly the human beings doing the fighting—that most interest Paul Fussell in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989; Oxford), a thoroughly bad-tempered, unforgiving, and brilliant analysis of “the psychological and emotional culture” produced by the war. Fussell’s war was not the war the statesmen or the generals or even the 90-day wonders wanted to contemplate, but the real war that belonged to Fussell and his comrades. As an angry infantryman turned distinguished professor of literature, Fussell is most interested in the war’s “actuality,” the war that will “never get in the books.” He writes that “for the past fifty years, the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition. I have tried to balance the scales.” When you read Wartime, turn your Norman Rockwell print toward the wall.