Pity the author of a book on World War II scheduled for release this year. He or she must compete for whatever attention is left after the publication of Max Hastings's magnificent Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45, about the final year of World War II in Europe. Yet every year sees the arrival of a new crop of books on the titanic conflict, and several other recent books on World War II deserve attention from those looking for something to read after they have finished Armageddon -- or perhaps looking for a book on a different aspect of the war.
When Elephants Fight
For those interested in the war's "other" theater, a good place to start is Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Belknap/Harvard, $29.95), by Cambridge dons Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper. Be warned: This book is more than 600 pages long, and a pretty dry 600 pages at that. But overall, Forgotten Armies is worth the effort. Bayly and Harper's often-overlooked topic is the fate of Southeast Asia -- particularly India, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore -- during the war. The authors focus on the experiences of the people of those countries, caught between the warring imperialists, callous British and brutal Japanese. As Bayly and Harper conscientiously note, the trauma of World War II marks the beginning of these Asian nations' evolution into the countries they are today.
An Indian expression notes that when elephants fight, only the grass gets hurt. That's a bit too neat; the British and Japanese elephants gored themselves horribly during the war, but the peoples of Southeast Asia were trampled underfoot. Forgotten Armies is superb at evoking the wretchedness of this region, at conjuring the hardships its people suffered (including the deaths of some 3 million Indians in the terrible Bengal famine of 1943-44) and at demonstrating how Burmese, Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean nationalism were galvanized by these experiences. Bayly and Harper also deserve credit for presenting a complete history of the war in Southeast Asia: They are just as scrupulous -- and just as good -- at explaining the strategy of the British and Japanese commanders as they are at describing the lot of average soldiers and the misery of the civilian populations. In this important work, a reader will meet a vast range of characters whose stories are rarely heard in the United States, including Japan's brilliant Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who overcame the supposedly impregnable British bastion at Singapore; the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandras Bose, who threw his lot in with the Japanese only because he hated the British more; the tens of thousands of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese; and the courageous Indian troops who repelled the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima in northeastern India in 1944.
Clash of Cultures?
Another worthwhile book on the Pacific theater is Donald L. Miller's D-Days in the Pacific (Simon & Schuster; paperback, $15). Never mind the title, which seems designed to mystify the casual reader and convince the expert to overlook it. Miller, a history professor at Lafayette College and host of a PBS series, is an unabashed admirer of the late Stephen Ambrose. Consequently, this book has most of the advantages and disadvantages of Ambrose's own work: It is drawn largely from gripping firsthand accounts but gains its thrills at the expense of the larger strategic and operational context of the war. It also focuses far more on tales of heroism and tragedy than on those of cowardice and underachievement. The result, at least in some passages, is the kind of uncritical hagiography of the common American soldier that makes many historians (and veterans, for that matter) smirk or howl. Those who enjoy Ambrose's books, of whom there are a great many, will undoubtedly like D-Days in the Pacific as well. But history is seldom so straightforward.
Still, Miller has an important story to tell that could easily be missed by those who dislike his Ambrose-esque style. The war between Japan and the United States (and, as Bayly and Harper remind us, Britain, India, Burma, Malaysia and so on) is generally considered to have been fought with more mutual savagery than that between Germany and the Western allies, and the "reasons" have been hotly debated for decades. In truth, the extent of the difference has often been exaggerated; consider the Allied firebombing of Dresden and the German massacres at Oradour-sur-Glane and Malmedy. Nevertheless, the prevailing view among historians is generally that racism was the ultimate cause of the brutality of the Pacific War -- that both Japanese and Anglo-Americans often saw one another as subhuman and therefore not deserving of the respect that the Western Allies supposedly accorded to and received from the Germans.
D-Days in the Pacific offers a powerful alternative explanation: the clash of cultures between Japan and America. Miller, returning to an earlier argument that's gone out of historical vogue, demonstrates how Japanese notions of honor and loyalty, a draconian martial code of behavior and the horrifying brutality that the Japanese army used (often unsuccessfully) to maintain discipline produced a series of atrocities early in the war -- the Bataan Death March being only the best known. Americans were so appalled that they angrily ignored their own norms in turn. Miller goes on to show how the bombing (and firebombing) of Japanese cities -- which seemed so logical to many American minds, especially Army Air Corps officers determined to demonstrate the decisive power of massed bombers -- similarly struck most Japanese as unjustified and unconscionable. The bombings of Japan's cities, Miller argues, provoked Japanese soldiers to fanatical levels of self-sacrifice and convinced Japanese civilians that Americans were monsters who would rape and slaughter them -- just, ironically, as their own soldiers had done too often before throughout Southeast Asia. Miller's description of the heartbreaking mass suicides of Japanese civilians at Marpi Point on Saipan Island in the central Pacific is one of the best written in a mainstream history, and he does an excellent job establishing how this and similar incidents in turn convinced a great many Americans that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would be so bloody that anything -- absolutely anything -- had to be done to avoid it.
Every book written about the Pacific campaign must struggle with the shadow of the mushroom clouds that loom at its end. Unlike many others, D-Days in the Pacific succeeds in making that ending a part of the entire narrative, so that when it finally arrives, its entrance is not just understandable but inevitable and obvious -- as inevitable and obvious as the decision to employ the atomic bombs seemed to President Truman.
