Annual Military History Roundup: Part 2 | October 15, 2012


Roberts, Andrew. Love, Tommy: Letters Home from the Great War to the Present Day. Osprey. 2012. c.272p. illus. index. ISBN 9781849087919. $25.95. HIST

Drawn from collections housed at London’s Imperial War Museum, this volume brings together missives by British and other Commonwealth service personnel from World War I to the current war in Afghanistan. Roberts (The Storm of War) offers introductory essays that summarize the conflicts in an admirably concise way as well as biographical information about each letter writer. The letters have a running theme of missing home and longing for family and creature comforts, whether the writer is in 1914 France or 2004 Iraq. Some are surprisingly mundane given the writer’s circumstances, and others touchingly poignant. Photographs of some of the letter writers are welcome and add to the reading experience. One woman, a nurse in Aden (now Yemen) in 1965, is represented. Other letters here were written during the Malayan Emergency, the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, and the Falklands War. (No examples from the conflict in Northern Ireland, however.) VERDICT For general readers interested in the more personal side of war.—MHF


Nelson, James Carl. Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I. St. Martin’s. Nov. 2012. c.384p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780312604233. $26.99. HIST

Nelson (The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War) makes extensive use of primary sources to tell the story of five men from different backgrounds, all Harvard educated, who served as officers in the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I France. He draws on their “voluminous” and, more important, uncensored letters and diaries to paint a larger picture of the experience of war. The soldiers describe the misery of life in the trenches in vivid detail, but there are also notes of humor and depictions of strong friendships. The officers’ roles in the Battle of Cantigny, the first American offensive of the war, are prominently featured. ­VERDICT Nelson’s habit of putting thoughts in his subjects’ heads (e.g., “He…detect[ed] no sound but his own heartbeat”) may not be for every reader, and more traditional endnotes would have been welcome, but this is a well-researched and touching work that should please World War I history buffs.—MHF


starred review starBeevor, Antony. The Second World War. Little, Brown. 2012. c.880p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780316023740. $35. HIST

This latest work by prize-winning historian Beevor (D-Day: The Battle for Normandy) is magisterial in both scope and breadth. Many one-volume World War II histories fail either to grab the attention of the reader or to provide new insights; this is not the case here. Covering both theaters of the war, the causes of the conflict, and some of the immediate aftermath, Beevor provides a strategic overview of the war while adding personal stories and details that keep the book fresh. His approach considers World War II as the global conflict it was (e.g., his discussion of the Russo-Japanese battle of Nomohan), rather than as simultaneous yet separate conflicts, as so many other authors have presented it. He begins with the tale of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean national who ended up fighting in the armies of Japan, the USSR, and Germany. VERDICT Beevor provides a stimulating and informative book recommended for all general readers.—BKD

Brzezinski, Matthew. Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Random. Oct. 2012. c.496p. index. ISBN 9780553807271. $30. HIST

While Poland’s Jewish community was being exterminated by the German and Soviet occupiers, a network of Jews resisted. Isaac Zuckerman, who survived to settle in Israel after the war, left a detailed memoir of the experience. Brzezinski (Red Moon Rising) found other survivors and interviewed them to produce a detailed record of much of the daily life of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and other parts of Poland that had become Germany’s eastern Reich. He discusses the policy changes, social situation, and strategic environment that resistance workers had to deal with, and humanizes the extremely difficult situations these young men and women faced, including the “trade-craft” involved in operating in a rigidly controlled and murderous state. VERDICT Although the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto has been covered before, the author successfully integrates personal and societal elements into a compelling narrative that greatly supplements existing works.—EBB

Dobbs, Michael. Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman—From World War to Cold War. Knopf. Oct. 2012. c.448p. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307271655. $28.95. HIST

Dobbs persuasively locates the beginning of the Cold War in the period roughly between the Yalta Conference of February 1945 and the Potsdam Conference in July, when the victorious Allies met up against the intractable problems of reconciling their divergent interests and war aims. The later confrontations of the Cold War, he says, were adumbrated by early tests of will that took place even before the end of war. The end of the war in Europe, and the prospect of an atomic bomb, accelerated the wartime Allies’ desire to consolidate and improve their respective positions before Japan surrendered. Using many primary sources, Dobbs sketches vivid portraits of the leaders who shaped events, or neglected to do so, and ably conveys the tension and uncertainty of the era. ­VERDICT Recommended for serious and lay military historians, and all readers seeking an understanding of the origins of the Cold War.—RF

Downing, Taylor. Spies in the Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence During World War II. Trafalgar Square.Nov. 2012. c.416p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781408703625. pap. $19.95. HISTORY

