Thursday, December 29, 2016

Why One Rereads

Late in the summer I found myself drawn to World War II non-fiction. I read much of a book called Inferno, which I enjoyed a great deal. Then I used a gift card to purchase Antony Beevor's The Second World War. I just finished it today. I enjoyed Beevor's style, a style that saw him often end a chapter with a rather witty interpretive twist. He had a good sense of when to swoop in on minute detail and when to pull away to the big picture. I also developed a good sense of when the detail wouldn't be necessary for me, so I can't say I read every chapter word for word.

World War II was my first and still strongest historical fascination. (The Cold War is a close second.) Rereading a grand history of it still fascinates me, still teaches me. There were quite a few interesting points I learned from Mr. Beevor. To wit:

  • The Allies really struggled to trust one another down the stretch. Even the British and Americans bickered quite often. Perhaps the most serious falling out occurred when America's chief naval officer implied that Britain's Royal Navy in the Pacific was a "liability."
  • The Allies really didn't trust one another much early in the war either, with Britain and France spending much of the spring of 1940 pointing fingers at one another. 
  • I now know what Churchill's "Naughty Document" is, and searching for it online won't mark one as looking for smut. 
  • American and British soldiers showed hesitancy in the final stages of the war in Europe, wondering why it was worth risking their lives to fight an enemy in Germany who was fighting more stubbornly than expected despite the impossibility of victory. 
  • Late in the war, tacticians often struggled between elevating civilian casualties vs. risking soldiers' lives . . . this was as true in Europe as it was in the Pacific. 
  • America, Britain, and Russia truly depended on one another. 
  • America was really well served by two leaders in particular: Eisenhower and Nimitz. Both seemed to really get the whole picture and both seemed to learn from mistakes. 
  • The Chinese often bore costs for strategic decisions made by the U.S.
  • Diplomacy with the French and Poles was a lot tricker throughout the war than I expected. 
As I reread of this war, I was constantly struck with wonder as to how the Germans and Japanese could continue to fight in the face of inevitable defeat. 

Perhaps Beevor's best writing came in the summary, when he was ruminating on the massive loss of life in central and eastern Europe. That's where the greatest loss of life occurred in the European theater. Beevor urges the readers to think of this area and its inhabitants as inexorably caught between the two great millstones of the mid-twentieth century: totalitarian Germany and totalitarian Russia. And despite Allied victory, the restoration of freedom to Western Europe came at the expense of the freedom of surviving peoples caught between those millstones. 

America sacrificied mightily in World War II, and nothing in the book shook my belief that calling those G.I.'s the Greatest Generation is fitting and proper. We were fortunate, though, not to be caught between those millstones, for the sacrifices those people had to make are horrifying to contemplate. 

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