Thursday, February 16, 2012

Recommended World War II Reading

Except for sermon preparation and a few pleasure reads (Jonathan Gash and Ngiao Marsh mystery novels), I've concentrated my reading in the last 6 weeks on 3 excellent books (and 1 that I'd rate pretty good) dealing with World War II. I thought I'd take a few minutes and give you a "heads up" about them.

I have been intensely interested in the Second World War since I was a little kid. Indeed, many of my favorite historians have written fine books about that period as I related in this long-ago post. And the interest remains high -- probably my favorite book of last year was Laura Hillerbrand's Unbroken.: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

However, the impetus for this latest round of World War II reading came from our Notting Hill Napoleon selection for last month, Jeff Shaara's The Final Storm: A Novel of the War in the Pacific. And yes, it is one of the "excellent" ones. The Final Storm is a novel but as Shaara always does masterfully, the book stands as a balanced, thorough and relevant history as well. I'd venture to say that he is, for this generation, the historian's favorite novelist.

Be aware though that this particular book makes for some tough reading. For although Shaara has written many books now about America's wars, this one is especially grim, taking on as he does the muddy, bloody battle of Okinawa. The campaign was a desperate, confused series of firefights pitting the U.S. Marines (the primary focus of Shaara's book) against the entrenched and fanatic Japanese who, though they knew they were defeated as an army were dedicated to fighting to the death of each soldier -- and each Okinawan hostage. The reader is taken with the Marines into the rain, the mud, the fear, and the hand to hand combat. He is taken also into the strategy discussions of the respective leaders and eventually into the cockpit of the Enola Gay, the plane flown by Paul Tibbets which dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

It is an important book for several reasons including the opportunity to see more clearly (and feel more forcefully) the terrible conditions under which American soldiers, sailors and airmen fought the Pacific war. Their sacrifices and heroic bravery must never go unappreciated. And one more very important point -- The Final Storm is a compelling answer to those armchair historians who criticize President Truman for dropping the bomb. As Shaara reveals all too well, the kamikaze fanaticism shown by the Japanese (leaders and civilians too) would have drawn the war out by years, created millions more casualties on both sides, and forever ended what chance Japan had to become a free, prosperous nation.

Very good reading.

A much different kind of book (yet immensely inspirational and emotionally moving) is Bob Greene's Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. A superb storyteller, Greene actually went to North Platte, Nebraska to learn firsthand the stories of the unprecedented hospitality and sacrificial patriotism that marked this incredible ministry to U.S. military who were traveling on troop trains through North Platte. From one "accidental" act of kindness through a young girl's appeal in the local newspaper and on through the development of an outreach that involved people as far away as eastern Colorado, the story of the North Platte canteen is one that will warm your heart and recall you to a simple but profound fact; namely, the hope of America lies not in her future but rather in finding again the values of her past.

I couldn't recommend Once Upon A Town more highly. (By the way, Claire loved it too. She's decided to make it our Christmas present next year to every family member that doesn't yet have a copy.)

The third of the "excellent" class in this latest go-round of World War II reading is a new history text penned by British historian, Andrew Roberts. It is The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. Now this isn't a quick read -- notwithstanding end-notes, index and bibliography, it is still over 600 pages of actual text -- but it is a very balanced, thorough, extremely well-written and, may I even say, wise analysis of the war.  I have no qualms in saying that is the best one-volume history of World War II that I've ever read.  Or that I may have found another historian to go into my "favirites" category.

If you would like a teaser beyond my remarks, give a listen to the 38-minute interview I embed below. It comes from the superb Uncommon Knowledge feature from the Hoover Institution in which Peter Robinson interviews authors, statesmen and others. You can watch these interviews in 5 portions each weekday or in full from the Uncommon knowledge site.

And finally, the WW II book that only made the "pretty good" rating. This was because the book was a collection of short pieces from many authors and, as these things go, some of them were exceptional while others were not. Still, I found What If? Strategic Alternatives of WW II of value.

But let me save you some time, if you do decide to take a chance on this one (I got mine from the library, by the way), pay special attention to these sections: What if the Western Powers had forsworn appeasement sufficiently to permit German military conspirators to strike at Hitler? answered by Harold Deutsch, What if the Germans had pushed the attack on Dunkirk? answered by Dennis Showalter, What if the Japanese Navy had launched a second strike against Pearl Harbor in December 1941? answered by Walter Drea, and What if MacArthur had been obliged to bypass the Philippines? answered by D. Clayton James and Anne Wells.

Look also at the questions about Ultra answered by Harold Deutsch, the questions about the German rockets and the Messerschmidt 262 answered by Gerhard Weinberg, questions about the conclusion of the Pacific war answered by Paul Schratz, and What if the British not devoted a major part of their war effort to strategic bombing? answered by Richard Overy. Good stuff.