Aerial photography, crucial for military strategy and operations, came of age during World War II with advances in cameras and film technology. Writer and documentary filmmaker Downing (Churchill’s War Lab) offers an appealing and well-documented popular military history. He focuses on the primarily British operation that looked down on Nazi Europe, discussing the well-known preparations for Operation Sea Lion (Germany’s plan to invade the UK), the D-day invasion, the hunt for Germany’s V-weapons, and the bombing campaigns. The real heart of the book is its descriptions of the painstakingly detailed work required of the photo interpreters and the dangerous flights undertaken by the intrepid reconnaissance pilots, with ordinary and elite classes thrown together in a high-pressure environment with enormously high stakes. VERDICT Recommended to all readers interested in World War II intelligence operations, the air war, and the European theater.—DKB

Keane, Michael. Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer. Regnery History, dist. by Perseus. Oct. 2012. c.256p. ISBN 9781596983267 $27.95 HIST

Kean (national security fellow, Pacific Council on International Policy) reveals the World War II general as a man of faith who believed he was favored by God for an important destiny, a soldier deeply familiar with the Bible who considered fear of death an enemy to be conquered to achieve eternal salvation. After surviving close calls in combat in both world wars as well as negative publicity as a result of having slapped a shell-shocked soldier in 1943, Patton grew increasingly confident in his sense of himself. He believed that “wars are fought with weapons but won by men” and that only through prayer would men find the courage and the strength to win on the battlefield. Keane includes passages from Patton’s papers, including deeply religious poetry that he wrote. He read widely in religion, across faiths, and believed in reincarnation. ­VERDICT An accessible read for armchair readers of military biography, especially for those of faith.—PM

Kershaw, Alex. The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. Crown. Nov. 2012. c.448p. ISBN 9780307887993. $28. HIST

Like many of his generation, Felix Sparks did not seek glory on the battlefield but dutifully accepted the responsibilities of being a soldier. Kershaw (The Longest Winter) details Sparks’s service in the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division of the U.S. Army as he rose from second lieutenant to colonel in the European theater from Sicily to the liberation of German concentration camp Dachau. But Kershaw is not writing a biography so much as a regimental history, although Sparks’s legacy deserves fuller attention. After the war, he served Colorado as a state supreme court justice and became a gun-control advocate. Kershaw could have gone on to use the war as a backdrop for how Sparks handled further challenges. VERDICT As historical narratives, Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle and Michael Hirsch’s The Liberators offer better understanding of the Italian campaign and the liberation of the concentration camps, respectively, but general readers may consider this as well.—JS

Koster, John. Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor. Regnery History, dist. by Perseus. 2012. c.256p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781596983229. $27.95. HIST

U.S. Army veteran Koster (Custer Survivor) here says that Harry Dexter White—an economist in the Treasury department, not at the White House—at the direction of the Soviet secret police (NKVD), encouraged war in the Pacific to reduce Japanese pressure on the USSR while it was fighting the Germans on the eastern front in Europe. However, Koster does not provide enough documentary evidence to prove this, and none of the many other important factors and actors involved in America’s stance after Pearl Harbor is elaborated here. While it would be appropriate to discuss the activities and influence of communist agents in Washington at the time, Koster spends most of his book rehashing the well-known military and diplomatic history leading up to Pearl Harbor, contrary to the implication that White’s story will be central to his argument. VERDICT Conspiracy theorists and those interested in any discussion of Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government may wish to consider.—DKB

starred review starLudewig, Joachim. Rückzug: The German Retreat from France, 1944. Univ. Pr. of Kentucky. (Foreign Military Studies). 2012. c.496p. ed. by Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki, AUS. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780813140797. $40. HIST

The two-month period after the Allied breakout from Normandy was one of constant withdrawal (Rückzug) for the Wehrmacht. Ludewig, an officer in the German Army Reserve, presents an excellent operational study (here in uncredited translation from the German) of how the weakened German units managed to pull back while under attack, form defensive lines, and temporarily halt the enemy. He asserts that if the Allies had been better organized, they might have been able to drive across the Rhine River in late 1944, as the Germans feared, possibly ending the war several months earlier. The German withdrawal was characterized by better military doctrine, training, and experience of German officers and troops at all levels, while the Allies had logistical problems, political concerns, and a wider area to cover. VERDICT Extensively documented from German sources, with this English edition edited by retired U.S. Army Major General Zabecki, this superior work is for all serious students of World War II military maneuvers.—DKB

