Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On "The Second World War" by John Keegan ****

I'm starting of a list of best sellers of the World War II era with several books of history about the war, before I launch into the actual best sellers. The idea is to look at how a "total war" might impact the kinds of books that sell and that people read during it. It seems to me like here in the United States, during my life, even when we are at war, the entertainment industry goes along as always and whatever war we're fighting is almost just background. Could the same be said of World War II, one of the most all-out wars that this nation has fought, where every resource, it seemed, was devoted to victory in Europe and Japan?

Keegan's book is a useful and largely traditionalist account of and introduction to World War II (he tends to discount revisionists who might claim that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened or that Truman wanted so badly to test the nuclear bomb that he ignored any possibility that the Japanese might surrender before it was dropped, etc., and discounting such claims seems a wise thing to do in a book that aims to tell a basic but thorough history).

Keegan starts by discussing the causes of the war, going back to the days before the first world war, showing how industrialization, conscription, and even democracy changed the way in which war was waged. Healthier people meant there were more young men to fight--and to die--as population in Europe exploded. Industrialization meant that the means and capacity to make weapons was greatly enhanced (indeed, many weapons, prior to the atomic bomb, were thought to be the weapon that would, in a sense, end war-making ability of nations, since there seemed no good defense against it, be it a gun or a tank--but each time, defensive weapons and strategies have been found, and war has continued, with even more bloody results). More-productive economies meant there was more surplus to spend on war and on weapons. Conscription meant that populations could demand a greater voice in governance; and, to reverse the idea, the vote meant that populations shared the blame for government war-making decisions and took part in them, and the general idea of the equality of men meant that armies too became equalizing forces (no longer was the army the realm of nobles alone). Indeed, the mechanization of war also replaced the strong man as the greatest fighter with the smart man as the greatest--the one who could come up with the best new weapons systems.

What also emerges from the book is the incredible toll that the war took on various nations, particularly Russia, Poland, Germany, and Japan. The reasons for the war are also explored. Hitler, it seems, was in large part out for revenge, which seems a terrible way to run a nation. He was also after greater resources (one reason to invade the USSR). Japan, too, was after resources. There, the Japanese felt hamstrung by the United States because of its various economic policies, which aimed to aid China and which punished Japan for its takeover of Chinese land and other parts of the Asian Pacific. It was the removal of the United States from this sphere that was Japan's goal--and the economic profits it would reap.

In both the cases of Japan and the Germany, it seems to me as if the steps toward war were ill thought out, seeing as they had far fewer resources on which to draw. Hitler thought Britain could be worn down to side with him; he thought the USSR could be crippled by his swift action. Japan thought the United States could be pushed off as well. But the USSR and the United States both had resources far beyond the Axis powers. The USSR moved its factories out of Germany's way and thus continued to build tanks and bombs even after Germany had marched nearly to Moscow. The United States, although having a paltry navy at the start of the war that was fairly well damaged at Pearl Harbor, had great capacity to catch up quickly.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had points where the war could have taken a turn for the significantly worse, but I tend to think that such would have merely prolonged the war rather than shifted the winning side. One great fortuitous happening for the United States happened at Midway Island. Had Japan successfully managed to sink the U.S. fleet there, the United States would have had significant difficult mounting a counterattack, as its foothold in the Pacific would have been compromised. Likewise, had Hitler not insisted on holding on to Stalingrad so long, the German army might not have taken on so many losses in Russia. But really, it seems to me that had Germany not attacked Russia and had Japan not attacked the United States, Britain would have fallen (indeed, Britain likely would have fallen had the United States not entered the war), and the world would be much different today.

Interesting chapters in this book deal with strategic dilemmas of individual leaders. What also emerges is a view of each leader, three of whom were very invested in military matters. Roosevelt, by contrast, let his military men do most of the work and make most of the decisions--and even seemed to have a kind of distaste for war (an irony, since Hitler thought Roosevelt the reason the United States had gone to war--that is, that the people themselves had little stomach for it).

In the end, Keegan denotes that the war's terrible consequences may have discouraged large-scale war from ever happening again. I tend to think that is highly optimistic.

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