Fresh Narratives of Familiar Wars
As an adolescent I realized one day with a shock that the Civil War is still the central event in American history. Now, after reading about that conflict for half a century more, I’ve had another surprise: Despite everything that has been written about it, there is always something new and interesting to say about the war and what it means.
This thought was inspired by ARMIES OF DELIVERANCE: A New History of the Civil War (Oxford University, $34.95), by Elizabeth R. Varon. This impressive work is explicitly a political study of the war rather than a military one. As such, it makes a good companion volume to James M. McPherson’s classic “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
Varon’s main theme, offered in clear, straightforward prose, is that, contrary to what many have maintained, the Union tended to see the war as one of liberation — a mission of freeing a broad mass of poor deluded whites (and, for some, enslaved blacks) from the thrall of a tiny elite of oligarchical slaveholders. The main narrative on the other side, she adds, was of Confederates seeking vengeance for great wrongs. With such an approach, battles wane in importance while other events loom larger. Thus Varon, a historian at the University of Virginia, treats the New York City draft riots of 1863 as one of the most important incidents in that crucial year.
Varon shows that we often can learn more about what led to victory from politics than from battles. For example, as President Lincoln observed, keeping Kentucky loyal was crucial, in part because if the Union lost it, the other border states of Maryland and Missouri might also defect. So the best measure of success in Kentucky was not any fight or campaign there, but the fact that twice as many Kentuckians enlisted in Federal forces as joined the Confederacy. Marylanders voted with their feet for the Union by a similar margin.
Varon excels at finding meaning in such data. She makes the interesting point that the American divide was not necessarily geographical. Some 100,000 white men from Confederate states joined the Union Army, along with 200,000 from border states. Add to that the 150,000 Southern blacks who enlisted with the Federals, and, she notes, you have some 450,000 Southerners wearing Federal blue, half as many as the 900,000 who fought for the Confederacy. The war, she notes, was not simply “North against South.” A final data point that I found stirring: Fully one in four Americans alive at the time witnessed the passage home of Lincoln’s funeral train during its 13-day journey.
The heroes of Varon’s account are, I think, first Lincoln and then Frederick Douglass, who warned (correctly) after the war’s end that defeated Confederates were putting on a show of loyalty, but “let the civil power of the states be restored, and the old prejudices and hostility to the Negro will revive.”
I once vowed to stop reading books about World War II, on the grounds that, like the Civil War, I had read too much about it and really should focus more on other conflicts and other times. But people keep on producing compelling volumes about both those wars, and so I finally gave in.
There are indeed new things to say about this most studied of wars. Among the recently published works is an account by Andrzej Bobkowski, a young Pole marooned in Paris in 1939, that is stunning in the freshness of its perspective. How would Oscar Wilde have written about World War II? Pretty much as Bobkowski does in WARTIME NOTEBOOKS: France, 1940-1944 (Yale University, $35). He is against the Nazis, yet feels powerless to do anything much to counter them. When a German unit marches by him in Paris singing lustily, he writes, “I’d like to dismount from my bike, crawl on all fours and howl like a dog.”
Most of the time, he enjoyed himself, especially when vacationing in the countryside, where meat, wine, cheese and fresh vegetables remained abundant. “I’ve never in my life felt as happy as I have in these recent years,” he comments during the war. He spent many of his evenings looking at paintings, watching plays and going to concerts. As the Germans were trapping the British and French militaries against the North Sea at Dunkirk, he went to the movies. He really didn’t experience food shortages until the summer of 1944, when the Allies landed in France — and even then pasta, peas and beer remained available. When the Allies bombed French river bridges, there was even a side benefit: abundant fresh fish that floated to the surface for the taking. On June 6, 1944, he writes: “My boatman tells me that after yesterday’s bombardment of the railroad bridge over 500 kilos of fish were caught.” Later that summer, Parisians crowded the bistros to sip beer as they enjoyed the spectacle of the Germans retreating out of their city.
This fascinating book has three problems that need mentioning. The first is Bobkowski’s anti-Semitism, which seems more a matter of fashion than ideology. But it is still grating.
