As part of my ongoing search for televised pap to watch in the gym, I decided to check out Band of Brothers, the 2001 HBO miniseries about American paratroopers fighting it out across Western Europe from the beaches of Normandy to Berchtesgaden. The series is based on recollections and memoirs of members of Easy Company, and each episode is prefaced by short interviews with these survivors. Given the names of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the packaging, I was expecting a fairly standard mixture of gung-ho ethnic-comrades war movie and high-tech battle scenes, but it turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected. The characterizations are fairly superficial, but the battle scenes are grisly and harrowing, full of agonizingly random death and disfigurement meted out according to no plan at all. After the battles, the soldiers look drained and slack-jawed, leaving little time for banter about Betty Grable pin-ups. Further, you see American soldiers occasionally doing things that were rarely seen in earlier World War II movies, such as deserting, cowering in terror, going insane from fear, shooting POWs, looting homes, and drunkenly killing their comrades. This is not to say that American troops are portrayed as sadistic marauders — the opposite is true — but that the inhuman stress and anarchy of combat grind down all but the strongest characters.
Impressed with the first series, I watched the follow-up series The Pacific, which focuses on a narrower set of characters. This makes it easier to develop an attachment to each of the three main characters. But as before, it's the battle scenes that pack the most punch. The marines fight on Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa in an inferno of charred rock, stunted trees, decomposing corpses, disease, mud, slime, and flying metal. Mire-encrusted Japanese soldiers pop out seemingly at random, rushing marines in horrifyingly, comically futile banzai charges, only to die in hails of machine-gun fire or gouts of napalm. One of the fine things about these series is the avoidance of patronizing voice-overs. You see the war from a grunt's-eye perspective, and you're told nothing more about their missions than they are.
This means I found myself confronting embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of WWII, so I decided to remedy that by reading a nice solid one-volume history of the war. I settled on Gerhard Weinberg's A World at Arms. I wasn't disappointed. First, to get a few things out of the way: this is not a 'social' or oral history. This is straight-ahead generals'-eye view strategic military history. Further, you will not be stunned at the beauty of Weinberg's prose. Once in a while, Weinberg (a German Jew who emigrated to the US in the late 30s and took part as a US soldier in the occupation of Japan) perpetrates what can only be described as barely-comprehensible German Schachtelsätze (box-within-box sentences full of confusing clauses). But aside from these very occasional lapses, though, the prose is serviceable and clear.
What Weinberg excels at — and really, what the book as a whole is for — is showing the truly global scope of the war. A bombing raid in Europe destroys telephone cables, forcing the Germans to use radio communications, which in turn provides a critical piece of the puzzle to decode German diplomats' dispatches from Japan, shifting the strategic balance halfway across the world. The re-capture of some resource-rich area by the Soviets disrupts supplies of raw material, causing a production crisis that affects the German front as well as a diplomatic push to secure the material from some neutral country, which then reports this information to the Allies, shifting their priorities. American naval power cuts off supplies of gasoline to the southern Japanese fleet, forcing them to rely on unprocessed oil from Borneo that degrades the performance of Japanese warships and causes them to emit gouts of thick smoke visible for miles. It's global war as three-dimensional chess.
This wide perspective buttresses Weinberg's often-blunt assessments of various military and political leaders. Weinberg has a rather dim view of showboats such as Montgomery, Patton, and MacArthur, whose (occasional) battlefield victories were overshadowed by the unnecessary conflicts cause by their arrogance. Alanbrooke, Marshall, Arnold, Nimitz and Eisenhower get better marks, not only for their strategic insight but also for their understanding that in a war that requires careful management of broad coalitions, a certain amount of humility and respect goes a long way. Churchill, while an inspiring leader, occasionally let his desperate desire to cling to the British empire cloud his judgment. (He wanted to keep Allied forces in the Eastern Mediterranean — near many British colonies — long after the strategic focus should have shifted to the Normandy invasion). Roosevelt comes off as perhaps the most far-sighted political leader, encouraging his subordinates to vigorous debate and making surprisingly sound decisions despite limited information. Stalin, although cunning and remorseless, inspired and forced his countrymen to sacrifices which were vital to the war effort. Weinberg singles out Soviet generals for ingeniuously covering-up the weakness of their infantry by skilled and bold use of artillery (especially the 'Stalin organ') and excellent tanks.
