November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
I THINK the most frustrating anticlimax in any big movie can be found in the final segment of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy— Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade —when, after jousting with a Nazi column in the desert, Harrison Ford finds the Holy Grail and it restores life to his father, Sean Connery, before dropping into what looks like a root cellar. Then everyone rides off in a radiance of heavy orchestration and deep self-satisfaction. It seems to me that if you’re going to people a film with Nazi soldiers and put the word Crusade in the title and produce the Holy Grail in the final scenes, a more satisfactory ending might be to show, half the world away, squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes rising to meet Hitler’s bombers. As far as crusades, miracles—and, for that matter, drama—go, very little in human history can match the onset and course of the Second World War.
I’ve been thinking about the war quite a bit recently, for a couple of reasons. I have a fourteen-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter and so have been mindful of ways to approach teaching children the complexities of ethics, morality, and, indeed, religion. Rebecca has thus far been spared my moral instruction (beyond some strident advice against running out into the street), but Willie has borne it with pretty good grace—perhaps because I find myself casting a lot of it in terms of World War II. The struggle seems to have endless allegorical utility, along with the added attractions of cool machinery and propinquity (Willie’s still-very-much-alive grandfather was in it, after all). And as a lens for viewing the varieties of human behavior, well: the morally exhausted Western democracies hoping that trouble will just go away; their gradual awakening to a threat that, sixty years later, seems if anything even more urgent than it did then; England, holier than thou for generations, finally hearing Destiny tell her to put up or shut up—and putting up; FDR inveigling a reluctant nation toward the conflict; courage and abasement, loyalty and treachery, true good, true evil, and the occasional lightning flash of rhetoric of Biblical timbre (Churchill to the House of Commons, October 8, 1940: “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; constancy and valor our only shield”) . . .
To Willie’s perhaps not boundless pleasure, I’ve been pretty well up on the war recently, because it’s been my privilege to follow along as Stephen E. Ambrose has been revising The American Heritage Picture History of World War II . The book, written by the New York Times correspondent C. L. Sulzberger and prepared by the American Heritage staff under David McCullough, originally appeared in 1966, and for many years thereafter stood as the standard single-volume history of the conflict.
It is a fine book; but this may be a finer one. It has been completely rewritten, fleshed out with many more photographs and paintings, and Ambrose has brought to it the knowledge gained through years and years of interviewing the soldiers who fought the war. The GI here is a more immediate and intimate presence (for a sense of how vividly Ambrose can get his witnesses to talk, turn to his article on medics).
The American Heritage New History of World War II is an impressive achievement. It tells its endlessly resonant story with authority and economy and a passion that is all the stronger for its restraint. I believe that, like its predecessor, it has set a standard that will last for years. I hope you’ll read it. I can promise you that my son will; and if it turns out that I ever manage to get her to take any suggestion of mine seriously, so will my daughter.