Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The End of World War II

by Conroy

As my readers will learn, I am something of an amateur World War II historian. It is my considered opinion, one that I share with more educated and experienced men, that the cataclysmic conflict was not only the overarching event of the last century, but perhaps the most significant calamity in human history. The world that existed before 1939 was irrevocably swept away and a new course established that has directly shaped the global community of the present.

Since the end of the War 65 years ago, it has been the subject of countless histories, biographies, novels, films, etc. Interest today is still keen. And in that vein, I want to praise the complementary works Armageddon and Retribution by British historian and journalist Max Hastings. These histories explore the final phase of the War in 1944-45 to defeat Germany and Japan, respectively. The books cover all aspects of the War's terminal period, which as the author powerfully evokes, was its bloodiest, most brutal phase. Hastings' writing is remarkably vivid and immediate, which is essential to the stories he tells. Hastings covers the war aims, political intricacies, and even broad military strategy clearly and succinctly, but doesn't linger over the grand individuals and larger strategic details that have been explored in so many other works. Instead, he focuses much of the narrative on the experiences of the common soldiers who had to fight the battles and the civilians whose lives were devastated. This approach yields two particularly effective histories, that go as far as any I've read of bringing the heartbreaking reality of the fighting to the modern reader.

The people of the United States, and to a lesser extent Great Britain, were spared the apocalyptic destruction that was faced by the people of Europe and Asia, and especially Germany and Japan. Armageddon and Retribution let Americans and Britons, or any modern reader that has the fortune to live in a (relatively) peaceful world, understand the plight of the civilians as the War tore to its ultimate conclusion.
Max Hastings

I will not burden the reader with a comprehensive list of the superlative passages or analysis contained in these works, but I've listed a few highlights below. I highly recommend these books to anyone interested in World War II, the realities of war, or the grim depths that humanity can sink to when the decency of society is abandoned.

Readers may be interested in:
  • Hastings is unsparingly critical of some the most mythologized Allied military commanders. He rightly points out the folly of MacArthur's re-invasion of the Philippines, and the military expenditure, loss of life, and time it took to reclaim the islands in late 1944 and early 1945, when resources could have been better focused on the Japanese home islands; attacks Patton's reckless expedition to rescue his son-in-law from a PoW camp near Hammelberg in March 1945; Halsey's unforgivable mishandling of the Third Fleet in the Battle of Leyte Gulf; Montgomery's characteristic bellicosity and various miscalculations in Northwest Europe after the breakout from Normandy; and Eisenhower's questionable caution during crucial periods in Autumn 1944 when bold action may have ended the war months sooner.
  • He correctly explores the corrupt and insane leadership of the German and Japanese nations, that prolonged hopeless war situations for years, resulting in millions of additional deaths, and unimaginable hardships for their own nations; but, importantly, he does not absolve the people of Germany or Japan who also pursued the war, and not entirely out or coercion from their governments.
  • He notes the striking difference in the effectiveness of the ground forces of the Anglo-American armies and the German Wehrmacht. Even late in the conflict the Germans showed greater energy, ingenuity, and fighting acumen than the Allies. Hastings perceptively notes that the Allies could fight less effectively and far more cautiously because they could afford to. The tide of war was flowing overwhelmingly in their favor and risks or strategies that could result in serious losses were therefore avoided.
  • He explains the realities of living in close proximity with thousands (or millions) of other men in primitive conditions, carrying out all natural functions in filth and cold (Europe) or heat (Pacific), and under the constant threat of injury or death, particularly for front line combat units.
  • He tells with remarkable detail the realities of the American fire-bombing of Tokyo, which was as destructive and deadly as the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • He explains the mentality behind American and British strategic bombing, the high attrition rates for airmen, the moral ambiguity and targeting civilians in Germany and Japan, and the ironic fruition of bombing effectiveness after the strategic value had faded away.
  • He explores the plight of civilians in the path of the German and Soviet armies in Poland, East Prussia, and eastern Germany as the War moved westwards. Highlighting the reality of mass killing, raping, and looting that accompanied the soldiers on the Eastern Front.
  • He explores the dread felt by common people who were caught up in the war; the fear of lives permanently changed; the struggle for survival when the mechanics of society broke down; the starvation that was facing so many during the War's final year and in the immediate post war period; and the acceleration of mass murder in German-occupied areas as the Allies closed the ring.
  • He populates the text with first hand accounts from interviews, diaries, transcripts, and correspondence from soldiers and civilians that deepen the text and emphasize the war's impact on ordinary people.
  • Perhaps more than anything else, these books paint both a broad and specific picture that communicates the inertia of the War and why it was so terrible in the final phases.
I would also highly recommend the following World War II histories that explore similar themes of the plight of ordinary people and the horrors perpetrated by men during war: Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, Absolute War by Chris Bellamy, and The War of the World by Niall Ferguson.

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