- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

1942: THE YEAR THAT TRIED MEN’S SOULS

By Winston Groom

Atlantic Monthly, $27.50, 459 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER

C.S. Forester’s historical novels about a certain swashbuckler transported me as a boy, so decades later I delighted in sailing through the derring-do-revisited of C. Northcote Parkinson’s faux biography, “The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower.” It contained all of that hero’s serial adventures in one volume, condensed and told with new economy — the very assets that seem promised in “1942,” a book of condensed historical fact. Here I might relive America’s awakening after Pearl Harbor, the horrors of Corregidor, the surprise of Midway, the reprisal of Operation Torch, and much more in the year that began so horrendously for the nation, and ended so hopefully as our military forces gained strength, experience and success.

This book had every reason to be a winner: a serious work by an established author with good credentials (including one Pulitzer nomination); a volume bearing the honored colophon of one of the nation’s oldest publishers. But at best it reiterates the high points of the pivotal year 1942 — no mean trick — and serves as a kind of primer or almanac for easy reference, a rehash at flank speed.

On its face, the book appears to have been written too fast, then rushed to press before editing. How else to explain the surfeit of footnotes containing material that deserves to be included in the main text? For example: Japan’s high command meant “to create an ‘incident’ that would lure the U.S. Fleet across the Pacific where, cut off from its bases* and harassed for thousands of miles by Japanese submarines and warplanes … it would finally be destroyed … in Japanese waters.?”

The first footnote in this single sentence names those U.S. bases, Hawaii, Wake, Guam, etc. The second reads: “Interestingly, this was also in fact the strategic plan of the U.S. Navy, not including of course the part about being sunk by the Japanese.” It would seem the book was line edited, perhaps even typeset, before the hurried author checked his work, took the time to entertain second thoughts, and went back to flesh it all out. The effect is an erratic read: One must digest a footnote on almost every other page because the information in these notes is usually closely relevant, not tangential.

Deep in the book a gratuitous metaphor gives away the underlying problem. In explaining the genesis of Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raid on Tokyo (which did nothing strategically but boosted America’s morale and unsettled Japan’s), the author writes: “Then one cold January day a month after the war began, as brilliant ideas so often do, a lightbulb clicked on over the head of a certain navy captain … .” My guess is that about 60 years later a lightbulb clicked on over the head of a certain author or editor or literary agent while enjoying a very good lunch with one or both of the others. Eureka, says one of them over the pino grigio, let’s join in the WWII redux that was invented by Studs Terkel, revised by Stephen Ambrose and revived by Tom Brokaw and others.

The idea for the book — reprise a crucial, pivotal year — is smart, but its execution hasty and the editing inept if not absent. A sharp pencil could have fixed the lazy clichs and bald misstatements such as these: “By early May 1942 [prior to the battle at Midway], Admiral Chester Nimitz knew he had the tiger by the tail” and Pearl Harbor should have been protected by “barrage balloons suspended from cables.” Just as wrongheaded are the lack of chapter titles that would help orient the reader and the slapdash graphic design which, among other shortcomings, boasts a cluster of seven maps in five distinct styles.

Worst is the neo-jingoism. Comparing Japan’s infamous surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941 to our era’s September 11, the foreword trumpets “the present war against international terrorism — a world war in every sense of the word.” This, I believe, trivializes the unique, titanic, global military onslaught that “the greatest generation” faced and defeated.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor was not just a very nasty blow by suicidal psychopaths in a nebulous network who got aid and comfort from a few West hating, retrograde theocracies. To the contrary, World War II arose from an integrated campaign by the duly constituted governments of a consortium of industrial nations intent on world conquest. The Axis bloc was an aggressor with a character and magnitude that Al Qaida could only dream of.

Winston Groom writes, “One point of this story [of 1942] is to recall for the reader what Americans can do when they get mad and set their minds to something.” That jejune boast might be excused as a slip of the pen by an author racing to meet a deadline after writing 150,000 words of historical summary. In fact, the self-sacrificing patriots who saved our world by beating Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan deserve brighter credit, just as our present challenges around the globe deserve a higher order of analysis, and the very different dilemmas we face today deserve more inventive solutions. Moreover, while an author might be forgiven lapses into hyperbole and misstatement, the job of an editor is to catch that kind of thing in the process of offering constructive criticism and saving the writer from himself.

In this, Atlantic Monthly Press’s editor class resembles the brass of our Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor on the morning of that Sunday “which shall live in infamy.” Charged to be vigilant, they were asleep. Finally (and hoping to end this screed not with a bang but a salvo of quibbles) the author of the Forrest Gump novels (and some serious histories) lards his yarn with usages that range from odd to heterodox to plain wrong. He refers to the IG Farben industrial empire as “octopustic,” to the historian Samuel Eliot Morison as “Dr.” (rather than the accepted “Admiral”), and in several instances when describing a modern steam powered warship changing course he has it “come about.” Sure as tides rise, Forester and Parkinson got the maritime terminology right. “1942” made me want to go back to read Hornblower again, sagas set in the days when sails were square and men were salts.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc. is the author of a prehistory of North America and an autoritative history of Colonial Williamsburg.

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