Thursday, August 7, 2014

VMI Summer Reading (Unofficial): World War II (16 to 20)


Two personal memoirs, a couple of novels, and the biography of an airborne company. To my knowledge, I've never met anyone who served in World War I (my great-grandfather died well before I was born). Many of today's college students might never have met anyone who served in WWII. Their grandfathers may have served in Vietnam. This year's incoming college freshmen were in first grade on 9/11/2001.

16. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Eugene Sledge

“In all the literature on the Second World War, there is not a more honest, realistic or moving memoir than Eugene Sledge’s. This is the real deal, the real war: unvarnished, brutal, without a shred of sentimentality or false patriotism, a profound primer on what it actually was like to be in that war. It is a classic that will outlive all the armchair generals’ safe accounts of—not the ‘good war’—but the worst war ever.”—Ken Burns

17. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest, Stephen E. Ambrose

If you watched the excellent HBO mini-series, then you should read the book that inspired it. If you have read it, you will like Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers just as much, and maybe more. Ambrose's gift was that he was able to get the combat veterans of WWII to talk about their experiences in a way that other historians never could, or bothered to. A possible flaw is his penchant for idolizing them; he sometimes sounds like Homer singing of the heroes of Ilium:

First, Ajax son of Telamon killed brave Epicles, a comrade of Sarpedon, hitting him with a jagged stone that lay by the battlements at the very top of the wall. As men now are, even one who is in the bloom of youth could hardly lift it with his two hands, but Ajax raised it high aloft and flung it down, smashing Epicles' four-crested helmet so that the bones of his head were crushed to pieces, and he fell from the high wall as though he were diving, with no more life left in him.

18. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

The plot of this novel is kind of irrelevant, the characters are largely forgettable, but the writing, my oh my the writing. What was it like to be in a troop ship in the Pacific during WWII? What did the food taste like? Just how hot and buggy were those islands? Mailer is unrivaled in his descriptive detail. I have been meaning to read, but have never quite gotten around to, his The Executioner's Song.

19. Piece of Cake, Derek Robinson

This is an absolutely riveting novel about RAF pilots during the early years of WWII. As in Mailer's novel, don't expect "rah-rah" patriotism and good v. evil plotting. The characters are remarkable and vividly drawn. There's an excellent portrayal of a psychopathic fighter pilot. Hanging over everything is the clear realization that, with every added day and every added sortie, each individual pilot's probability of survival eventually reaches nil.

20. Quartered Safe out Here, George MacDonald Fraser

A personal memoir of his service as a combat infantryman in Burma, by the author of the stupendous, not-to-be-missed Flashman books. From the book: "To reduce it to a selfish, personal level...if the [atomic] bombs had been withheld, and the war had continued on conventional lines...I might have been [killed] which case my three children and eight grandchildren would never have been born. And that, I'm afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those eleven lives I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never even blink. And so, I dare suggest, would you. And if you wouldn't, you may be nearer to the divine than I am but you sure as hell aren't fit to be parents or grandparents."

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