Macri, Franco David. Clash of Empires in South China: The Allied Nations’ Proxy War with Japan, 1935–1941. Univ. Pr. of Kansas. (Modern War Studies). Nov. 2012. c.512p. illus. maps. bibliog. index.
ISBN 9780700618774. $45. HIST

The role of China in World War II is often overlooked, with many books depicting the Chinese primarily as passive victims of Japanese aggression. Macri (postdoctoral fellow, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, Hickam AFB, Hawaii) seeks to dispel this impression by demonstrating that Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in the years before the Pacific war deliberately sought to spur outsiders, particularly the British, Americans, and Soviets, to action against the Japanese. However, Macri’s efforts are hampered by his use almost entirely of English-language sources, with little reference to Chinese, Japanese, or Soviet documents that could have led to more nuanced discussion. VERDICT This work is better appreciated as an Anglocentric discussion of the role of the British and the colony of Hong Kong during the years in question. It would best be read in tandem with other works on the topic such as Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Suggested for enthusiasts or academics in the field.—CH

Meder, Patricia Chapman. The True Story of Catch-22: The Real Men and Missions of Joseph Heller’s 340th Bomb Group in World War II. Casemate. 2012. c.240p. maps. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781612001036. $32.95. HIST

Meder’s father, Colonel Willis F. Chapman, the 340th Bomb Group’s commander, was the model for Colonel Cathcart in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Using her father’s papers, interviews with bomb group members, and correspondence with Heller himself, she reveals the actual individuals and events behind Heller’s antiwar novel. She juxtaposes passages from the novel with comments made by those involved in the real events to demonstrate the extent to which Heller transmuted fact into fiction. Heller’s satiric caricatures are here shown to have stemmed from patriotic, courageous, highly decorated airmen who daily performed heroic wartime feats against overwhelming obstacles. The log of George Wells (Captain Wren in Catch-22), who flew a record 102 missions in his B-25, is included in an appendix. VERDICT Less concerned with Heller’s novel than with the history behind it, Meder’s book will appeal more to readers of military history than to literary fans of Catch-22, who can follow Heller’s war years in his autobiography, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here or in Tracy Daugherty’s biography, Just One Catch.—WG

Neiberg, Michael. The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944. Basic Bks: Perseus. Oct. 2012. c.352p. illus. index. ISBN 9780465023998. $28.99. HIST

Neiberg’s book about the final days of German-occupied Paris is in some ways a retelling of the story by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre four decades ago in Is Paris Burning? But Neiberg adds a depth that the earlier work deliberately omitted. Collins and Lapierre opted for a journalistic, moment-by-moment account of events, whereas Neiberg offers a more panoramic view of events, placing them in the context of the relations among the respective Allies, which had different tactical and strategic aims during the campaign in France. Neiberg also focuses on the rivalries and competing postwar visions of the varying French Resistance factions and the Free French military and political leadership. Neiberg clearly does not intend to supersede or replace the earlier book, which he draws upon often, but his work makes an excellent companion to Is Paris Burning? ­VERDICT This book is as engrossing and fast paced as its predecessor, and, while targeted to the nonacademic reader interested in World War II, it could easily find a place among academic titles.—RF

Neitzel, Sönke & Harald Welzer. Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying. Knopf. 2012. c.448p. tr. from German by Jefferson Chase. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307958129. $30.50. HIST

Neitzel (international history, London Sch. of Economics & Political Science) made a remarkable discovery in the British National Archives in 2001, and later at the U.S. National Archives: previously unnoticed transcripts, recently declassified, of covertly recorded conversations among German POWs. With Welzer (social psychology, Univ. of Sankt Gallen, Switzerland), Neitzel examines these conversations from a historical and psychological perspective and analyzes the sometimes casual and pitiless brutality present throughout. What were the states of mind of the prisoners? How did they see the course of the war, or of National Socialism, and what did they say when the talk turned to women, Jews, technology, or politics? VERDICT In some ways this book should be grouped with genocide studies, yet it is also a more general study of the individual attitudes of participants in wars and how the individuals reacted to killing and dying. A powerful and often wrenching approach to the World War II experience, this book is recommended for advanced World War II and military psychology collections. [See Prepub Alert, 4/15/12.]—EBB

Selby, Scott Andrew. The Axmann Conspiracy: The Nazi Plan for a Fourth Reich and How the U.S. Army Defeated It. Berkley Caliber: Penguin. 2012. c.320p. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780425252703. $26.95. HIST

