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July 25, 2010

Sunday Book Thread

Military history is one of my favorite pastimes, and two conflicts get most of my attention: the American Civil War, and World War II.

World War II has generated a massive amount of literature -- probably millions of books have been written about it, from every possible angle and perspective. This flood of printed matter makes it hard for a reader to choose the good from the bad. World War II historians, like most other academics, have been lured by the fashions of the times; we've seen revisionist histories that cast the Allies as the aggressors (it was France's fault for demanding reparations from Germany, don't you know) and Adolf Hitler as a misunderstood genius, and we've seen histories that overinflate the contributions of one group or another (homosexual Gypsy partisans or female leaders of the French Resistance).

I prefer battle histories to any other kind of historical account mainly because battle-historians are less liable to revisionism, though hagiography is always a danger. But even here there is an avalanche of books to choose from. Where to start?

If you want a single-volume overview of the war (a tremendously difficult task, given the scope), you could do a lot worse than John Keegan's The Second World War. In particular, Keegan reminds American readers that the British had been fighting the Germans for three years before the Americans even entered the war -- Americans tend to forget that the war started in 1938, not in the winter of 1941. The Chinese and Koreans had been suffering under the Japanese boot since 1933 or before. The outcome of the war was never certain; had things broken only slightly differently, the Axis powers might have emerged triumphant. It was never inevitable that the Allies won -- in fact, there was a lot of luck involved, and the advantage that Adolf Hitler was mentally unbalanced. (I shudder to think at what the Wehrmacht might have done had a competent military man been the leader: Albert Kesselring, who gave the Allies such grief in Italy, say; or Von Manstein.)

Once you've got that under your belt, you can move on to books about specific battles and campaigns.

For the naval part of the war, you cannot do better than Samuel Eliot Morison's The Two Ocean War. (It's a big book, but still just an abridgment of Morison's 15-volume full history.) This book is an eye-opener in many ways. For one, it shows just how close-run a thing Germany's U-boat blockade of England was. Had the US entered the war only a few months later -- or not at all -- England might very well have been starved into submission.

For the Pacific campaign, I can recommand John Costello's The Pacific War: 1941-1945. It's about the best theaterwide overview of the conflict that I've come across.

And finally, for all the ink spilled on the European campaigns of 1944-1945, there has been a real dearth of good stuff on the North African/Italian campaign from 1942 - 1945. Luckily, Rick Atkinson has stepped into the breach with a three-volume "Liberation Trilogy" history: An Army at Dawn, about America's first major land campaign in North Africa; The Day of Battle, about the American Army's campaigns in Sicily and Italy; and a forthcoming book about the 1944 campaign in Europe. These are the best popular battle-histories I have come across in many years, and I recommend them highly even to people who aren't normally interested in this kind of stuff.

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posted by Monty at 08:44 AM

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