When, in 1972, Henry Kissinger asked Chinese leader Chou En Lai his opinion of the French Revolution, Chou is reported to have said, "It is too soon to tell." But even by speedier American standards, it takes a while to put such momentous events in perspective and roust out all the relevant facts and opinions. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War -- with the newsreels long archived and the newsprint faded, and decades after the last of the contemporary high-level leaders have published their memoirs -- fascinating books continue to be written that bring together recently released historical materials and recollections of ordinary participants, deepening our understanding of this tragic and heroic era.

In the Beginning

Among the best of the current crop is Winston Groom's 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls (Atlantic Monthly, $27.50). As Groom sees it, this was the war's decisive year, and he begins with a quick overview of the events that preceded it and brought the world to war. This is 100 pages of fast-moving, readable prose, spiced with lively commentary and quotations, and taking note of just about every meaningful leader and significant event, from Gen. Pershing's desire to march on Berlin at the end of World War I to Franklin Roosevelt's speech after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. By the time we arrive at 1942, we're expecting a roaring pace, a broad perspective and telling revelations about events that shape the fate of nations.

Groom doesn't disappoint. He vividly recounts the brutal struggle in the Philippines, culminating in the Bataan Death March; the breathtaking risks taken and the decisive American victory at the Battle of Midway; the first difficult, but ultimately sucessful, U.S. ground operations in the Pacific theater at Guadalcanal and across New Guinea to Buna; and Operation Torch, in which U.S. forces invaded North Africa. As befits a prolific writer (among his dozen books is the novel Forrest Gump), Groom serves up remarkable details, ranging from the mud in North Africa to the caprices of spymasters in Washington, or from a comparison between the Japanese Zero and American Hellcat fighter planes to a glimpse of the heartbreaking poetry written by an American POW in the Philippines. And yet he seems to hit all the key decision points and quote all the most pertinent observations of the key decisionmakers.

On the other hand, no one should believe that Groom's book is anything beyond an American interpretation of that critical year. Although he certainly covers much of the rest of the world in passing, his book shortchanges the incredible scale of battle and enormous losses in the great German advance eastward across Russia to Stalingrad and into the Caucasus, the wild to and fro between Rommel and a succesion of British commanders across North Africa, and the continuing struggle in China. Groom makes his case that 1942 was decisive. But from the standpoint of suffering and loss, this is a minority report. America got off rather lightly, relatively speaking -- just ask the Russians, who will always believe it was they who won the war.

Hunting the Desert Fox

Part of the missing story is filled in by Niall Barr's Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (Overlook, $37.50), a wonderful recounting of the British campaign in North Africa. Barr, a lecturer of defense studies at King's College, London, based at the Joint Services Staff College in Shrivenham, England, brings to his work not only a gift for narrative but also sound analytic insights and historical context. By mid-1942, Britain's misadventures against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had almost led to the fall of Egypt and the German conquest of the Middle East. Almost. The tide turned at the tiny railway stop of El Alamein, and Barr gives us the best description yet of how the British checked the German advance. Drawing on German as well as British war diaries, radio intercepts, memoirs and the recollections of the participants, Barr captures the struggle of the soldiers and resolve of the leaders, and the learning process of war. Even more, he portrays the internal politics of the British high command and the relationship between generals and politicians with subtlety and insight that few writers of military history have matched. This isn't easy in Britain, where the desert campaign remains a highly emotional issue, not only for the men involved but also for their families, their leaders and two generations of writers and historians. This is not only an exceptionally clear and detailed look at the battles in the western desert, but also a superb study of organizational leadership in crisis.

Meanwhile, in Hungary . . .

From another point of the compass comes Krisztian Ungvary's The Siege of Budapest: 100 Days in World War II (Yale, $35). Ungvary is a research fellow at the Institute for the History of the 1956 Revolution in Budapest, and the book is a translation from the best-selling Hungarian edition. Intense, meticulous detail and bloody horror ring through every page. Not as familiar to the Americans as the sieges of Stalingrad or Leningrad, the siege of Budapest, in the last winter of the war, was one of the most complex, heartless and destructive of military operations. When Hungary's Nazi-allied leaders tried to surrender to the Allies in late 1944, Germany installed a ferociously defiant Hungarian National Socialist Arrow Cross government in Budapest. Soviet troops encircled the already heavily bombed capital in December; by the time it fell in February, more than 80,000 Russians were dead and much of the remaining German army was wiped out, while a beautiful city was all but destroyed. Ungvary uses scores of eyewitness accounts and a detailed analysis of historical records to portray the tragedy, complete with starving, virtually unarmed defenders fighting street by street, building by building, as well as the horrifying evil of the Arrow Cross murder of tens of thousands of Jews even as the city was falling. He describes the divided loyalties -- and sometimes indifference -- of the trapped Hungarian population, as well as the various resistance movements. Sure, the avalanche of details is a little overwhelming, but this is truly a missing chapter in our understanding of World War II, at last brilliantly filled in by Ungvary.

Home to Germany

For a really different angle on the war, though, read retired U.S. Navy Capt. Peter A. Huchthausen's Shadow Voyage: The Extraordinary Wartime Escape of the Legendary S.S. Bremen (Wiley, $24.95). On Aug. 30, 1939, a German luxury liner sailed out of New York City, headed home to Bremerhaven. Two days later, Germany invaded Poland, and every German ship on the Atlantic became a target. From this small and nearly forgotten incident at the start of World War II, Huchthausen not only recounts a fascinating story -- it took three months for the Bremen to reach home, evading British warships and submarines -- but also evokes the intrigue and ambivalence with which the Western world slipped into conflict. High-level U.S. officials tried to detain the ship in New York illegally; the conflicted crew struggled to escape the net, maintain loyalty to the fatherland and yet cope with the awful imminence of war; and all is set in a forgotten era of great transatlantic liners and the crews that sailed them. Often told in the words of participants themselves, Huchthausen's story reminds us of how common humanity is divided by hatred.

Bloodbath

Surely the most gripping of the lot is Bill Sloan's Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944 -- The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War (Simon & Schuster, $26). You'll read it with sweaty palms and an aching heart, for this was not only one of the most savage battles in the Pacific but also, as many have recognized in retrospect, one of the least necessary. But that doesn't detract from the incredible achievement of the U.S. 1st Marine Division, whose commander -- misled by faulty intelligence -- predicted a tough three-day fight and instead got six weeks of the toughest imaginable combat. Sloan follows a number of individual Marines as they enter the Corps, learn their skills and arrive at Peleliu. He moves on to the Japanese hiding in caves, the Marines struggling ashore with their flamethrowers -- and then portrays days and days of combat, deprivation, exhaustion, casualties and death. The eventual Allied victory came at the cost of 6,500 casualties among the 9,000 Marines; Japanese casualties totalled more than 11,000. In human terms of pure fear, hardship and sacrifice, the battle is a classic, and Sloan's book does it justice. It should be required reading for every policymaker, strategist and political leader who dares prescribe or trifle with military operations. *

Wesley K. Clark is the former supreme Allied commander of NATO.

Marines approach the Japanese-occupied Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in 1942.