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Essential Reading On World War II
05-26-2016, 03:35 AM,
Essential Reading On World War II
Essential Reading On World War II

The Duel

By John Lukacs (1990)
The formidably productive Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs has published several fine books about World War II, but "The Duel" might be his most gripping. It is richly written, relatively short and full of suspense even though we know how the story ends. It opens on May 10, 1940, with the French army dissolving before the German onslaught and Winston Churchill just made prime minister. "We do not know what Hitler thought of the news from London when he retired for the night," writes Lukacs, but "it seems that he did not yet wholly comprehend how, beneath and beyond the great war of armies and navies and entire peoples that he had now started in Western Europe, he would be involved in something like a hand-to-hand duel with Churchill." For a little while, the fate of the world depended upon which of two leaders better understood the other. Hitler was usually a shrewd assessor of his opponents, but he underestimated this one, and although the 80-day span Lukacs illuminates is the merest antechamber to the terrible years that lie ahead, by the end of it Churchill has won and, with him, Western civilization.
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Commander in Chief
By Eric Larrabee (1987)
Here is a view of the war not quite like any other: a narrative of the American participation told in a series of individual biographies. This might seem the recipe for a host of disjunctions and irritations, but Eric Larrabee manages it flawlessly. Beginning with FDR himself, the historian moves through Gen. George Marshall, Adm. Ernest King and on until he ends with Gen. Curtis LeMay and his B-29s above the ashes of Japan. The stories of the commanders seamlessly propel the greater story of the war. The whole is engrossing and spiked with sharp judgments: Douglas MacArthur was a much better peacemaker than he was a general; Dwight Eisenhower flourished because of a quality he carefully concealed: "intelligence, an intelligence as icy as has ever risen to the higher reaches of American life."

The Caine Mutiny
By Herman Wouk (1951)
Growing tensions aboard a decaying World War I-era destroyer, a terrifying storm at sea, a spellbinding court martial, good jokes and a nice little 1940s Manhattan love story thrown in too. "The Caine Mutiny" is not considered a serious piece of war literature. It should be. The novel contains a powerful meditation on the obligations of military command and obedience, and in its appealing hero, Willie Keith, it charts the trajectory from college twerp to capable officer that so many thousands of Americans followed in those years. The book conveys the universals of what at first might seem a narrow naval existence: Anyone who has spent time in the close quarters of an office (or, for that matter, a book group) will recognize the rub and chafe of life in the Caine's wardroom. My father saw very different sea duty (Atlantic submarine-hunting as opposed to the Caine's Pacific minesweeping), but he believed that this book summoned his experience of the war at sea more precisely than any other.

Other Clay
By Charles Cawthon (1990)
'On the morning of 3 February, 1941, H Company, Virginia National Guard, Martinsville, Virginia, mustered in its armory and was sworn into federal service. It was not a stirring scene; no bands played, no crowds cheered. . . . Over the next four years, most of those men—uniformed and armed then largely as their fathers had been in a war twenty-four years before—would be killed or wounded." Thus begins Charles Cawthon's memoir, "Other Clay," perhaps the finest evocation of war's bedrock necessity: infantry combat. Its author, who was a platoon leader in H Company on that February morning, landed with the second wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He struggled through the ghastly Normandy hedgerows into the winter fighting at the Bulge and was wounded on the German border. All this he recounts with a clarity that is the stronger for its calmness. In every sentence his perfect tone brings us close to both the frightened young infantryman and the wise old veteran.

A World at Arms
By Gerhard Weinberg (1994)
With the 1,178-page "A World at Arms," Gerhard Weinberg, a German-born diplomatic historian, succeeded in writing not just a "global history" of the war but also one with mordant humor and, most of all, a seemingly effortless grasp of the entire conflict. This is still the best single-volume history of the war and likely to remain so for a long time to come. It is some indication of the author's sensibilities that right at the outset he quotes the short verse on the monument in the jungle town of Kohima honoring the British soldiers who died stopping the Japanese advance into India: "When you go home / Tell them of us, and say: / For your tomorrow, / We gave our today."

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