This book details a successful operation by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) in postwar Germany. Selby (coauthor, Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History) refers to a cabal of former Nazi officials who conspired to form a political movement and, he contends, sought to resurrect the Third Reich. Unfortunately, the book never quite makes good on its promise. The conspiracy seems to have been rather thin, half-hearted and disorganized, easily infiltrated by CIC, and no real threat to the postwar order. Artur Axmann, the Nazi fugitive whose name is in the book’s title, barely figures in the actual drama until his capture at the end of the account. In its favor, Selby uses some German primary sources (perhaps uncritically), and records of the CIC investigation. ­VERDICT The book is well paced; the story is colorful, and the author conveys the havoc of occupied Germany immediately after World War II. Selby does his utmost to deliver a cracking yarn and can be entertaining, but some readers may find that the title oversells its premise.—RF

Smith, Craig B. Counting the Days: POWs, Internees, and Stragglers of World War II in the Pacific. Smithsonian Bks., dist. by Random. 2012. c.264p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781588343550. $27.95. HIST

Using hours of interviews, diaries, military records, and onsite visits, Smith crafts a read-in-one-sitting narrative of six men and women whose lives were changed by the war in the Pacific: one young woman of Japanese descent who found herself in an internment camp; a Japanese sailor who had the misfortune of being the first American POW; a Japanese soldier who emerged from the jungles of Guam 15 years after war’s end; a European couple in the Philippines on the run from both the unpredictable cruelty of the Japanese and Filipino guerrillas; and a marine captured at Guam who spent the war as a POW in horrific Japanese camps. ­VERDICT These narratives, and Smith’s interpretive framework, capture the determination and spirit of their subjects and what they endured to survive and share their stories. Those interested in the human toll of war will want to read this book.—PM

Weale, Adrian. Army of Evil: A History of the SS. NAL Caliber: Penguin Group (USA). 2012. c.464p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780451237910. $28.95. HIST

This is neither a combat history of the Waffen SS nor a history of the Holocaust. Instead, using newly released intelligence files and photographs, and describing the organization’s history, ideology, and decision-making processes, Weale chronicles the evolution of a ragtag group of political intimidators into a criminal organization responsible for the Holocaust. He effectively argues that the Holocaust neither was perpetrated by psychopathic sadists (more often than not the perpetrators were career opportunists), nor was the Waffen SS an elite military formation whose guilt for crimes against humanity was by association only. Particularly interesting is that Weale rejects the idea that the Waffen SS were an elite force. Standards for recruitment were often low (criminal elements were admitted), often based on favoritism, and efforts to recruit foreign volunteers were by and large useless. The organization was but an arm of the SS that was never strong enough nor intended to counterbalance the German army and, ultimately, was a drain on valuable resources. ­VERDICT Intended for general readers, and best for them.—PM


Pash, Melinda L. In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War. New York Univ. Nov. 2012. c.344p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780814767696. $35. HIST

The Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War.” Pash (history, Fayetteville Technical Community Coll.) describes the lives of Korean War veterans before, during, and after the war, examining the reasons they enlisted, their range of experiences, and the consequences of their service upon their lives. Her main argument is that the Great Depression and World War II created a culture among young Americans that prepared them to accept the sacrifices demanded of them during the Korean conflict. The author is particularly thorough in her examination of socioeconomic, gender, and race issues. ­VERDICT Although Pash doesn’t make a strong case for her thesis on the influences upon these veterans, she presents fine descriptive analysis that’s especially strong when discussing veterans’ experiences during and after the war. Recommended for those with an interest in the war and its human dimensions, or for those new to the subject.—CH


Allison, William Thomas. My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War. Johns Hopkins. (Witness to History). 2012. c.184p. index. ISBN 9781421406442. $49.95; pap. ISBN 9781421406459. $19.95. HIST

On March 16, 1968, the U.S. Americal Division’s Charlie Company attacked Son My (My Lai) village to root out enemy troops reported to be hiding there. No Communist forces were found, yet more than 500 villagers, mostly women and children, were raped and murdered. Allison (history, Georgia State Univ.) describes the massacre, the military and government investigations, and the trials that followed. The army first concluded that Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley conducted a successful military operation. However, continuing rumors and the persistence of a few soldier witnesses led to the formal military inquiry; both officers were charged with hundreds of murders. Calley was sentenced to life in prison, but on appeal served only three years; Medina was acquitted on all counts. Allison concludes that the massacre was in part caused by vague orders, poor leadership, and a mindset that all rural peasants were potential enemies. VERDICT Although Michael Belknap’s The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court Martial of Lieutenant Calley is a more thorough account, Allison presents an overview for today’s students that will also appeal to general readers.—KH