The second is that he revised the book in the 1950s before it was first published, in a Polish-language edition. Thus we cannot be sure how prescient his insights really are. One of the translators of this volume, Laura Engelstein, states that “all we have is the text as in 1957 he wished it to appear. And this is the text we have used.” (The other translator is Grazyna Drabik.) This is inexplicable because on the previous page she mentions that the original notebooks were deposited at the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, and that a Polish researcher, in studying them, noted “certain discrepancies” in the wording — in particular, on the subjects of “Communism, the United States and … the Jews.”
So, while Bobkowski seems to be a wonderful analyst, the reader cannot be comfortably certain. The author is presented as writing in 1940 that “the Germans will invade Russia and dissolve in its territory like a sugar cube in a glass of tea.” Or, a year later, “the Germans are … blockheads. That’s why they will lose this war, too.” And that “Russia will soon obtain colonies in Central Europe.” It would be helpful to know how much of this book was revised, especially in such passages.
Still, there is no question that Bobkowski has a good feel for prediction. He died in 1961, long before the internet was invented, yet observes in an entry dated Aug. 8, 1943, that “the more technology facilitates human contact … the weaker this communication becomes, the more alien people seem to each other.”
The third problem is the most troubling, which is that Bobkowski’s reveling in the loveliness of the French capital runs against the reality of what was happening around him at the time. “Peaceful, no cars,” he records in May 1943. “It’s unlikely Paris has ever been as beautiful as it is now.” Surely he must have heard of the horrible roundup of 13,000 Jews the previous summer at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, on the west side of Paris.
Elsewhere in that city, at 84 Avenue Foch, Odette Sansom, a French-born British intelligence officer, was having a very different war, as she was being given a “Gestapo pedicure,” with each of her toenails yanked out during interrogations by German intelligence officials. Her story is related in a more conventional and less aesthetic book than Bobkowski’s, CODE NAME: LISE: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy (Gallery, $27). The author, Larry Loftis, who seems to specialize in World War II espionage, relates a familiar tale: Sansom does some work supplying French saboteurs, is picked up by the Germans, tortured, then shipped off to a concentration camp, where she expects to die, and nearly does. Yet this book, related more or less in thriller style, feels more ethical than Bobkowski’s. She was on the right side of a war he chose to sit out.
It seems there is always more to say about intelligence matters, in part because it takes decades for the details to seep out. IAN FLEMING AND OPERATION GOLDEN EYE: Spies, Scoundrels, and Envoys Keeping Spain Out of World War II (Casemate, $32.95) is an idiosyncratic little work about the espionage Fleming conducted in Spain before he grew rich and famous by writing the James Bond spy thrillers. The author, Mark Simmons, who specializes in writing about British operations in the Mediterranean during World War II, often introduces British officials with their public school nicknames, like “Hooky,” “Biffy” and “Blinker,” which may give the reader the suspicion that Evelyn Waugh wasn’t writing fiction in his wonderful novels about World War II.
For an especially Waugh-ian example, Fleming’s host in Madrid was the British naval attaché, Capt. Alan Hillgarth, a thriller writer and friend of Winston Churchill whose real name was George Evans, but who changed it in the 1920s, the same decade in which he went treasure hunting in Bolivia and then carried on a scandalous affair with Mary Hope-Morley, a “dark-haired beauty” whose brother, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, “was the Egyptologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.” See what I mean? Then there was the Yugoslav double agent code-named “Tricycle,” in honor of his sexual practices. And speaking of piquant details, this Yugoslav spy, on whom Bond may be based in part, had an uncle whose phone number was 26-007.
Overseeing British Special Intelligence Service operations in Spain and Portugal during much of the war was H. A. R. “Kim” Philby. He was underwhelmed by Hillgarth, whom he considered grandiose. Philby, as we now know, was secretly working for the Russians. What I did not know was that Fleming may have created James Bond in reaction to Philby and his co-conspirators, as if to cast a better, more glamorous light on British intelligence. In 1951, Philby tipped off two other British traitors, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, that the jig was up, and they defected to Moscow. In the following year, Fleming began writing his first Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” at the Jamaican house he named “Goldeneye.” This had been the code name for his main operation in Spain, which was a plan to leave saboteurs behind if the Germans occupied that country. The name of Fleming’s suave, sexually athletic hero was borrowed from the name of the author of “Birds of the West Indies.” That may seem odd, until one remembers that “birds” was English slang for young women.
