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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Second World War’

- - Monday, July 16, 2012

THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Antony Beevor
Little Brown, $35, 885 pages

Antony Beevor makes the reader believe in the impossible: that he could write a history of magisterial authority about the greatest war of modern times and do justice to the global reach of that war.

He makes it possible by capturing the decision-making at the highest level, the strategy of the top military commanders, the tactical problems of unit commanders (down to corps and division commanders) and even the personal experiences of individual participants.

The book is rich in anecdotal detail. The frustrations of indecision, doubts and second thoughts are explored.

Personal conflicts among senior commanders are described in detail and make it clear that these were human beings at work, not wooden figures of history.

The reader is struck again and again by the unalterable rule of war. Every decision must be made on imperfect information. It is universal experience to know too little about the enemies' intentions and dispositions.

One is bowled over by the difficulty the West faced in preparing for war: conscripting and training the personnel, procuring the equipment, reorganizing industry, finding the right commanders, starting from virtual zero while Germany and Japan had well-developed forces and war plans. Pacifism, timidity, wishful thinking and political opposition all played a part in paralyzing the West from 1937 to 1941. Even the cynical Josef Stalin initially refused to believe reports that German troops had crossed his frontier in June 1941.

Extraordinary cases of petty egotism and misjudgment flourished at the highest level. Some stand out:

* Adolf Hitler adopted a rigid policy of refusing to authorize tactical retreat or surrender, no matter what the cost in lives, thinking that only he had the requisite determination to win. At and after Stalingrad, this policy cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops.

* The German high command neglected to order winter clothing and equipment in 1941, on the assumption that the war in Russia would be over before cold weather set in (having started in late June).

* Stalin became so jealous of Gen. Georgy Zhukov's heroism in defending Leningrad that he was reluctant to make him a marshal and reduced his responsibility during the battle for Berlin.

* Stalin regarded retreat as treason and imprisoned hundreds of thousand Russian soldiers who were rescued from German prison camps.

* Winston Churchill's obsession with Greece and the Balkans led to assigning troops to useless sideshows with serious losses at a time that Britain could ill afford them.

* The personal ambition and vanity of Gen. Mark W. Clark and Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery became serious obstacles to effective command in Italy (Clark) and France (Montgomery).

* President Roosevelt's failure to understand the nature of Stalin, the Soviet system and Stalin's postwar aims was a serious failing. In the last year or two of the war, FDR was a fatally ill man with fading mental and physical faculties who was losing touch with reality. Did it make a difference on the ground in dealing with Stalin? Probably not. Barring a resort to nuclear weapons, the United States and Britain had neither the military nor political means to divert Stalin from his aims. The Soviet army had possession -- "nine-tenths of the law" -- as the saying goes, of Central and Eastern Europe.

* Roosevelt's exaggerated view of Chiang Kai-shek as a fighting ally and a stable force in China led to many unnecessary frustrations in the war against Japan.

Mr. Beevor does not spare us immersion in the visitation of the horrors of war upon civilians, nor should he have, if World War II is to be accurately understood. The book reveals:

* The inhumanity of Japanese troops in their gratuitous slaughter of civilians and prisoners of war, including the use of prisoners for live bayonet practice. It also included the deliberate policy of saving prisoners, particularly on bypassed islands and bases, for cannibalism in the event stores of provisions ran out.

* The enormous scope of mass murder of prisoners and civilians by the German SS and the Hungarian Arrow Cross in areas of occupation, amounting to millions.

* The continental scale of mass rape of civilians by Soviet troops, particularly in their sweep westward across Poland and Germany.

* The effort by the German Nazi Party and army officials to maintain order in Berlin during the last months of the war by frequent use of executions on the street of individuals thought to be seeking escape from the Russians or deserting from their defense units. The use of "flying courts martial" became a deterrent as the Russians drew near.

Mr. Beevor does not slight his report of war against the Japanese, by land, air and sea. He reports the skepticism of Adm. Ernest King regarding the need to assault so many island bases of the Japanese in the Philippines, when bypassing them might have shortened the war and saved lives. But he wisely stops short of taking sides in the argument, given the difficulty of proving the merit of decisions never made.

In this reviewer's view, the author's conscientious effort to set out jarring and comprehensive truths imposes on the reader an obligation to read in the same spirit, to respect the size of the undertaking and not look for corroboration of the reader's pet theses, favorite heroes or villains. The immensity of the events and the seriousness of the effort to report them dwarf such personal hobbyhorses. Mr. Beevor's book gives us the opportunity to comprehend the greatest, most dire event of the 20th century -- and tells us more about human nature than we may wish to know.

David C. Acheson is a former president and CEO of the Atlantic Council of the United States.