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The Pity of War

(From "The War")

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

In the movies, it usually happens this way: The doorbell rings, the mother opens the door, and there stands a stranger, a soldier in uniform. The mother knows immediately what has prompted this visit, and she begins to sob. In real life, however, the news sometimes comes less dramatically, more impersonally. "REGRET YOUR SON PRIVATE FIRST CLASS CORADO A CIARLO KILLED IN ACTION," begins a telegram sent to Mrs. Martha Ciarlo of Waterbury, Conn., on June 26, 1944. Corado was better known as Babe, and his mother took his death hard. In fact, she refused to accept it. "We would be getting the newspaper," Babe's sister recalled, "and my mother would look at pictures and she'd say to me, 'There's Babe. That's Babe.' And I'd say, 'Gee, no, Mom, that's not Babe.' 'No! You have to write to them. You have to.' I don't know how many newspaper offices I wrote to, questioning the name of that boy that was in that picture, because my mother always thought it was Babe. But it never came to be."

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That vignette, along with a photo of the telegram itself, appears in The War, an Intimate History 1941-45 (Knopf, $50), Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns's companion volume to the ongoing PBS series. Like the images and voices from the series, the book accentuates the war's human side -- the unusual sight of surgeons operating with their shirts off because it's so hot, a two-page spread of the posters that inspired the folks at home, a shot of the industrial section of Babe's home town, a sidebar on how one boy fell in love with war movies-- as opposed to the emphasis on generalship that shapes so many war books.

But if you happen to prefer battles and strategy, you have plenty of new books to choose from. With her title alone, The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II (Harcourt, $26), Judith M. Heimann rivets one's attention. It all happened in Borneo, where in 1944 downed Army airmen were delighted to jettison their anti-headhunter bias as the Dayak tribespeople saved their lives.

Two years earlier in the Pacific Theater, members of the Army's 32nd Division, known as "the Ghost Mountain Boys," had to make a gruesomely arduous march across New Guinea to join up with Australian forces. "If I owned New Guinea and I owned hell," recalled one of the marchers, "I would live in hell and rent out New Guinea." That quipster was one of the sources for the book that chronicles this little-known ordeal, James Campbell's The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea -- the Forgotten War of the South Pacific (Crown, $25.95).

"Okinawa was the last battle of the largest war since civilization began and the deadliest campaign of conquest ever undertaken by American arms," writes Bill Sloan in The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945 -- The Last Epic Struggle of World War II (Simon & Schuster, $27). An island in the East China Sea 350 miles from Japan's main islands, Okinawa was chosen as a jumping-off point for the U.S. invasion of Japan in the spring of 1945. The brutality of the battle and the tenacity of the Japanese resistance made the prospect of going on to invade Japan's home islands most unattractive. In this way, what happened on Okinawa figured in President Truman's decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sloan sums up the battle in double-barreled fashion: "Okinawa chillingly demonstrated that the human capacity for slaughter, savagery, and chaos is almost limitless. But . . . the resurrected Okinawa of the twenty-first century . . . stands as proof that people's inherent yearning for peace, mercy, and justice can still prevail."

-- Dennis Drabelle


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