Top positive review
Not just another WW2 history...
Reviewed in the United States on June 15, 2018
The Second World Wars — How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won
©2017 Victor Davis Hanson
a Book Report by Ron Housley
How did we learn about World War II in my generation, we who grew up in the 1950s? We sat through “Victory At Sea” on 1950s black-&-white TV, the war set to snappy Richard Rodgers melodies. We had Samuel Eliot Morrison’s tedious historical accounting of the war at sea, battle by battle. We had dinner-table conversations at home about the War and we had a large assortment of Hollywood offerings. And there was little more until the History Channel burst upon the scene decades later with a unending litany of World War II reporting, from every imaginable perspective --- well, so it seemed.
Not until Victor Davis Hanson did it occur to me that perspective was precisely what had been missing from all those other accounts. What we had before VDH amounted to dubious narratives along with never-ending examinations of isolated elements of the War.
There was little attempt to draw larger lessons in all these WW2 “histories;” there was little attempt to see the broad, centuries-long continuity wherein the puzzle-piece of World War II was to fit. And on top of that there had developed some accepted narratives about the War — like WW2 got us out of the Great Depression; like Hitler or Japan could actually have won; like it was in American self-interest to cooperate with Stalin; like Hitler’s holocaust being the worst mass-murder in history; like FDR provoked Japan into Pearl Harbor with his oil embargo — narratives riddled with misconception.
I’m not sure that I could have followed VDH’s contribution to WW2 history without a previously acquired corpus of the war’s essential parts. But for me, this current volume is the perfect summary and epilog to a lifetime immersion in WW2 facts.
After all these decades of documentaries and Hollywood depictions, I came away with five important new insights as the result of opening my eyes to Hanson’s new book.
: INSIGHT ABOUT WHY THE AXIS LOST THE WAR
Why is it so preposterous to contend that Hitler and Tojo could have won, “if only…?” It turns out that there were no “if onlys” about it:
The Axis powers were unable to win (a)because of their own misguided strategic decisions, but mostly (b)because their chosen enemy was bigger and more powerful by nearly every metric: more people, more draftable citizens, more productive capacity, more technological inventiveness, all energized by a sense of righteous indignation that they had been surprise attacked.
a) no Axis power had a four-engine, long-range bomber to attack Detroit, or to cross the Urals to attack Soviet factories, or to even reach Manchester or Liverpool. Only the Allies had these bombers
b) no Axis power had a blue water Navy capable of challenging the Royal Navy at sea
c) no Axis power had aircraft carries that could support an attack on America’s west coast, or even support an attack on Suez
d) Hitler lorded over 170-million people and proposed to wage a war on an Allied total exceeding 400-million.
e) I was brought up to understand that the Germans and Japanese were “military machines,” much to be feared. But these countries were never able to invade or conquer America, to destroy its industrial strength (unlike today’s enemies with nuclear ICBMs).
Hitler’s entire plan was based on two arrogant presumptions: (1) that if he could successfully surprise-attack poorly defended border states, that he could therefore dominate over well-fortified, well-supplied and well-armed major powers further away from home base; and (2)that Britain would continue its appeasement and that the US would continue its isolationism.
But pre-emptive war against militarily weak neighbors ought not to have led a sane dictator to conclude that much stronger and larger nations could be similarly dispatched.
British appeasement and US isolationism had the effect of destroying the deterrence that the two powers should have projected, if they had wanted to stop Hitler in the first place. Let that be a lesson for the ages; let that be a lesson for today: when a country “makes nice” with an aggressive enemy (think: Nazi Germany; Iran; North Korea), the aggressive enemy is encouraged to wage war. The next Pearl Harbor could very well be an EMP attack destroying an entire national power grid.
The Axis powers, in short, declared war on the U.S. without any plan to actually win. They waged war totally unprepared; they had no idea of how to destroy their enemy’s ability to make war.
: INSIGHT ABOUT ATOMIC BOMB CONTROVERSY
Even a casual reading of VDH puts to rest once and for all the decades-long contention that America’s use of the atomic bomb may have been a mistake, or even “immoral.”
When a country is forced to fight for its life in a struggle launched and sustained by ruthless barbarians, it is unseemly to condemn the victims for waging too vigorous a defense. All moral blame for civilian deaths, even if any were remotely innocent, lies entirely with the aggressor who initiated military force in the first place.
VDH reminds us that the firebombing of Tokyo was far more destructive of life and property than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
It has always struck me odd that an argument would ever be framed that moral judgments vary according to which method of killing is employed. Stop it!
: INSIGHT ABOUT THE MAGNITUDE OF DEATH
Here are seven factual points, all knowable to me, but which I did NOT know until VDH’s quietly pointed them out.
(a): This is the first time anyone had done the arithmetic for me to divide the total war deaths by the number of war days and then report that WW2 killed over 27,000 people per day, every day, for over 6 years(!).
Somehow, 60-million deaths was just a number; but 27,000 deaths per day seemed more real. Contrast that to the 3-day long Battle of Gettysburg which left a total dead of only 3,155.
(b): I didn’t know that the losing side (the Axis) killed, or starved to death, 80% of the dead in WW2
(c): Hitler is notoriously blamed for the death of 6-million Jews in the holocaust; but contrast that with the 30-million Eastern Europeans killed on the Russian front.
(d): Of the 60-million WW2 deaths, nearly 80% were civilians
(e): The March 9, 1945 napalm attack on Tokyo was the single most destructive 24 hour period in military history; yet, the atomic bomb attacks of August 1945 receive all the “moral” condemnations.
(f): There were 3 Great Holocausts in the 20th century:
1- Hitler killed 6-million Jews; 2- Stalin killed 10-million (prior to 1938); 3- Mao killed 40-70-million (1946-1970s)
These 3 great leaders exterminated most of these off the battlefield; note that their totals are more than the 60-million killed in WW2 itself.
(g): 50% of Allied bomber crews were killed (6,000 bombers and 40,000 airmen lost)
: INSIGHT ABOUT WHY THE ALLIES WON
Throughout my years, I have been told that the Allies beat the Axis because the Allies were morally superior.
VDH tells us that the real reasons the Allies won include (a)the Allies had larger industrial capacity; (b)America produced more implements of war than all other combatants combined; (c)the Allies had “righteous indignation” over having been surprise attacked; (d)the Allies developed cryptological excellence and trusted one another; (e)the Axis were duplicitous with one another.
It turns out that the Allies erred on the side of serviceability and practicality and durability of its war implements, whereas the axis erred on the side of “gigantism:” building huge rail guns with limited use; building huge battleships with limited use; building huge tanks with limited use.
Sealing the explanation for the Allied victories are factors such as (a)Hitler never grasped that he had neither the airpower nor the navy to overwhelm the UK; (b)Hitler had no idea of Soviet industrial capacity; (c)Hitler and Mussolini knew combat, but had little capacity to administer a Master war effort.
: INTERESTING FACTOIDS THAT I HADN’T KNOWN
___I did not know that the developing and building the B-29 was bigger than the entire Manhattan Project.
___I did not know that the Japanese were killing 20,000 per day when the decision was made to fire-bomb Tokyo. It probably would not have been more humane to allow the killing spree to continue.
___I did not know that Curtis LeMay was prepared to firebomb all of Japan. It’s not that the atomic bomb saved American lives, it’s that the atomic bomb saved all of Japan from being firebombed into oblivion.
___And much more!
So now that I’ve digested Victor Davis Hanson’s perspective on the War, I have a better sense about the moral propriety of the Dresden fire bombing, of the Tokyo fire bombing, of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing. These bombings were the free nations of the world responding to a new phenomenon: an industrial statist regime willing to systematically butcher tens of millions of people.
I have a better grasp of how strong nations lose the power of deterrence when they disengage, or when they appease a weaker enemy, or embrace Just War Theory’s call for proportionality.
I see with greater clarity how the goal of “a lasting peace” absolutely requires a democratic victor to occupy a statist enemy’s homeland. (Once Germany and Japan were occupied, only then was the ground prepared for a lasting peace and cooperation with the former enemy — unlike what happened at the end of World War I.)
What I do not understand is why none of these lessons or insights are taught today in the government schools, nor even in the military academies. And so it worries me that the stage is being set to repeat the whole thing over again.
WW2 was the biggest war ever in history; it was the most costly war ever in history. The History Channel, and even the success of Hanson’s new book, confirms that WW2 still has a hold on the American imagination. Yet we are not prepared to learn its lessons as we go forth into the future.
Unknown in the ranks of today’s generation is that the only way to end a war and to have lasting peace afterward is to utterly crush the enemy’s will to fight, and that necessitates taking the war to the homeland of the enemy to destroy his means of waging war. Today’s generation appears to favor making accommodations, deals, and appeasements.
In the final analysis, America was good in what it did in WW2, heroic. Elsewise, there would have been a world-wide holocaust.
My hope is that some of today’s generation might prepare for our security armed with just some of the lessons readily available from even a cursory study of Hanson’s “The Second World Wars.” — RWH