Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reviews: Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

I’ve been a student of World War II history since adolescence, whether it be films, documentaries and books, and consider myself knowledgeable about World War II history and lore. Indeed, the earliest comics I drew were World War II genre stories, inspired by work like DC’s Sgt. Rock, Marvel’s Sgt. Fury, and Charlton’s Our Army at War. The historical period is so steeped in our culture with information about it so easily accessible, it’s easy to seek out and soak up such knowledge without much effort if one has the interest. Yet I don’t recall ever reading a single all-comprehensive, chronological history of the conflict.

Earlier this year, I stumbled across and downloaded a sample of Inferno: The World at War, 1939-45 by Max Hastings on my KindleFire HD as a digital book. Based on this initial reading, I downloaded the full edition, which I found to be a compelling page turner.

Any visit to a bookstore or library will tell you that the second world war is a cottage industry in itself. Regardless, this hasn't stopped Hastings, a noted war historian and correspondent, to produce this ambitious, comprehensive-yet-concise one-volume history of World War II that feels fresh and never gives any of the subjects covered short shrift.

As knowledgeable as I am, I’m no expert on current World War II research and scholarship, but this volume does reflect certain perspectives that likely provide readers a more informed, balanced view of the war. None of this was new or a surprise to me per se, but it certainly affirmed certain biases that exist in mainstream views of the war here in the U.S.

The Hollywood/American version of the war, for example, often makes it look like the war was won solely by the U.S.—or at least changed course when the U.S. entered the conflict. While there is of course some truth to this—in fact, Hastings asserts that U.S. industrial might was likely one of the major contributors to allied victory—without taking credit away from the Greatest Generation who sacrificed and gave up their lives during the war at home and on the battlefield, Hastings also points out that relative to other countries, the U.S. fared relatively well in terms of deaths and even sacrifice. For the most part, while U.S. citizens did experience some shortages, they paled in comparison to the millions of civilians overseas who died, suffered, and were displaced.

In that context, aside from the innocent civilians, the allied country that suffered and sacrificed the most both militarily and at home—and likely served the true fulcrum for victory—was the Soviet Union. To some degree, of course, the scale of suffering was self-inflicted — the Soviets, under Josef Stalin, considered most of its combatants as little more than cannon fodder, with much of its strategy based on attrition and dependent on the sheer massive size of its population and geography. The Nazi-led Germans considered Russians (and most Eastern Europeans) as sub-human and treated them with little of the same respect they generally accorded Western combatants. (Indeed, until the very end, the Nazis fully believed the allies would join with them to fight the Soviet/Communist onslaught.) So whatever little regard the common Soviet soldiers may have held for their superior officers was more than offset by their contempt (and fear) of the invading Nazis who rarely took prisoners and, when they did, treated their Soviet POWs with anything less than cruelty and worse.

By the same token, Great Britain and the U.S. depended greatly on the Soviets to keep the Germans as engaged as possible on the eastern front while the Western allies built up their forces, hoping to face a German foe as weakened as possible by the Russians. Hastings asserts that many of the Western allies’ campaigns prior to the D-Day Normandy landings in 1944—which included the invasion of Sicily and Italy the year before—were little more than window dressing to assure the Soviet Union that they were doing their part when, in fact, the USSR was doing the heavy lifting. To be fair, the West’s desire to minimize bloodshed was not only for moral reasons, but also political—Churchill and Roosevelt always had to be mindful that terrible casualties and losses would deeply affect the public’s willingness to remain in the war (let alone affect their political fortunes). As a totalitarian state with its people under direct siege, the USSR simply did not operate under the same constraints and the Western allies took full advantage of this. (On the other side of the coin, while in large part the Soviets were fighting an invading force, they also were very strategic, their willingness to sacrifice lives in service to their long-range goal to destabilize and maintain control over the areas they captured from the Germans.)

Another interesting facet of the war covered in this book were the many sideshows around the world outside the regular theaters of operation. Paralleling what I noted in my review of Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, the chaos of war provided a pretext for many around the world to exploit the situation for personal gain, by settling scores and seizing power, often by allying with one side or another, changing sides, and/or playing one side against the other. One saw this throughout the war, particularly in places like Yugoslavia, Greece, and Czechoslovakia. While the older powers, like Great Britain and Russia, were old hands at cynically exploiting such situations to their own political ends, many in the U.S., the product of a post-colonial world not yet as jaded, were somewhat appalled by such behavior. As history shows, however, the U.S. soon caught up.

In contrast, the Pacific Theatre was pretty much an all-U.S. show. Already hemmed in by Germany at home, Great Britain’s swift and humiliating defeats at the hand of the Japanese pretty much ended that country’s dominance in the Pacific for all time, as well as tarnished their reputation as a worldwide colonial power. The people in the Pacific still under British colonial rule finally discovered, not without some genuine shock, that their rulers were, after all, simply human and not infallible, as the British fell quickly to the Japanese with little of the fight or dignity usually associated with their colonial rulers. (By this time, the British empire was all but sitting on its laurels in the Pacific and the military leaders, soldiers and resources assigned to the region were definitely second string and not a priority.)

One small revelation to me (but long suspected) was the fact that the U.S. Army and Navy were virtually pursuing their own strategies in fighting the Japanese, with the army committed to an island-hopping campaign while the navy believed control of the oceans and containment/defeat of the Japanese navy was key to victory. While both approaches were, of course, ultimately complimentary and contributed to the defeat of Japan, Hastings does question whether all the island campaigns (and the resulting loss of life) were truly necessary and nothing more than political show.

As this book points out, with little understatement, war is a terrible, chaotic thing. Strategy, planning and training are essential, but so is the will to fight, logistics and resources, and a bit of luck. Given the one volume, Hasting’s does an impressive job of presenting the war in all its facets and operations—from the political arena, to the ground battles, to the home front, to the sideshows, and to the telling moments of horrible inhumanity as well as profound chivalry that invariably emerge during times of war. There are no doubt many fine books to choose from to learn the “inside story” of World War II, to which Inferno can be included.

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