War on War Books

Donald Miller has (re)written one of the best books on World War II, but will anyone care?

Yet he feels that any comparisons he might offer would be contrived, if not downright cynical. Sure, he insists, there are a few to be made--both wars are about revenge, more or less, fueled by a certain kind of racism. Where once the United States wanted to get those Japs, portraying them in popular media as buck-toothed buffoons with thick glasses and bright yellow skin, now we play scud-and-seek with camel jockeys and towelheads.

"I was playing golf with a guy the other day," Miller says, "and he was saying, 'Get every fucking raghead in the country out of here. I don't care how many of them there are. I don't care if some of them worship at a Protestant church, let alone a peace-loving mosque.' You really get the feeling, and it's increasing. That's where the comparisons really are: Then, as now, we were fighting an enemy who will do seemingly anything to win.

"You don't want to beat these comparisons to death with what's going on today, but I remember a couple of days after the World Trade Center was hit, I thought to myself, 'My God, Hitler came to power in 1933, and the first bombing was in 1993, and Pearl Harbor was in '41, and the World Trade Center was in '01. And in both cases, we ignored the early evidence that we know terrorism's out there, but we're surrounded by these two oceans, and American power won't let this affect our daily lives.' Then all of the sudden, out of the blue, we're hit and not quite ready for it. Then there's this discussion of can we fight a protracted war. And the Japanese propaganda through the early part of the war was we're soft and materialistic: 'We'll bleed 'em,' they said, 'until they succumb.'"

Henry Steele Commager's World War II history was one of the most readable accounts of the conflict. Donald Miller's complete revision only makes it more so.
Henry Steele Commager's World War II history was one of the most readable accounts of the conflict. Donald Miller's complete revision only makes it more so.

The Story of World War II is a remarkable book in any context; one need not wrap it in today's headlines or network-news crawls to make it relevant or electrifying. It's the sort of project borne of necessity and passion: Miller's own father was a World War II veteran, as were many of his relatives. He grew up begging the old men for tales they preferred to keep locked in the attic, along with their old uniforms and purloined souvenirs taken off slain Nazi soldiers. When Miller's father died in 1995, the historian, who had written books about cultural critic Lewis Mumford and the building of Chicago, decided he wanted to tackle the war.

But he had no jumping-off point, not until he found in the offices of friend and documentarian Lou Reda a copy of Commager's original book, which Commager had written while working as propagandist and historian for the War Department in Paris, London and Washington, D.C. During the war, Commager had plowed through everything written on the subject, from speeches to news broadcasts to magazine pieces to government documents, and assembled the best and most pertinent material into a single bound document.

Miller found the book brilliant but flawed: Because Commager had never set foot in the Pacific theater, The Story of the Second World War was decidedly Eurocentric; like President Roosevelt, he, too, thought the war would be won or lost in Germany. And Commager never had access to firsthand accounts of battle, except those that had been combed over by military censors. So Miller began interviewing dozens of veterans, and in the end, he not only revised Commager's work but made it substantially his own--to the point he even thought about abandoning the project and doing his own World War II book. (Indeed, he just signed a contract to write another, this one about the 8th Air Force, with whom his father flew.) In the end, the book was both revelation and cathartic for the author. For the reader, it's the best kind of historical narrative: You chase its pages, wondering always, "Will we win?" And that's what makes it an important book, today, tomorrow, always.

"Total war is the most awful thing ever invented by humankind," Miller says. "When you get a war that's so bad that an atomic bomb is seen as a deliverance, you got yourself in an awful situation, and God help us if we ever have to fight something like this again. I hope the book stands alone, independent of any context. It's like the so-called Greatest Generation itself. You don't have to glorify their deeds or make their actions relevant to our time or use their heroism for our political purposes. I think you let them alone and let their deeds stand for themselves."

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