THE SECOND WORLD WARS: HOW THE FIRST GLOBAL CONFLICT WAS FOUGHT AND WON
By Victor Davis Hanson
Basic Books, $25, 750 pages
On those occasions when I watch "Jeopardy" on TV, I have always wondered why people born after 1980 seem to do so poorly when the category has something to do with World War II. Most of the questions seem like "no brainers" to me. It wasn't until I read Victor Davis Hanson's "The Second World Wars" that I fully grasped the problem. We are as far from the end of World War II today as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were from the Confederate surrender that ended the Civil War.
As baby boomers, Mr. Hanson and I experienced our formative years when World War II was barely a decade in the past. Our fathers, uncles, neighbors and teachers had almost universally fought in one of the theaters and we listened to their stories. Our comic books and TV shows like "Victory at Sea" informed us of that struggle; but those memories have receded as the Greatest Generation fades away.
Mr. Hanson is one of our most accomplished popular writers of history, and he has done a genuine service in writing a survey of history's greatest war without boring battle-by-battle recitations. He starts with the explanation that the war was actually at least three wars; hence the title. Although fought with the same technologies, it was conducted in very different ways in three colossal theaters; those being Europe, the Pacific Ocean, and China (more formally the China-Burma-Indian theater).
There is a wide variety of World War II literature, but it caters to a niche market of military professionals, history buffs, and small group of academics who specialize in military history. Mr. Hanson is targeting a larger popular audience.
The author chose not to do a chronological standard history of the war; he wisely selected a functional approach focusing on major developments in technology, strategy, leadership and economy. Consequently, there are chapters on the war on land, sea, and air warfare. The war began as a number of local border conflicts in China, Europe and Africa in the 1930s; but war was not formally declared until September 1939 and lasted until September 1945.
Mr. Hanson also discusses the influence of strategic leaders, technology and mass production in making World War II the largest and deadliest conflict in human history. It turned into an existential battle of conflicting ideologies where the outcome would hinge on not just the survival of the ideologies of the nations involved, but the survival of their entire populations. It was the first war since Roman times where civilians were not just in the way, but were considered to be combatants and targeted as such.
The Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) targeted them to destroy morale; the Allies bombed them as contributors to industrial production. The end result is that millions of civilians died; an estimated 20 million in Russia (the old Soviet Union) and 25 million in China as well as hundreds of thousands in Europe. This includes the seven million Jews and other "undesirables" who were exterminated in industrialized Nazi death camps.
Mr. Hanson does a great job of summarizing in the last chapter how that war has shaped the world we live in today. The book is not perfect. At times it becomes repetitious. We hear at least five times that the British stood alone against Germany and Italy between early 1940 and 19141 when Hitler attacked his erstwhile Soviet ally and America was attacked by Japan with Hitler unwisely declaring war on the United States. However, these repetitions are largely a necessary effect of the functional approach as they are discussed in the context of the subject being covered.
Mr. Hanson's key point is that the war was won not just by superior Allied industrial production capability, but by the Axis' mishandling of its strategic resources. For example, the Americans not only produced better planes than the Japanese by the end of the war, but they chose to rotate their pilots between combat and instructional duty whereas the Japanese tended to keep their pilots in combat without passing on their experience to younger pilots. With the exception of Allied tanks, by the end of the war, the Allies produced equipment superior to the Axis and in overwhelming quantities.
Hopefully, this book will become required reading for students at professional military schools as an introduction to war in the industrial age as well as to students studying how the 20th century shaped who we are today. It will also help millennials hoping to get a leg up on "Jeopardy."
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel.