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Shaara's Next Big War

By Michael Kernan,
The author of "The Violet Dots," the biography of an English miner who fought at the Somme
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page C14


By Jeff Shaara

Ballantine. 636 pp. $27.95

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Exciting glimpses into some of the less familiar aspects of World War I show that with "To the Last Man" Jeff Shaara has successfully graduated from his Civil War novels. In this padded but always readable account, he examines in turn the nuts and bolts of the air war, the fundamental problem that eventually led to the German defeat, and the absolutely incredible obstacles in the way of Gen. John J. Pershing as he tried to create the U.S. force that would win the war at long last.

Surely everyone knows about Baron von Richthofen and the Lafayette Escadrille from movies, books and even "Peanuts" cartoons. But Shaara chronicles the development of the planes themselves, as well as the tactics and training of the pilots. He takes us from the first days, when planes were used only for observation, to the ad hoc aerial pistol fights, to the Lewis guns that fired through the propellers and often smashed them, to the final sophisticated models, the Spad and the German triplane.

Each design had its problems: not fast enough, not agile enough, poor at gliding away from a fight when damaged. One triplane's upper wing tended to shed its covering in a dive. Another couldn't handle much altitude. Shaara tells the story through the eyes of the French ace Raoul Lufbery and Richthofen, whose technique of hiding high above a dogfight to pounce on a foundering enemy he does not condemn, as the British did, but regards as smart tactics.

The pocket history is fascinating, but the endless dialogue between the action sequences is a chore, heavy on exposition and light on character development. Men (and the cast is almost totally male) speak in paragraphs, even when they are in a screaming death dive or running through no-man's-land. For long stretches, they chatter on about mushrooming and fishing or reminisce about home. Shaara thoroughly documents the facts of their lives, notably Richthofen's collection of silver trophies from his kills and his invention of the all-red plane decor that earned him the nickname Red Baron, but most of the men remain rather two-dimensional.

In fact the most vivid character was, oddly enough, Gen. Erich Ludendorff, who appears only in a 15-page segment. A brilliant, abrasive leader whose strategies destroyed the Russian army in a series of vast battles on the eastern front, Ludendorff visits the western front, where he runs into the famous German hierarchical thinking. As someone once said, war should never be entrusted to the military mind. Mavericks win wars, not bureaucrats.

In short order, Shaara exposes the futility of the trench war, in which both sides simply hunker down to wait out the enemy. All three armies -- British, French and German -- fell into this sickness, but the Germans seem to have had the worst of it, with their professional officer-clerks incapable of independent thought. In one deeply satisfying scene, Ludendorff rips the skin off an arrogant major and promotes a bright, aggressive lieutenant to replace him on the spot.

There were clerks on the other side. too. Pershing turns into the final hero of this book of heroes as he struggles against the vast indolence and indifference of Washington, trying to build and equip an army in a few months. Even after he performs the miracle and brings a huge force to France, armchair generals back home who outrank him undercut his efforts at every turn.

It gets worse in France. The English and French expect Pershing to put his newly trained soldiers into the trenches as part of their armies, to slip into the same paralysis that has all but defeated them. It's not necessary to train soldiers to shoot a rifle, they say. Just stand them up on the duckboards to be picked off without even a battle, in what the British called "wastage."

The mean little war of egos among the French and British generals -- more intent on getting credit for themselves than on winning the war -- is shocking even to someone familiar with the squabbling generals of World War II. French Gen. Joseph Joffre comes off badly, and Premier Georges Clemenceau worse. But the ineffable Gen. Douglas Haig, who never visited the wounded lest they affect his judgment, who said that "the machine-gun is a much overrated weapon, and two per battalion is more than sufficient" and whose mindless obstinacy killed off a generation of Britons, escapes Shaara without a scratch.

Pershing, denied logistical help by the French, has to invent his own supply system. Finally given a chance to prove themselves, his men stop the Germans at Chateau Thierry and St. Mihiel and break the will of the exhausted enemy.

One curious feature of this book: For all the overwrought prose, the exploding skies, the guts that "twist into a hot swirl," the throbbing hands, deafening roars and straining skulls, the horrors of the western front never really jump out at the reader. The noise alone must have been literally unbearable. Men went insane in those six-hour bombardments. The daily sights, the eyeballs on the duckboards, the rats big as dogs, the decaying heads and intestines protruding from trench walls are somewhat scanted here, and though it makes for easier reading, it doesn't shock, as it should.

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