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Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 by Stephen Budiansky (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
If you love tales of the sea (and what old soldier does not?), here is great adventure reading in a war that at best the U.S. could call a draw but which produced broad changes in how the U.S., Britain and most of the world continue to prosecute wars today. The descriptions of ship battles also confirm that hot, new technologies creatively handled along with a guerilla-like approach to warfare (even at sea) can allow a weaker nation with fewer material resources to frustrate a more powerful nation into giving up a war.
A bitter, personal recounting of the energetic tyranny of a police force collaborating with its nation’s conquerors in the round up, transport and extermination of a despised minority in World War II. You can sympathize with the conquered and ground down French people in hoping “the Americans would come soon, but also stop dropping bombs” on France (p. 269). But when you read it was the French police proposing to their Nazis overlords that not only male Jews should be transported for killing but woman and children, too, you see the heart-rending moral failure in an organization meant to uphold a national code of justice.
Here is a fascinating study of the home-life impacts on strategic decision-making and army management of Union Generals Fremont, McClellan, Sherman and Grant. But it also is a unique description of the powerful role played in the Civil War by women – disenfranchised and their potential contribution to the war effort largely ignored – in boosting, sometimes toward success and sometimes toward disaster, commanders of varying quality and capacity. Julia Dent Grant’s signal contribution to the war’s last months and Jesse Fremont’s face-to-face abuse of Lincoln are worth the price of the book.
In thinking about German military and logistics operations in World War II, I assumed they were in some degree hindered by Nazi requirements to support the concentration camps and the transport to those camps of the millions of people who were murdered in them. I was wrong. This book explains in grim detail how the Holocaust, while it became central to Nazi objectives, was far too easily and cheaply managed by a military for whom it was not a primary task. A terrible story made worse by learning how easily mass murder on this gigantic scale can be accomplished.
Here is a story of war and food. Of the struggle against political partisanship, prejudice and arrogance to feed the one-third of Americans impoverished in the Great Depression. And of how little the U.S. learned from its World War I experience in trying to build an army from ill-fed, malnourished recruits drawn from a virtually hand-to-mouth agrarian society and how the U.S. found itself in the same predicament on the eve of World War II. Human beings are warring creatures; no country can allow itself to be so unprepared for war as to starve the men and boys who will be its soldiers.
There is no point in telling just a good war story unless you make a grand war story of it. Richard Snow has done just that with this telling of the conception, construction and combat of the first two metal-clad ships ever to fight. The battle description is terrific but the real fascination lies in the complex development of the technologies, particularly pushed by the stubborn genius John Ericsson for The Monitor, that produced these two very different ships. Snow’s occasionally odd sentence structure impedes rapid grasp of some of the story.
Here is one terrific war story about a band of misfits in the South Pacific who build their own B-17 by scavenging parts from wrecked bombers and persuade their dubious higher commanders to let them fly the most dangerous recon missions available. They cut a ton of weight out of their homemade bomber and install 17 of the biggest guns they can scrounge. Then they go out unescorted by fighters to do their recon their job, and fight and win the biggest dogfight any single bomber engaged in across the entire Pacific war. Some of the writing is pedestrian but the grand story carries the book along.
Another heroic read from the Pacific war is The Kamikaze Hunters: Fighting for the Pacific 1945 by Will Iredale (Pegasus Books, 2016) telling the story of the naval aviators of the British Pacific Fleet hunting for and shattering Japanese suicide pilots intent on giving their lives in single actions to sink the U.S. and British fleets closing in on Japan. The battle scenes are terrific and the BPF’s political problems in persuading American naval commanders to let them join the Pacific naval war eye-opening. Some of the writing requires two or three readings to comprehend.
When military historians force themselves to be succinct by writing a tight article rather than a sprawling book, they can focus educated insight on a single, white-hot point of revelation for a reader. That is what Ambrose has done here in 15 articles spanning U.S. military history. His views on Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. “dumb luck” in preparing for World War II, the why of the unacceptable horror of the My Lai massacre, and General Douglas MacArthur’s strange personality and combat effectiveness, among other subjects, make good reading and better arguing. This is a book worth buying just to throw across the room in anger and then pick up and read again.