Gone for Soldiers
The great surprise of the season in World War II books is Deborah Dash Moore's wonderful GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (Belknap/Harvard, $25.95). Moore is a professor, the book is an academic study of how one small segment of the American population dealt with the war, it was published by an academic press and the endnotes are nearly a fifth as long as the story itself -- none of which promises an enjoyable read. But it is an enjoyable read. Moore, a Vassar professor, writes well and knows how to tell a story -- sins that some faculty committee will no doubt punish her for someday. She has an eye for interesting characters and for what makes them interesting. One of those characters, in fact, is her father, and others are old friends of his; yet she keeps her own feelings about him and them out of it, which allows them to live again in her pages as the young men gone for soldiers they once were. She keeps up a lively pace and intersperses evocative vignettes with insightful analysis of what these Jewish troops' experiences meant to them, their families, their communities and the nation as a whole.
The book's biggest draw, however, is the larger themes that Moore gracefully weaves throughout. The most important of these are echoed in her apt subtitle, "How World War II Changed a Generation." GI Jews is a vital corollary to the work of Tom Brokaw and others who have justifiably lauded America's "Greatest Generation." Moore's most important theme is that the greatest generation was not born that way but forged -- something that, to be fair, Brokaw himself has acknowledged. Its members did not win World War II because they were the greatest generation, but they became the greatest generation because of what they went through during the war.
Although Moore focuses on American Jews, the experiences she describes were similar, if not identical, for virtually every other ethnic group in the country, and indeed for most Americans. For postwar generations, her book reveals how the experience of the war changed the generation that fought it and why it helped launch the civil rights movement, the Great Society and America's rise to global predominance. GI Jews should not be missed by anyone with an interest in World War II or the history of the American people.
On the other hand, perhaps the greatest disappointment of this season's offerings is Alex Kershaw's The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon (Da Capo, $25). Kershaw's last book, The Bedford Boys, told the moving story of the men from Bedford, Va. -- a town of about 3,000 that lost 19 of its sons during the first 10 minutes of the D-Day landings. He fares less well this time out. The Longest Winter tells the tale of the reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division -- a heroic, inspiring story that deserves to be told and told well. If any one platoon was most responsible for the ultimate success of the Allied defense during the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, this one was probably it. During the first day of the German Army's last-gasp offensive, the men of this platoon successfully delayed Jochen Peiper's panzers for a crucial 24 hours. Peiper commanded the main striking force of the 1st SS "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler" Panzer Division, the most powerful component of the 6th SS Panzer Army, which in turn was intended to be the principal breakthrough force of Hitler's attack. Peiper's failure to smash through the light American defenses before more powerful reinforcements could be rushed forward was arguably Germany's crucial setback during the battle, making this platoon's efforts a key element -- perhaps the key element -- in the failure of the Nazi lunge.
Kershaw writes well enough, and he had the good fortune of interviewing most of the members of the platoon, as well as some of the Germans who opposed them on that fateful day in 1944. Unfortunately, that is not enough to carry this book. Much of the action is disjointed, with Kershaw filling in little of the detail to take up the story from where his interviews leave off. The climactic moments of the book -- the battle itself, and the escape from captivity of some members of the platoon -- come as anticlimaxes.
A War for Ideas
The revisionist histories of the 1960s and '70s saw Nazi ideology as having just a largely functional role in the running of the Third Reich; another sign that they are being displaced by a new mainstream interpretation of World War II is the publication of Richard Bessel's Nazism and War (Modern Library, $22.95). Bessel is a well-regarded British scholar of the Third Reich who -- like Omer Bartov, Ian Kershaw, Gerhard Weinberg, Klaus Hildebrand and others -- is restoring Hitler's malignant ideology to its central place in the history of the war. Bessel's well-crafted essays drive home the point that Nazism was not some opiate of the masses but an important unifying force for the German people -- and a vital guide to policy for their leaders.
Reading Bessel's new work, one can almost hear the frustration at the determination of both apologists and revisionists to overlook the importance of Nazi ideology to every aspect of the war. Bessel's essays have a relentless logic to them that any reader will find compelling. He explains how the experience of World War I created both Nazism and the conditions in Germany that the Nazis would exploit, then moves on to demonstrate the central role of war in the Nazi worldview and Hitler's aspirations. Later essays bolster Bartov's groundbreaking work by detailing the intensity of so many German soldiers' commitment to the Nazi cause and the importance of Nazi ideology in motivating German soldiers and civilians. A final chapter looks back on how the postwar West German state addressed the war and the role of Nazism. Like Max Hastings, Bessel explains why the experience of the Cold War and Germany's unexpectedly rapid reintegration into Western Europe during the 1950s meant that many Germans -- preferring to blame the war and the Holocaust on Hitler and his inner circle -- still have not fully internalized how extensively Nazism permeated their society.
For that reason, if no other, there will doubtless be many more books written on this greatest of all conflicts for years to come. *
Kenneth M. Pollack is research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including "Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991."