Monday, October 11, 2004

A war to be won

It has been nearly sixty years since the Axis surrendered, yet we are still learning about World War Two. As specialists unearth new documents and offer new interpretations, the existing general histories become inadequate. Still, writing a new one-volume account of the largest war in history must be the most daunting task in the historical profession.

Williamson Murray and Allan Millett did make the attempt and their book is the best general history of WWII we have to date.

The authors incorporate the new scholarship in three critical areas. First, earlier histories did not know the extent of American and British code-breaking operations and their role in the conduct and outcome of the war. Second, Murray and Millet understand the importance of the interaction of doctrine, technology, and innovation that drive the various Revolutions in Military Affairs that now lie at the heart of military policy and history. Finally, they restore the battlefield to the center of military history.

For a couple of decades the 60s generation of historians and their acolytes have treated the war as an "event" that served as the background and "hook" for their trendy examinations and revisionist agitprop. Classes on WWII often spent more time on the Port Chicago incident and the zoot suit riot than on the battle of Midway. Popular accounts, although less critical of the US, tended to celebrate the righteousness of the cause-beating Hitler-and skimmed over the tough decisions and hard fighting that led to the noble victory.

In their introduction Murray and Millett dismiss the Saturday serial thinking that believes right must inevitably overcome might because the righteous must prevail.

"Moral righteousness alone does not win battles. Evil causes do not necessarily carry the seeds of their own destruction. Once engaged, even just wars have to be won-- or lost-- on the battlefield."

The authors, although academics, write with a sharp pen. Not only is the book highly readable, they are not shy about making pointed, critical judgments. MacArthur is paranoid with a "lust for personal publicity" and his "emotional balance was precarious." Adm. Ernest King "made life miserable for everyone around him." They are hard on Omar Bradley and surprisingly positive on Montgomery.

In these latter two cases, their assessments are explicitly tied to the new perspectives of recent scholarship. Bradley's caution in the summer of 1944 has to be seen as the failure of a timid and hide-bound officer now that we know about the tremendous intelligence advantage ULTRA gave the allies. Furthermore, his refusal to incorporate the lessons learned from Pacific operations into Normandy planning cost lives on Omaha Beach, as did his parochial rejection of assistance from the British (especially General Hobart). Conversely, Montgomery was the perfect general for a British army saddled with poor doctrine, poor training, and obsolete equipment.

Murray and Millett also make it clear that the rosy image of the "Good War" as a clean war is not an accurate picture. Toppling the Axis regimes was obviously a good thing. Nevertheless, the allies found themselves working with groups that were unsavory and worse.

There was Stalin, of course: a butcher who dwarfed even Hitler and sent 2 million Soviet citizens to the Gulag in 1941 as the Germans raced to the gates of Moscow. But there were also "resistance leaders" like Lai Tek in Malaysia who betrayed his fighters to the Japanese as he consolidated Communist power with an eye toward the post-war settlement. Nor was liberation entirely a matter of tossed flowers and candy for kids:

"In the wake of liberation, French and Italian partisans-- both rich in dedicated Communists-- murdered as many as 8,000 suspected collaborators, often with Allied troops nearby."

A War to Be Won really belongs in the library of everyone who is interested in military history.

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