Forester applies his Hornblower eye and knowledge of the sea and fighting ships to telling of the desperate pursuit and colossal sea battles in the British sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, the second largest warship in Europe, in 1941. The book is a “nonfiction novel” – an historical retelling of the story with fictional characters acting out the parts Forester thought they would play. You begin the book knowing how it ends but feel yourself so hauled along by the desperation and fighting hunger of both sides that you end the read astonished to see the Bismarck sinking beneath flame and smoke, and glad of it.
Here is the story of the Luftwaffe’s repeated bombing attacks on Coventry, a critical center for aircraft and machine parts production in Britain in World War II, leading to the horrific destruction of the city in a massive 12 hour bombing raid. This is a terrific story well told. But it says a good deal more worth knowing about the British government’s anticipation of war as early as 1933 and its intelligent and rapid preparation of Britain’s military and industry for combat. It also tells of the decades-long rebuilding of the city after one ghastly night of war.
For those of us raised on the legend and the audio recordings of Churchill’s great war speeches, this book is a revelation. And too long. To learn that many of these speeches, now so revered, were only modestly received by his domestic listeners is a surprise. It does not take 230 pages of text to tell that story. A brief essay would have done as well, and been more startling for a tighter focus. But the book also is a history of World War II from the perspective – sometimes powerful, sometimes confused, sometimes dissembling – of these speeches. And for that it is a terrific read, and 230 pages are not enough.
Chapter 3, “Rocket Man,” is an exploration of the morality of the U.S. Army’s post-war “rehabilitation” of Wernher von Braun, father of the V-2 rockets loosed on London and other European cities in Hitler’s effort at asymmetric warfare to stave off German defeat in World War II. Dyson as a moral man makes a good case for post-war reconciliation as essential. Dyson the scientist makes an equally good case for the importance to the world of our exploiting von Braun’s scientific achievements to create the space ships that took us to the Moon and will take humans out into the galaxy one day. Although both arguments leave me uncomfortable and unconvinced, Dyson, as always, is worth hearing out.
This is a terrific story of the clever and determined yet surprising rise of a virtual nobody to become the most successful and richest warrior/politician of the Middle Ages, with plenty of technical details of individual combat and military strategy and execution. Asbridge’s account is close to an annotated version of what appears to be the first, and near-contemporary, biography of a medieval knight – The History of William Marshal – written in 1226. Asbridge’s writing tends to be flat, but the excitement of the facts he piles up carries along the story.
La Haye Sainte ranks with Rorke’s Drift and the Alamo as huge little battles that show how a few determined men can stonewall the ambitions of vastly larger forces. The 2nd Light Battalion, King’s German Legion held the old farmstead so desperately on June 18, 1815, and for so long they thwarted Napoleon’s attack plan on Wellington and bought time for the arrival on the field of the Prussian army that finally decided Waterloo. The book is small but based on previously unused eyewitness accounts, and they are terrific accounts.
The tenth and only volume yet translated into English of Kempowski’s monumental collection of firsthand accounts, mostly by ordinary people, of life in the furious last days of the Third Reich. Swansong gives you the gut punch you need to more fully grasp 1945 from the perspective of the ordinary people – Berlin housewives, invading Russian infantrymen, French P.O.W.s, stranded Belgian children, death camp victims stunned to be have survived – who suffered through that terrible year. Few speak of anything but terror and dread, except for a German sailor on the day Germany surrendered who recalled “[I] decided to shoot myself…but it would be extremely interesting to know what happened next.” (p. 316)
Here is a wonderful cherry-picking of events of ordinary life in Britain and Belgium as they contrast with scenes of dreadful combat on the Waterloo battlefield on June 18, 1815, when Napoleon’s career of conquest was finally smashed. A good and, strange to say, light read that sketches the battle and the wars that led to Waterloo but concentrates on human incident away from the battlefield that shows the world stumbling toward a post-war world of error and disappointment. And into the “anesthetic of victory” that made Britain’s military leadership unprepared to fight World War I.
