World War II 1941 To 1945

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Those Who Fall will eventually find the wider audience it deserves. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead (Picador), found its wider audience as soon as it was published, in 1948. Drafted less than a year after graduating from Harvard, Mailer spent the last two years of the war as an enlisted man in the Army. His experiences as a rifleman in the Philippines inspired him to begin writing. The Naked and the Dead was published two years after he returned home. His dark rendition of the war from the conflicting perspectives of command and soldier defied the triumphal, sanitized version of the war then being retailed by dozens of instant histories. Remarkably, a war-weary American public kept Mailer’s book at the top of the bestseller lists for 11 weeks. The work has had many imitators since, but The Naked and the Dead still stands at the top of the list of novels produced by the Second World War.

Despite their different ambitions, all these writers hold fast, unflinchingly, to the fundamental human nature of war. Each of these books in its own way shows the reader how war calls forth the best and the most terrible human qualities. That is why the last title on this shelf of World War II books may be the most important. Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986; Simon & Schuster) is an exquisitely rendered history of the most terrible of all weapons from its theoretical beginnings to its first use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war made the bomb, and for the next generation the world struggled to control what the war had made. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a masterly work of history, therefore, that also tilts its head in the direction of the future. That is where all the best history should aim. Armed with these books, and the wisdom they contain, we may see a future in which the term world war belongs to an ever-receding past.