The Second World War happened seventy years ago and , as the WWII generation dies off, the war itself is fast fading from our memories. At the beginning of the 21st century, almost one thousand veterans of the Good War were dying every day. Ken Burns, in the introduction to the book ” World War II : An Intimate History ” says that that one of his reasons for writing the book was to preserve the memories of those who had participated in it , to acquaint the modern generation with part of their history that was rapidly being forgotten. He says that an unacceptably large number of today’s high school seniors are under the impression that America sided with Germany against Russia in World War 2. Imagine that ! Ken Burns’ book will go a long way towards allieviating such ignorance as it provides by far the most comprehensive and balanced account of World War II that I have read, and I have read quite a few.
Most books on the subject stick to military matters and usually focus on the War in Europe.They concentrate on the big battles and fail to adequately describe the heroism of the ordinary grunts and the horrors they endured. They gloss over the unpalatable aspects of the war and do not convey the extent to which it affected an entire generation, both those who went off to war and those whom they left behind. Burns is able to avoid these pitfalls because of his unique approach, a mixture of oral history and straightforward reporting.
In planning this book , Burns decided to examine the manner in which the war affected four widely disparate American towns : Luverne MN , Sacramento CA , Mobile AL. and Waterbury, CT. During the two years of research that resulted in this book, his resarchers mined the information from diaries,letters, newpaper columns and other first hand accounts and used it to supplement the data gathered from more conventional sources.
The trouble with oral histories is that they sometimes miss the big picture. Conventional histories, on the other hand, fail to educate us as to how the common man was affected by cataclysmic events. By combining the two approaches , Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward are able to give us the best of both , a personalised history of the war that yet gives us an accurate account of the whole. We read about people like 8- year old Sacha Weinzheimer and her family who spent the war in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines and Corporal George Frazier who survived the hellish Bataan Death March and the horrors being a POW in a Japanese labor camp.We empathize with Quentin Aanenson, the country boy from Luverne who became a fighter pilot and saw extensive combat in the skies over Europe to return home and marry the girl he had met and courted in Baton Rouge LA. We feel the emotions of those who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, their experiences in boot camp and later on under fire in Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Tunisia, Sicily , Cassino, Normandy and a dozens of other famous battles. We are moved by the plight of the Japanese -Americans who were interned for the duration of the war as ” enemy aliens” even as their brethren were displaying unparalleled bravery on the battlefields of Europe. All these are brought home to us by first person accounts and by photographs that document what it was to live through those times.
In giving us these stories , the authors also cast light on some little known details. For instance , I remember reading about the bravery of the all- Japanese- American regiment, the 442nd but I hadn’t known of the initial friction between the Japanese Americans born on the mainland and those from Hawaii. I hadn’t known either of the animosity between black and white workers in the shipyards of Mobile which led briefly to a race riot. And even though I’d read of the incredible war effort as America mobilized for the war, nothing brought it home to me as some of the statistics in this book.” In 1941, more than 3 million cars were manufactured in the United States. Only 139 were made during the entire war. “ And “ At its vast Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan– 67 acres of assembly lines under a single roof–the Ford Motor Company performed something like a miracle , twenty four hours a day. The average Ford Motor car had 15,000 parts. The B-24 long range bomber had 1,550,000. One came off the line every sixtythree minutes .” Seems scarcely credible, doesn’t it ?
History is written by the victors and they tend to concentrate on the high points while glossing over or competely neglecting the not-so-palatable details. That certainly is not true of this book . In it we read of the German Blitz of London but we are also told of theAllied fire-bombing of Dresden and Hamburg which was worse than anything the British endured. We are told of the blunders of the vain glorious General Mark Clark, the foibles of the British Commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and his thirst for power, and the infighting among the Allied Generals. No punches are pulled as the book describes the uncaring stupidity of Gen John Dahlquist who repeatedly ordered the 442nd into one battle after another against overwhelming enemy firepower —all because he did not want to be accused of being reluctant to engage the enemy. Through it all , we are awestruck by the everyday heroism of the ” ordinary” G.I , whether on the beaches of Normandy or the jungles of the South Pacific. As we view the photographs of battlefield carnage , we realize that the horror of war depicted in the first fifteen minutes of Steven Spielberg’s ” Saving Private Ryan” were not an exaggeration. We are also reminded of the adage that ” War brings death to the soldier, glory to the General”.
Modern day revisionists of history are fond of criticizing the U.S for dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of them see racial undertones in that decision because the bombs were dropped on Japan rather than on Germany. Reading this book leaves no doubt in my mind that such revisionism is cynical and baseless. Firstly, German cities were carpet bombed and reduced to rubble and civilian casualties were high , breaking the German resistance and leading to the German surrender. The Japanese however, inspite of the collapse of their overseas empire and the decomation of their armed forces, were still defiant even after they had retreated to the Japanese mainland. Their extreme sense of honor would not permit them to surrender even though they had no hope of victory. They were determined to fight to the death and force the civilians to commit mass suicide , as in fact happened at Okinawa. For the Allies to have invaded the mainland in pursuit of a final victory would have resulted in a million casualties and a wholesale slaughter of the POWs and mon-combatant aliens that they held. Hiroshima and Ngasaki were tragedies but the alternative would have resulted in even more deaths. No one reading this book and the parts about the fanaticism of the Japanese could think otherwise.
All in all , this is a book not to be missed if one wants a complete picture of a war that shaped the world we live in.
The War: An Intimate History 1941-1945. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns Knoph ( 2007). $ 50.