The beauty of reading a very short history of World War I written by a great scholar out of his many years of study and thought is that his big conclusions pop out of the text and you cannot miss them. Or avoid them. Americans tend to overlook too much about the Great War, seeing it only in the shadow of our experience of World War II. This book is a sharp antidote to that narrow view. Plus Howard’s clean, direct narrative is electrifying as it piles on events and ideas with the fury and puzzlement that must have been felt by the people of the time.
This is not a book about war but about wars, and about what the release of thousands of previously unpublished letters written by Napoleon reveal of his thinking about everything to do with war. That alone makes it fresh and worth a read. More important, the author opens new perspectives on Napoleon’s failure at Waterloo – a battle he should have won – that blow out of the water Napoleon’s great maxim that “only a fool learns by experience.” At Waterloo, Napoleon, likely exhausted after too many sleepless nights of running battles, forgot too much of what he proudly claimed to have learned in academic study of war, or simply ignored what his enemies had taught him in battle experience. If Napoleon could fail as he did, what us?
Fascinating statistical survey of World War II in infographics, some of which have been so simplified as to be hard to understand. But the statistical analysis of relative power capacities between Germany and Russia at the Battle of Kursk, the greatest tank battle ever fought, is itself worth the price of the book, and a reminder that political and military leaders choosing war need to consider the enemy’s logistical capacity – and determination to use it – before succumbing to their own dreams of conquest. While my copy of the text included one pasted-in error correction (p. 117), other errors remained uncorrected.
The United States’ recent bitter national experience shows there may be only a half dozen U.S. flag rank officers worth their stars and capable of winning wars. Gen. Tony Zinni is in their top tier. This book shows why. It demonstrates a man with the broadest capacity to see, to understand what he is seeing and to learn. And to tell the rest of us about it in language that is clear and forceful. The key to the book comes on its last page when Zinni says, “a new crisis appears on the horizon and we begin the cycle all over again, having failed to learn the hard lessons that time and again have stared us in the face.” This book is about breaking that cycle. It needs to be read by everyone with the power to make war, and that includes the U.S. taxpayer.
This is a book that ought to be in every U.S. classroom for American history. It is a hard and bitter book to read but it lays out a good deal of the truth about the Vietnam war years and provides an important assessment of the impact those years had and continue to have in reshaping American national identity. The book is not perfect; some readers will consider it displays some bias. But a veteran of that war and that era can say, Schoolkids need to read this book as antidote to the bloodless half-truths they read in their officially-sanctioned history text books. Then those kids can know that the National Guard general who told the distraught soldiers who had just fired on and killed unarmed student protestors at Kent State on May 4, 1970, that “You did what you had to do” (p.189) is bullshit. So, too, is too much of what modern Americans want to believe about that war and its 1960s.
For a fuller understanding of the era and the impact Vietnam and the civil rights movement had on each other and the changing U.S. identity, schoolkids should read At Canaan’s Edge: America in theKing Years 1965-68 by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, 2006) as a companion to American Reckoning.
A clearly presented and dynamic history full of telling anecdote about the spring of 1915 in which submarines (the sinking of the Lusitania), dirigibles (the first blitz on London) and poison gas (Second Battle of Ypres) were first employed large-scale by German forces against the Allies’ combat and home fronts, and about the radical changes these made in the way all future wars would be fought. The book’s theme is spoken in Churchill’s remark in 1940 that, “In the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women.” (p.273) A cynical and bitter, and too true, comment on the evolution of war-making.