In relating battles and campaigns, there is a general pattern: We first get the accounts of generals, then of journalists and, finally, sometimes decades later, of front-line soldiers. In DESPERATE VALOUR: Triumph at Anzio (Da Capo, $35), Flint Whitlock does a particularly good job of combining letters, memoirs and oral histories to show what that woebegone Allied landing near Rome in January 1944 was like for the enlisted soldier. Unfortunately, his writing style is not as good as his research. This is a book in which resistance is “dogged,” a maxim is “hoary,” a task is “herculean” and units are moved “around like chess pieces.” At battle’s end, the Allied troops “had taken every punch the Germans could land and were still standing — bloody but unbowed.” Reading this, I felt as if I were playing cliché bingo.
Yet Whitlock, a prolific specialist on World War II, also relates some striking facts. The United States Army’s 45th Infantry Division, which endured tough fights in Sicily, Salerno and Anzio during the Italian campaign, and later liberated the Dachau concentration camp, had in its ranks some 3,000 Native Americans. In another vein, the father of Roger Waters, the leader of the 1970s rock band Pink Floyd, was a British officer who was killed at Anzio.
Another military venture in which the 45th Division played a part was the landing on the French Riviera in August 1944. Two Navy sailors who participated in that generally neglected operation were named Yogi Berra and Lenny Bruce, but the landing in southern France, insofar as it is remembered at all, is recalled mainly because Prime Minister Winston Churchill opposed it, considering it an unnecessary distraction from the Italian campaign, even though Allied forces were utterly bogged down in Italy. Churchill never really grasped the importance of supply issues, and he was proved wrong when the undamaged railroads and ports of southern France, especially Marseille, turned out to be crucial in supplying American forces during the winter of 1944-45. The invasion of southern France was a huge operation, involving 974 ships, and it liberated more than half the country in just a few weeks. Robin Cross, a veteran author of World War II histories, does a workmanlike but uninspiring job of covering all this in OPERATION DRAGOON: The Allied Liberation of the South of France: 1944 (Pegasus, $27.95).
Not all details are equally compelling. As I read William K. Klingaman’s THE DARKEST YEAR: The American Home Front, 1941-1942 (St. Martin’s, $29.99), I wondered why it irked me so. I believe there is a place for this sort of narrative-driven “you are there” history, especially when done well — by that, I mean the sort of story that connects popular culture and private lives to larger events. William Manchester was particularly good at this, I think, in “The Glory and the Dream,” his lovely history of the United States from the Depression to Watergate.
But Klingaman, who seems to produce histories of years (his previous efforts include 1816, 1919 and 1941), has compiled an underwhelming collection of trivia. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, sales of silk stockings increased in most places, though not in Mississippi, but — wait! — William Faulkner did step up air raid preparations in that state. It snowed in Los Angeles on Jan. 1, 1942. The Chicago Cubs had no players taken by the military draft, but the Washington Senators lost 12. Clark Gable, still grieving for his recently deceased wife, Carole Lombard, spent much of July 4, 1942, “strolling disconsolately along the north shore of Lake Michigan” (he was in Chicago, so that actually would be the southwest shore, if we care about the facts). And so on for 302 monotonous pages that don’t really amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
We probably could use more books to help us make sense of the Cold War. There is still a lot that is unknown about that era, as was demonstrated two decades ago in the revelatory “Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage,” by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew. To that end, SPY PILOT: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy (Prometheus, $25) is helpful, in its own small way. Written by the man’s son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., along with Keith Dunnavant, it is about as conventional a book as a Cold War memoir can be. But one thing that intrigued me about this story of the U-2 pilot downed over the Soviet Union in May 1960 is that, like Loretta Lynn, among others, Francis Gary Powers grew up in Appalachian coal mining country, where his father worked in the mines and later repaired shoes. It made me think there is a good study to be done of the children of the Depression who were too young for World War II but joined the fight on the front lines of the Cold War in the 1950s and then led battalions and brigades in Vietnam. But this is not that book. (There’s also enough alcohol abuse in this account to make one suspect that “Mad Men” was a documentary.)
As someone once said, God is in the details. But not all authors are able to make that presence visible.
Thomas E. Ricks, who writes the Book Review’s military history column, is a visiting fellow at Bowdoin College, where he is working on a history of the educations of the first four American presidents.
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