The Epic Madness of World War II
WAR IS inherently dramatic, but military histories can be dull. Often written from the generals’ viewpoint, many traditional accounts of famous battles and campaigns mire the reader in a blur of unrecognizable geography and confusing unit identifications (the Third Regiment of the Second Division of the Fourth Army, etc.). These tomes are somehow arid and lifeless as well as dull; they make death and suffering abstract.
In his 1976 book The Face of Battle, the great modern military historian John Keegan established a new standard. Keegan, who died recently at seventy-eight, set out to tell what battle is really like from the perspective of the combatants, from the lowliest foot soldier to the field commanders. Among other eye-openers, he documented that armies and navies often permitted—or encouraged—their men to drink a tot or two of alcohol before going into battle to bolster courage or at least numb fear. Keegan’s in-the-trenches approach enormously influenced the telling of military history. Drawing from diaries and letters as well as official after-action reports, he showed that it was possible to be scholarly and analytical but also vivid and personal when writing about the conduct of war. Military historians now routinely describe the visceral sensations of combat, once considered unseemly—the terrible sights and smells, the human sensations of men engaged in mortal struggle, and the horrible toll imposed on the women and children caught in the middle.
An interesting question is whether these you-are-there books make war more or less seductive. In 2007, at an Aspen Ideas Festival, I watched with fascination as the novelist and writer Tobias Wolff struggled to explain why war continues to be appealing despite its ugliness, especially to young men uncertain about their manhood. In a memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, Wolff had written about his own decidedly unheroic experience as an army officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Wolff tried to bring out the pettiness, meanness and tedium of his time as a combat soldier, occasionally in danger but more often engaged in morally dubious activities such as trading TV sets for war souvenirs. But readers still found romance and bravery in his tale. “What is the weird attraction of war?” Wolff asked the audience in Aspen. He answered his own question: war has an “aesthetic quality,” however grotesque, as well as undeniable narrative power. Wolff noted that whole generations of novelists have written antiwar books that overtly seek to tell young men, “Don’t do this!” but end up subtly encouraging them to test themselves.