For veterans returning from any war, here is a cautionary tale about the disinterest, puzzlement and fear with which your fellow citizens are likely to regard you, and forget all that rote “thank you for your service” nonsense you hear these days. A fascinating book stuffed with telling anecdote about Union veterans trying to find their place in the itchy aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, and too often failing in suicide, riot and crime. And the veterans’ fear, almost expectation, that in a few years they would have to fight the war over again to fully destroy rebellion and complete the freeing of the enslaved.
Reading this excellent book is a bitter experience for two reasons. First, it is very likely to change to some degree your long-held anger at the generals and politicians who mis-led the Allies against the Central Powers in “The Great War for Civilization,” 1914-18, and caused vast slaughter of ground troops. It may make you think better of those politicians and generals because they did pretty well in circumstances few of them fully understood. Second, you may have to admit to yourself that the modern “war of nations” that World War I initiated (after Sherman’s March to the Sea) can never be anything but a war of attrition – of troops, of the capacity to outproduce war materiel, of noncombatant women and children. And that is a bitter admission.
Philpott’s is a book that ought to be read with a copy of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 1975) handy. Fussell gives heart and a bitterly ironic view to the wretchedness of what it meant for a ground soldier as the inevitable war of attrition was developed and promoted around him and to him.
This book is a delightful dictionary of the weird and wonderful words and songs used on the Western Front in World War I to describe the indescribable and to explain the bizarrely mundane. “Furphy” for a half-lie, “terrier crop” for an army haircut and “van blank” (vin blanc) are words too good not to keep using. Also told me that half the slang I had thought invented in and for my war in Vietnam was just a hangover from 50 years before.
Everybody has to love a good revenge story (Shakespeare did) and this is one of the best. About U.S. Naval aviators attacking Japanese aviators over Midway in 1942 to reek revenge for Pearl Harbor, and winning the United States’ first great victory in the war in the Pacific. Lots of great anecdote here and some heartfelt follow on with survivors years later.
A great read about how the United States built itself into the industrial power that supported all Allied armies in fighting the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, with a focus on Ford Motor Company’s astonishing bomber-an-hour production ambition that produced half of all B-24 Liberators flown in World War II. Gives a very different perspective on Henry Ford. The book has some problems – it is based largely on secondary sources and the writer’s reading of those sources may be a bit too broad. But the larger story it tells is terrifically exciting.
I never tire reading about D-Day, its preparation and fulfillment. This book is full of on-the-beach anecdotes that bring the story even more fully alive. A lot of it is from the British perspective, which makes the book even more interesting for an American reader. It’s a light read, the kind of book you can dip into wherever you like, and so requires the reader to have a broad understanding of what happened on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944 to really appreciate its stories.
Despite the subtitle, this is not quite the “real” story behind the U.S. use of the first atom bombs against two Japanese cities in 1945. Ham argues the bombings were unnecessary to end the war and U.S. decisionmakers knew it. The driving power of new technologies, domestic politics, hate and a frantic determination to end the Pacific war before the Soviets could intervene and take some of the spoils all were, he believes, the truer motives. His book is full of fascinating detail and anecdote in support of his thesis. But it does not convince. Ham argues that Japanese militarists, who may or may not have acknowledged they already had lost the war, would never agree to “unconditional surrender.” He says the U.S. should have known Japan better and changed U.S. terms to something workable. But the Japanese should have known the U.S. better before Pearl Harbor.
Just when you think you’ve heard all possible Nazi atrocities, a book comes along to tell you only a fool can think there are limits to the horrors one human being can inflict on another. This is one of those books. About the first four men brutally murdered at the newly opened Dachau Concentration Camp in 1933. Of the early victims who followed them. And of the courageous anti-Nazi prosecutor who tried to win them all some justice in a German judicial and political system increasingly corrupted by sadistic lunatics. Read this book and weep in your fury.
If you’ve had the misfortune to live under a totalitarian regime, you will understand much better why there were so very few Germans willing or even consciously focused on resisting their Nazi masters and Nazi ideology. This book, full of telling anecdote, tells that story while it describes the few efforts made first by ordinary people and then, when the war was evidently lost, by the military to free Germany of its savage rulers and spare the country from annihilation. Despite his disclaimer, Randall Hansen may go a bit too far in suggesting there was very much rebellion. But any resistance to Hitler meant there remained in Germany a moral core that the mad corporal could not quench.
