Sunday, January 22, 2012

War Reading Culminates with Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

The pattern isn't quite entirely clear, but it seems to me that in the winter months (and into spring) in the Northwest, I turn to reading about war. I've mostly read Vietnam War books. I've also read some big, fat epic war books in the last few years: The Naked and the Dead, Matterhorn, The Kindly Ones, The Thin Red Line (all, notably, novels). On May 29, 2011, I saw all of the Holocaust documentary, Shoah, in one day (9+ hours), at the basement/bunker auditorium in the Portland Art Museum.

For all this immersion in war -- mostly novels and memoirs -- I had never read a straight-up, big picture history of World War II. I had thought about it but hadn't tackled the matter. Then, last November, I skimmed the New York Times glowing review of Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings, and I thought this might be the book -- and I was right. Inferno is a mind-bending, fluid, deeply thoughtful and compassionate book. It should be required reading for somebody -- maybe candidates for high office.

Inferno is comprehensive to a degree, covering major inflection points of a very complex war. It is not exactly a precise military or political history. Instead, Hastings uses a huge amount of source material from everyday people -- a housewife in Germany, infantry soldiers, pilots, and so on. At the same time, Hastings discusses key civil and military leaders and their strengths and faults. Hastings also only superficially covers topics that are well covered elsewhere. He discusses the Holocaust only a bit, and while he writes extensively about the Allied bombing of Europe, he does not discuss Dresden in detail.

But bypassing a discussion of Dresden does not mean that Hastings avoids tough questions about the conduct of the war. He looks at a range of controversial topics -- the European bombing campaign, dropping the atom bombs -- and offers his views in a measured way that reflects deep historical knowledge. Through this analysis, the book helps provide some grasp on what cannot today be entirely conceived or processed. Hastings also corrects misinformation and helps readers (at least this American reader) better understand the roles of each nation and the context in which they went to war.

The original, UK version of Inferno was called All Hell Let Loose. It might as well just be called Fucking Madness. The amount of death and destruction is incomprehensible -- especially when set against other wars. Civilians and soldiers in Russia died in the tens of millions. More people died in Leningrad (with maybe 800,000 starving) than all of U.S. and British combat deaths combined. You can open Inferno on any page and find a startling statistic or story. The Manhattan Project cost $3 billion, but the B-29 Superfortress program cost $4 billion. The same day that the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Russians attacked Japan through Manchuria. That action alone -- two weeks of battle as the war wrapped up -- resulted in the deaths of 92,000 soldiers. And on it goes for 650 pages.

The wake of World War II still ripples today, and this book directly and more often indirectly touches on that matter. A number of military and strategic points were made clear by the war, and these points should help guide policies today to some extent. Investment in the technologies of destruction were critical to the Allied effort, but weapons once built are usually ultimately used (as Hastings notes again and again). As a culture (and a society under totalitarian state duress), the Russians accepted a casualty rate far higher than the western democracies. To engage in large-scale mobilization and combat, the people of a democratic nation must believe that its quality of life could be so diminished without response, that the violent death of tens or hundreds of thousands or millions is a worthwhile price to alleviate that threat.

Anyways, if you have any interest in war or World War II, read this book. It has received high praise from many reviewers -- and that praise is more than warranted.

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