What’s New About the War?

Books Discussed in This Article

Omaha Beach on D-Day

y Jean-David Morvan and Séverine Tréfouël, with drawings by Dominique Bertail, photographs by Robert Capa, and text by Bernard Lebrun, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
First Second/Magnum Photos, 100 pp., $24.99
Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at a meeting of the Pacific War Council, Washington, D.C., June 1942
Popperfoto/Getty Images
Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at a meeting of the Pacific War Council, Washington, D.C., June 1942

It is a publishing phenomenon, for which some of us who are authors have cause to be grateful, that seventy years after the conclusion of World War II, works about the conflict enjoy a popularity second only to cookbooks. This is unsurprising, because it was the greatest event in human history, a saga that offers narratives about a collision between the forces of good and evil much less nuanced—apparently so, at least, to unsophisticated readers—than the modern struggle between militant Islam and the West.

New publications fall into disparate categories. The first is that of sentimental, shamelessly nationalistic titles such as The Greatest Generation (2004) and Flags of Our Fathers (2000), which achieve huge sales but contribute little to historiography. I recall a US Army veteran saying about Stephen Ambrose’s books—superior contributions of this kind—“They make people like me feel real good about themselves.” The late Russell Weigley, author of Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, the excellent 1981 study of the northwest Europe campaign, once observed: “Steve took to raising monuments rather than writing history.” There seems nothing wrong with flag-waving books, so long as we recognize them for what they are.

It is a perennially fascinating question for authors, publishers, and readers, how often the same story can be retold. My first London agent, Graham Watson, in his day the doyen of his trade, said to me back in 1969: “Every biography and history can be reprised every ten years.” Nowadays, the cycle is much shorter than that. Robin Prior’s When Britain Saved the West is a stirring retelling of the saga of 1940, emphasizing the centrality of Winston Churchill, without whom it is likely that any alternative British leader would have parleyed with Hitler. The author is fiercely critical of Franklin Roosevelt, arguing that the US president was “resolute for inaction”; he emphasizes the harsh cash-and-carry terms on which America supplied arms to Britain. Prior is an academic based at Flinders University in South Australia who writes vividly and well.

So does Niall Barr, author of Eisenhower’s Armies, a study of the Anglo-American military relationship in World War II. The author, who teaches war studies at King’s College London, devotes his early chapters to the historic relationship of the British and American armies, first in the Revolutionary War, then in World War I. The central theme of his book, however, is the manner in which a synergy evolved between the two Allied military establishments between 1942 and 1945. Inter-Allied relationships were remarkably good at the operational level, among soldiers and staff officers. Barr argues that historians have focused too much attention on the notorious quarrels between generals, and not enough on the towering fact that…

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