This is the story of a warfront unfamiliar to many people – Hungary, 1914-15, as told by a 29 year old artist conscripted to be an infantry officer (he’s the fellow in white in the lower left of the cover photo), giving up his easy life and caring family to be wounded in the head in his first major combat. The story of war medicine and the immediate care of wounded in 1914-15 is grim and ghastly. The writer’s perhaps unconscious description of the impact of class on who dies in combat is equally grim. Of war, he writes what every soldier thinks: “I believe that the world would look on unconcerned if the whole of mankind wiped itself out. It would create others. They might be cleverer.”
Here’s another book to make you furious with the human race – a short history of the Gestapo and its military and police supports, including those in Nazi-conquered territory and Nazi-allied countries, and the new research that gives a deeper understanding and meaning to the Gestapo’s story of political murder, torture, lies and genocide. As bitterly frustrating as it is to read of the post-World War II escape from justice of most Gestapo agents and leaders, even more bitter is the book’s penultimate line: “The individual agents are often not aware of any moral guilt, but are rather convinced that they are doing the right thing.”
Here is another story of the arrogance and blinkeredness of command and of the ground troops who must pay for those errors. A story full of telling anecdote yet oddly bland in style. The whole story of what happened at the siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968 – giving a fair view from both sides in one volume – is yet to be written. Meantime, this book can do. I was a young soldier en route to Khe Sanh when bizarre luck sent me to a lesser killing ground, and this story makes me thank God for it.
This is a powerful and enraging book. A non-fiction graphic novel about the most decorated U.S. Army regiment in World War I and the first soldiers of any army to reach the Rhine. But a black regiment the U.S. Army refused to include in its frontline, so it fought with the French. An old soldier reading this has to wonder just how criminally stupid any army can be that it refuses to use all of the resources at hand to defeat barbarism. Perhaps asking the question is the answer. The illustrations are terrific, and they mean that your kids, seeing you read this book, might possibly think you’re not so un-cool, after all. Maybe.
A harrowing book about the relationship between food and strategy, and the use of forced starvation as a strategy. It tells of the 20 million people who were starved to death during the war and immediately after by the vast food shortages (what we, in our weak modern language, call “food insecurity”) that followed the war’s destruction of agricultural and transport systems and human energy and compassion. Though not densely written, it reads densely and that detracts from its bitter message.
This is a brilliant book. This is a terrible book. About the mass murders of Nazism and Communism 1933-1945 in the wretched territories that lay between them and which those savage movements sought to conquer. Reading this book will make you demented with fury — not just at Hitler and Stalin, their copycats and filthy minions, but with yourself — because you share a species with them. Ghastly as the story is, it is made more horrific in the audiobook read by Ralph Cosham, whose voice and style bring to it an immediacy and power the printed page cannot.
Here is the story of a great country that prides itself on ideas having run out of ideas. Of the intellectual and moral catastrophe — masquerading as national revival — that preceded the military collapse of France under German invasion in 1940. And of the bitter subversion of French thought after the debacle of the First World War that allowed Marshal Philippe Petain to say that only the heroic surrender of France to Hitler could save the idea of France. But a France that was anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and scornful of heroes — foremost Charles de Gaulle – who believed in continuing the fight for the truer dream of France. This is a bitter and horrifying story, but a must-read book.
A powerful and beautiful, and beautifully translated, narrative by a soldier who understood his private suffering in the broader context of great shifting events. But the few pages describing Lt. Santini, a pair of wirecutters, an Austrian machinegun, and the savage stupidity of a commander willing to waste lives make the hot core of the narrative’s true story.