Weinberg draws heavily on the memoirs and other papers of British general Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, whom Weinberg argues is perhaps the most-underrated military figure of World War II. Since I'd never heard of him before, I was confused by the mixed references to Alan Brooke and then someone named Alanbrooke, but that's what Google is for. Weinberg doesn't have much time for moral debates. He writes from the perspective of the practical and hard-headed men fighting and planning the war. As soon as the Nazis had started indiscriminate bombing in Poland, Rotterdam, and London, the Allies felt, they had given up any real right to complain. Weinberg also argues for the effectiveness of widespread bombing. It didn't break civilian morale, but it wasn't primarily intended to do that. Once the Allies figured out that they had to repeatedly bomb the same targets to keep them off-line, the bombing severely degraded Germany's war-fighting capacity. Further, the massive bombing of Germany was one of the only ways England and the U.S. could help the Soviet Union during its 1941-44 death match with Hitler in the East. Weinberg also has praise for the Allied strategy in the Pacific — instead of trying to free every island in the Japanese empire, the allies simply skipped the less important emplacements and established themselves nearer to Japan. This caught the Japanese by surprise and left thousands of soldiers stranded beyond supply lines with no way to effectively attack the Allied rear. Weinberg is particularly good on submarine combat. The Germans' superior tactics and technology enabled them to inflict heavy losses on Allied shipping until advanced countermeasures such as 'Huff-Duff' and Leigh lights began turning the tide.
America's full entry into the war in 1941, Weinberg shows, started a countdown clock for the Axis powers. America's huge industrial capacity, well beyond the reach of attack, meant that the longer the war lasted, the more lopsided the Allied material advantage would become. Even significant American strategic mistakes, such as the policy of sending green replacements to the Western European front before they were ready, couldn't change this dynamic. This ticking clock forced the Axis powers into strategic gambles designed to achieve some sort of separate peace on one front before American military might could be fully brought to bear. To respond, the Allies early agreed to unanimously demand nothing but unconditional surrender from all foes, a demand that was further justified by the emerging evidence of Axis (especially German) atrocities. Hitler also tried to offset the Allies' growing material advantage by diverting enormous resources into cutting-edge weapons such as advanced submarines which didn't need to surface, unmanned rockets (such as the infamous V-1 and V-2s, which were to be succeeded by ever-more-accurate versions), and supermassive artillery weapons which could only move on railway tracks. Weinberg argues that these programs consumed huge amounts resources while having little practical impact.
As for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Weinberg presents the case not from hindsight, but from the perspective of planners desperate to avoid more hideous battles like Okinawa. FDR (who opposed gas or chemical weapons) essentially saw nuclear weapons as nothing more than ultra-powerful explosives, and would certainly have used them had he survived. Once Stalin was told that the Americans had working bombs, he urged them to drop them on Japan as soon as possible. The Americans had broken most Japanese diplomatic codes and knew the Japanese were putting out peace feelers, but these were not coming from people who had a chance of changing government policy, and in any event stopped well short of accepting unconditional surrender. Even after the bombs had been dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviets had entered the war, it still took Hirohito's personal intervention to force recalcitrant top brass to accept surrender. Even then, they staged a last-minute coup to continue the war which nearly succeeded. The atomic bombings were horrifying and brutal, but no more so than the March 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, which killed upwards of 100,000 people. And the atom bombs did render the invasion of the Japanese home islands — which would have led to millions more deaths — unnecessary. One can spin out counterfactuals about other approaches that could have forestalled an invasion of the home islands, but the overwhelming desire of all Allies was to end the war in the Pacific as soon as possible, and the nuclear weapons seemed the likeliest way to accomplish this. The Germans, for their part, never came close to developing an atom bomb, but had been the first to develop military nerve gas in the 1930s. Hitler was mistakenly informed that the Allies probably also had nerve gas, likely much more of it than Germany did, so he never used it. When the Soviets came across the German nerve gas factory in Poland, they quietly dismantled the entire thing and moved it to Russia. No fools, those Soviets.
Weinberg wraps up with a chapter on the aftermath of the war, which included the biggest short-term mass-migration in history, in which 10-12 million Germans were unceremoniously kicked out of the occupied East and forced to return to their ravaged nation. Stalin set up puppet governments in the countries in his sphere of influence, something that the Allies watched with unease but couldn't do much about. It was the titanic sacrifices of the Soviets, after all, that had enabled the Allies to win. East Germany was put under the control of Communist exiles who had fled to Russia. As Weinberg points out, surviving as an exile amid the show trials and purges in Stalin's Russia required extreme timidity and subservience, so the exiles who returned to take over East Germany on Stalin's behalf were, in Weinberg's words, 'certified blockheads'. The British were originally willing to simply issue warrants for high-ranking Nazis ordering them to be shot on sight, but other Allies thought at least some sort of trial was necessary. Greece, although freed from forced membership in the Eastern Bloc, plunged into civil war. In the most optimistic development, Western Europe began knitting itself together in a so-far successful attempt to prevent a further Continent-wide bloodbath.
A World at Arms does have its flaws. Weinberg's treatment of the South Asian and Chinese theaters never quite comes together into a coherent narrative, and I wanted more direct quotations from historical sources, not Weinberg's paraphrases. Further, his historical judgments (on Neville Chamberlain or Soviet foreign policy, for instance) are starkly expressed. You get the sense that he is settling scores with other historians, but you're not provided with enough detail and context to understand the dispute he's taking a side in, or why you should agree with him. However, remedying these defects would have made the book even longer, and Weinberg's bibliographical essay and notes provide plenty of guidance for those who want to go further. All in all, a splendid read.