The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won
By Victor Davis Hanson
(Basic Books, 652 pages, $40)
Yes, Virginia, after thousands of books, lectures, debates, veteran memoirs, and documentaries, there is still something to say about World War II that advances our knowledge of that tragic, deadly and totally unnecessary world conflagration that claimed 65 million lives and changed the shape of the world. Military historian and Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson says it in his huge, dense, and important new book.
As I struggle in my office to capture Hanson’s analytical tour de force in review, I can see the shelf full of books on World War II that I’ve read over the decades. After reading Wars, I believe I have a firmer grasp of the big picture — very big picture indeed — of how this conflict began, the various tortuous paths it took, and how it resolved the way it did than after digesting all of these other volumes. Reviewers are sometimes over-quick to label a book essential. For readers who wish to fully understand World War II, this book is.
Readers will have to set aside some time to get through Wars. There is meat on every one of the 529 pages of text, and it can be thought-provoking. This is not a book to rush through. If you plan to read this one on an airline flight, it better be a long one. But for all the weight, length, and relentless analysis of Wars, the reader’s job is made easier by Hanson’s clear and persuasive prose.
First, about the book’s title, Wars, plural. This is because the world’s first truly global conflict took place in so many starkly different places, involving so many different nations, which were in the war, voluntarily or not, for so many different reasons. In Russia, Northern Europe, and the Aleutians, soldiers fought frostbite as well as foreign enemies. In islands of the South Pacific, men of all armies and navies fought in triple-digit temperatures and soldiers and Marines had to share foxholes with spiders the size of hubcaps. Alliances shifted through the course of the war. And the combatant countries had different strategies based on the threat to them, their military assets, the form of government and the political and military leadership they either enjoyed or suffered from. The Axis countries seemed to have no long-range strategy beyond attacking or declaring war on powerful countries whom they lacked the military and industrial assets or the fuel resources to defeat.
Davis shows, as many previous writers have, how the world’s most destructive war was totally avoidable. A combination of European appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration, aided by miscalculations and poor readings of the other side by both the allies and the Axis powers, finally set the match to a war in September of 1939 that with a little resolve and action could have been headed off years before.
In the end, the Allies prevailed over the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, and the Imperial Japanese Navy because they were able to produce weapons and implements of war, as well as the trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen to put them to best use at a large multiple of what the Axis powers were able to do. America and Britain had the long-range, heavy bombers required for strategic bombing. The Germans and Japanese didn’t. The allies had the transport planes and the large Navy required to put large concentrations of troops on enemy shores. The Axis didn’t. The allies had access to the oil necessary to fuel their military machines while the Axis armies and navies were always fuel-starved. The allies had the men and the means to put an end to the Axis powers’ ability to wage war. The Axis powers could not return the favor. Strategic bombing was able to hit the Axis industrial and transportation assets. Neither Germany nor Japan even dreamed of bombing Detroit.
The allied powers, some personality conflicts and a few strategic disagreements aside, were largely able to coordinate their efforts and assets. The Axis powers almost never collaborated, in fact didn’t trust each other. (Why should they? They were too much alike in their untrustworthiness.)
The opening date of World War II is usually fixed at September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But it really didn’t become a world war until 1941, when Germany invaded Russia in June, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor in December, and Hitler and Mussolini, incredibly, declared war on the United States. These actions and decisions were some of the dumbest in the history of warfare, and led to the utter ruin and unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan less than four years later. Before these major and inexplicable actions there had been only a series of border wars in Europe, where Germany attacked and overcame smaller and weak neighboring countries (and France, which wasn’t weak but may as well have been), as well as Japan’s long-running depredations in China.
Davis parses all of this in detail, not in chronological order, but in themes and subjects with chapter titles such as: “Grievances, Agendas, and Methods”; “Old. New, and Strange Alliances”; “The Air Power Evolution”; “Ships and Strategies”; “The Primacy of Infantry”; “The Western and Eastern Wars for the Continent”; “Tanks and Artillery”; “Supreme Command”, and, finally “Why and What Did the Allies Win?”
I hesitated to include this book under the Santa’s Book Bag feature. After all, Christmas is the time of peace on earth, even though there is a distinct shortage of it in all too many precincts. But for the reader on your gift list with an interest in World War II, I’ve found no more thorough and revealing treatment of that enormous and important event than The Second World Wars. This volume should help cement Hanson’s reputation as one of our foremost military historians.