Eri Hotta says this is “the improbable story of how the war came to pass” for Japan – a story of willful ignorance, arrogance and refusal to understand the enemy, or pretty much the reasons most wars begin – but this book describes something bigger: The too human story of a national drive toward war that even those who oppose war feel compelled to join. Admiral Yamamoto, navy commander and architect of December 7, was against going to war with the U.S. in 1941, but he wanted to lead the attack.
Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe, 1944-5 by John Buckley (Yale University Press, 2013)
Here’s an argument that makes absurd the too-common assumption that the British army in the war’s last year was not up to the task of beating the wehrmacht. It was, and not simply because the army was intelligently handled, used its artillery as they key to winning and displayed a cold-blooded determination. But because Montgomery and his generals had a capacity the Germany army conspicuously lacked — the ability to to think “through” individual success or failure to the larger end. I am no fan of Monty’s, and perhaps no American student of that war can be, but he fought an enemy whose battle strategy was, at base, opportunistic, and he beat them because he did not think of battles but of campaigns.
A grim and terrific story of the courage, decency and ingenuity of stretcher bearers, combat doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the grimmest war in the last 100 years. What the story makes most surprising to a veteran of any more recent war is the scorn heaped on stretcher bearers by soldiers about to go over the top. But the moment finally came when fighting men realized what all soldiers must recognize — the bravest of us is the medic without a rifle on that same battlefield.
Here’s the Battle of the Bulge from the foxhole view of the recon platoon that stood up against the spear point of Hitler’s Panzer armies and, with courage and determination, bought the time needed for an unprepared U.S. Army to gather men and weapons to counterattack in the biggest and bloodiest battle American soldiers fought in World War II.
I first read this book in Belgium and thought it a grand story, grander still when I toured the battlefield and saw firsthand that hard ground. Just now re-read it when my doctor said he’d met one of the survivors of this ASTP platoon. I’m going to ask my doc to introduce me, so I can say I shook his hand.
Here are Grossman’s reporter’s notes, scratched down sometimes under fire and sometimes in the comfort of a bunker under bombardment, with plenty of helpful contextual materials. But nothing prepares the reader for the power of Grossman’s story of the colossal Russian battle against the superior and genocidal invading armies of Hitler. You can read in many other places the details of how better Russian generals, rapidly improving Russian armor and fighting aircraft, and U.S. and British fighting machines and supplies eventually turned the tide on the Eastern Front. But nowhere can you read more truly the story of the suffering and powerfully resisting spirit of Russians and their soldiers.
This book has gotten a lot of good press and all of it is deserved. Showalter tells the story of the greatest tank battle ever fought in a fluid and hard-charging style that doesn’t stint on the details critical to understanding German hubris and Russian unpreparedness, the arrival of Soviet generals who showed their greatness, and of the in-battle development and tactical use of the war’s greatest tank — the T-34.
The publisher really should have noted that the cover image shows the first colossal moments of the battle’s opening.
Here’s the story of the Uboot “happy time” when Nazi submarines had easy pickings on U.S. ships, sinking them in sight of startled bathers on beaches, and of the Lockheed Hudson A-29 bomber that sank the first U-boat lost to the USAAF along the U.S. coast, and of the rescue of 7 surviving submariners from U-701. A story of a pilot who didn’t follow orders and won his fight. Plus, the pilot of that Hudson was the man who set off “The Battle of Los Angeles” when he overflew the city without warning and set off a flurry of antiaircraft fire, making the basis for John Belushi’s manic (and too true) film, 1941.
A good followup read is Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State: German POWs in Florida by Robert D. Billinger, Jr. (University of Florida Press, 2009), which tells the story of U-boat and other prisoners, including U-701’s commander, interned at Camp Blandings outside Jacksonville, Florida.
Overy, one of the great analytical historians of the Second World War, here rehearses in detail the complex arguments for and against the strategic bombing of European cities. But his book’s most important point is simpler and stranger: strategic bombing stiffened — it did not weaken — the resolve to continue the war of those being bombed. But, after the war was done, the experience of being bombed persuaded its victims that they never wanted war again. At least for the moment.