Branson, Douglas M. Three Tastes of Nuoc Mam: The Brown Water Navy & Visits to Vietnam. Hellgate: PSI Research. Oct. 2012. c.312p. illus. ISBN 9781555717087. pap. $19.95. autobiog

Branson (law, University of Pittsburgh) is a veteran of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, where he served in Phan Thiet, Vietnam’s nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) capital. He made two subsequent trips to Vietnam (thus the title) and recounts his experiences in this entertaining memoir. Branson readily admits that he was no hero, and this is no hero’s tale, nor is he a veteran suffering from any of the maladies that have plagued many Vietnam veterans. He believes his story is more common, an irreverent tale that reveals the “human and funnier side of things military,” one that continues on his subsequent trips to Vietnam. ­VERDICT Branson tells a story that’s more M.A.S.H. than Platoon, although he loses some momentum in the middle chapters when he offers a brief history of Vietnam and the war. Readers who want a lighter look at the Vietnam experience will enjoy this memoir.—MM

Wiest, Andrew. The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam. Osprey. 2012. c.376p. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781780962023. $25.95. HIST

Wiest (history, Univ. of Southern Mississippi) tells the story of the 9th Infantry Division’s Charlie Company, an all-draftee unit made up of soldiers from all over the country. The members of the unit all entered the service at the same time, trained together, and went to Vietnam together. After a chance encounter with one veteran of Charlie Company, Wiest interviewed more than 60 others, as well as family members of some who did not make it home, to discover not only the story of this unit in the Vietnam War, but to reveal the individuals and families involved. The author supplements these oral histories with archival research, though he does not provide source notes. VERDICT This is a compelling and intimate look at one unit’s wartime experience, filled with loss, excitement, humor, and pain that readers of wartime memoirs will especially want to share.—MM


Ballard, John R. & others. From Kabul to Baghdad and Back. Naval Inst. Oct. 2012. c.384p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781612510224. $42.95. HIST

The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, waged simultaneously in the aftermath of 9/11, have each been the subject of many serious studies. This book stands out as the first major study to offer a comparative assessment of both wars. Ballard (dean of faculty, National War Coll.), with David W. Lamm and John K. Wood (both Near East South Asia Ctr. for Strategic Studies, National Defense Univ.) compare and contrast the key strategic decisions of the wars, assessing the successes and failures of strategic operations and analyzing the impact of the Iraq War on the war in Afghanistan. They criticize the decision to give NATO the lead in Afghanistan and to duplicate an Iraq War-style surge there. Their book also offers a useful comparison of the Soviet and U.S. wars in Afghanistan. They conclude by analyzing the key lessons learned in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns, including the utility of some of the counterinsurgency practices and the importance of national strategic decision making. VERDICT Students of military history, war strategies, and U.S. defense policy will benefit from the insight provided in this engaging book.—NE



  1. John Koster says:

    Vitalii Pavlov’s account of his meeting with Harry Dexter White is available in Russian and Polish but not in English. (I obtained translations from both the Russian original and the Polish version and they natched and confirm the text I offer in English..) NKVD agent Pavlov proclaimed that Harry Dexter White was a hero who helped save the Soviet Union. Pavlov enjoyed steady promotions for helping to bring the U.S. into the war when 80 per cent of Americans were not interested, Britain dreaded a war in Asia, and even FDR would rather had kept the peace with Japan. “Operation Snow” also provides the full text of a letter Harry Dexter White had his key dupe, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, sign and forward to FDR and this letter was written AFTER Japan had offered to drop the alliance with Hitler and to gradually evacuate China. Morgenthau (actually White) argued that restoring any oil to Japan would be “another Munich” and only the great FDR could save the world. The Soviets report that he continued to pass secrats to the NKVD through the entire war. Laurence Rees reported this in “Behind Closed Doors.” The FBI itself identified HDW as a Soviet agent in 1950 (see on-line) and the HUAC hearing showed that he had appointed accused Communists to key positions in the Treasury Deparrment without FBI or State Department clearance. White’s death was originally described as a suicde but this was hushed up. White claimed to be Jewish (actually he was an apostate) but had himself cremated to hide the evidence. Anybody who reads the book without a strong Marxist orientation can scarely help but notice that White was guilty as Hell and that the case was covered up because he made fools out of so many non-Communists — and even some Republicans. The only other negative review IO have so far is from a writer (no name) who types with a Russian accent and has read Pavlov;’s untranslated version in the original — and gave me a one-star review when he/she admitted not having read the book. How does that work? I provided plenty oif evidence. You should have provided a reviewer with an open mind and a better knowledge of history.