Some Random WWII Books
So the unthinkable has happened: after more than a decade of heavy SFF reading, I’ve started to feel like I need a bit of a break. Crazy, right? I suppose it’s natural to want a change of pace, but this came as a complete surprise to me. I’m still hacking through a couple of books – Alastair Reynolds and Nancy Kress are on the In Progress Pile, but for what ever reason, World War II histories have crept into the rotation with increasing frequency. Of course this is primarily a science fiction blog, but I might as well toss a few other topics on here to spice it up a bit.
For reasons that are probably obvious, I tend towards the Pacific War rather than the European front. (For those not familiar, I have family on both sides. My grandpa was in the Marines, while my in-laws were colonists and/or military in Manchuria.) Taking stock of my total reading, things can be divided into three groups: the naval campaigns, the Marine-led island assaults, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will say a little about each and highlight some favorite books. As a general overview, Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun seems to be the standard work. I started there and think it’s as good as any to read first.
The Atomic Bomb
I actually did most of this reading about seven years ago, for a seminar during grad school. Since it’s been so long, probably better not to say too much and just highlight my favorites. Unless something new and groundbreaking has come out in the last few years, the definitive books on this topic are Downfall by Richard Frank and Racing the Enemy by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. The former defends the position that the bombs were necessary to end the war, while the latter argues that they were actually deployed to fend off the Soviets, since the early stages of the Cold War were already unfolding. Both are excellent, thought they explicitly oppose each other. Other books are more famous (looking at you, Gar Alperowitz), but the above had the most cutting edge research at the time I read them.
After finishing the Spector book, I started into naval history. I am a total sucker for large ships, possibly because I didn’t see the ocean until my senior year of high school. Growing up, I probably never saw anything larger than a motorboat, so battleships and the like are inordinately fascinating.
The Admirals – Walter Borneman
Borneman’s book isn’t focused on the Pacific as much on the Navy in general, but since the Navy played a larger part in the Pacific, that’s where most of the attention ends up. As the title suggests, The Admirals takes a deeper look at personalities than battles. Those looking for blow by blow accounts and tactical analysis won’t be interested, but for me it was a good overview. I’m a Nimitz fan by disposition, for those who were wondering.
Pacific Crucible – Ian Toll
Apparently this is the first of a trilogy by Toll, though I didn’t know that until recently. The first volume covers up through Midway, the battle that really broke the Japanese offensive. I was impressed at Toll’s even-handed approach; he has a good grasp of why the Japanese did what they did, and is, if not sympathetic, at least fair. (Not that Japan should be forgiven for starting the war, nor for the atrocities committed therein, but one can acknowledge their precarious and racially threatened international position.) I’ll have to read further and follow the critical reception, but these books may become the new standard in pop history for the war.
Shattered Sword – Jonathan Parshall
Shattered Sword is probably my favorite in this category. Pacific Crucible recommended the book, and in fact used much of the scholarship found here for its chapters on Midway. Parshall presents mostly original research (I think) breaking down Midway from the Japanese perspective, using many primary sources long unavailable to Westerners. He digs deep into the Japanese operational planning, what went wrong, what was unlucky, what was inherently flawed, and more. It’s very detailed and sympathetic, fascinating reading.
I was less interested in this part of the war until I had a chance to watch The Pacific on HBO. The family was all away in Japan, so I mowed through the episodes in about a week, which is probably too short a time to ingest that level of violence and psychological mayhem. Those were some pretty horrifying battles. HBO built the series around two books, plus the more or less public story of a third Marine, so I started there.
Incidentally, my grandpa was lucky to spend the war in Hawaii as a supply officer (or something similar). His number came due in Korea though, so the Marine reading inevitably led me to track down his unit’s records there and read up on them. Yikes. Let’s just say I am lucky to be here.
Helmet for My Pillow – Robert Leckie
Leckie was a Marine during the Guadalcanal, Gloucester, and Peleliu campaigns and the model for one of the main characters in The Pacific. He was a smart-mouth rabble rouser from New Jersey, though the miniseries gives him a sympathetic, humanist side that his own words conceal. If I understand correctly, Helmet For My Pillow was one of the first Marine combat memoirs to come out of WWII and now stands as a classic of the genre. It helps that, in addition to having incredible stories, Leckie was a professional writer. (He started in sports journalism, then published many books.) There is a certain graceful ease in his writing that sets it above many other books of the sort. Whether by his own nature or due to the conventions of the time, this book isn’t as hard-hitting as other combat memoirs. The horrors of war are there, but Leckie doesn’t sound as troubled by them as some of the other veterans.
With the Old Breed – Eugene Sledge
Sledge’s book, another classic, is the basis for the back half of The Pacific. Sledge was worried about missing the war, so he flunked out of officer training and enlisted in the Marines. I have to wonder if he ever had second thoughts. I’m not sure there’s any faster way to die than join a Marine rifle company, especially when one arrives just in time for Peleliu and Okinawa. More than any other author I have read, Sledge is haunted by the waste and futility of war. His book is by far the darkest of the lot, and it’s clear that the scars from the battles, especially Okinawa, have never healed.
Islands of the Damned – R.V. Burgin
Burgin’s book is a companion to With the Old Breed; Burgin was Sledge’s platoon leader. They tell many of the same stories, though Burgin brings a much different perspective. While Sledge’s was an innocence-shattering, psychological ordeal, Burgin took a more workmanlike approach. He was there to do a job and stay alive, not wax philosophical about man’s inhumanity to man. This book seems to have come out as a response to The Pacific, rather than as one of the original WWII memoirs. I would rate it as less essential than the first two, but well worth reading if Old Breed becomes a favorite.
Since I started writing this, I finished another pair of books, as well as an assortment related to the Korean War. I’ll do a follow-up post presently.