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We Could Have Lost the War

Sunday, October 1, 2000

Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett.
A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War
Harvard University Press. 656 pages. $35.00

Commemorations this summer of the anniversary of the Normandy landing have been poignantly appropriate as the warriors of that great conflict head toward final muster at quickening cadence. The ceremonious opening of a D-Day museum in New Orleans, for example, where the amphibious Higgins boats were made that landed GIs on dozens of fiery beaches in World War II, was covered by the press as a national event and with uncharacteristic respect.

An assembly line of books in the past several years also has focused on World War II, with historian Stephen Ambrose several furlongs ahead of anyone with his numerous volumes. The industrious John Keegan has effectively covered that bloody ground. Television celebrity Tom Brokaw published two books saluting the men and women who brought America’s might to bear against the Nazis and the Japanese warlords. The reading public’s reception of them testifies that the war echoes over half a century later. Indeed, the title of Mr. Brokaw’s first book, The Greatest Generation, has become the rubric, and a laurel, for the national retrospective.

On the pop-cultural front, the film Saving Private Ryan was acclaimed for its dramatic and sanguinary presentation of combat and its guy-next-door portrayal of the men who went ashore on June 6, 1944. If the movie was, as some felt, lethargic in representing the war’s moral dimension — a crusade against evil — well, it was boffo at the box office, and it might just have sent viewers to libraries and bookstores.

These celebrations are especially evocative, of course, for anyone for whom recollections of World War II are first-hand. What about the majority of Americans not born when Allied forces stormed ashore at Normandy, but who were born into a world shaped by the conflict and its aftermath? It is conventionally asserted and evidently all too accurately that Americans tend toward amnesia about our history, especially the young. Perhaps this is understandable; there is always a tendency in a dynamic society to minimize yesterday. The imaginative energy required to connect then and now can so easily be preempted by the lively stimuli of the present.

It is a useful exercise, as well as an act of modest civic piety, to reflect on the radical changes in American society since World War II. This country is so different today that it seems almost a different planet — in population, standards of living, educational attainment, the spectrum of amenities, and expectations.

In A War To Be Won, Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett have recounted the awesome magnitude of the war and its ravages — not least that the multimillions of civilian deaths outnumbered battle deaths by a margin of 2-1 — with uncommon clarity and force.

Their book is not, and is not intended to be, a comprehensive history of World War II in full geopolitical, economic, and social breadth. The authors emphasize "the conduct of military organizations that waged the war . . . issues of military effectiveness." Murray and Millett, respectively senior fellow at Washington’s Institute for Defense Analysis, and the Gen. Raymond E. Mason Jr. professor of military history at Ohio State University, deftly provide the historical, political, and strategic contexts without which the global battles cannot be more than martial epics.

"World War II was the deadliest conflict in modern history. It continued World War I’s slaughter of soldiers but then added direct attacks against civilians on a scale not seen in Europe since the Thirty Years’ War three centuries earlier." They also point to the role that "racial ideology" contributed to the traditional causes of war — nationalism, lust for glory, greed, fear, and vindictiveness. Murray and Millett make ample room for the ideological component in the equation of military motivation. The Nazis increasingly indoctrinated their troops in the cause of "biological" world revolution as the tides of combat began to go against them (even as Stalin temporarily relaxed the tyrannous ideological oversight of officers who had survived the prewar military purges, as the fate of the Soviet Union came to hinge more on inspired warriors than communist regimentation). The Japanese war mobilization as well was infused by xenophobia and "deep bitterness" at Western colonialism in Asia. The vast atrocities of the Axis powers followed ineluctably from ideological fanaticism.

The authors of course address the civilian deaths caused by Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities. "As distasteful as these bombing campaigns are today to most citizens of the liberal democracies under sixty years of age" — and, one can add, despite the revisionism here and there that advances a thesis of "moral equivalence" to the horrors of World War II — the bombing "reflected not only a sense of moral conviction on the part of the West but a belief that such air attacks would end a war that daily grew more horrible for soldiers and civilians alike." They do suggest that "race-tinged revenge may have shaped" the U.S. decision to firebomb Tokyo and to drop the two atomic bombs; in the strategic equation of that time, however, a racial component in the decision could hardly have been more than ancillary.

It is useful, too, amid the commemorations of World War II, to recall how placidly Western governments were dozing as Germany got itself in marching order. While Hitler came to power and rapidly rearmed Germany, and the militarists in Tokyo gathered their imperialist muscle in the 1930s, "the democracies chose to forget the harsh lessons of [World War I] in the comfortable belief that it had all been a terrible mistake; that a proper dose of reasonableness — the League of Nations along with pacifist sentiments — would keep the world safe for democracy."

Indeed, until mid-1943, the outcome was desperately in doubt. Demonic as the Axis aggressors were, "Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy could not, in the final analysis, be defeated except by fighting. The United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and their allies had to fight their opponents in air, ground, and naval contexts across the globe. . . . Moral righteousness alone does not win battles. Evil causes do not necessarily carry the seeds of their own destruction."

Beyond the resources of war, the authors emphasize, "individuals guided the course of events" from headquarters to foxholes. This is perhaps a necessary reminder amidst the contemporary fascination with the "Revolution in Military Affairs" and the remarkable technological advance in weapons and systems.

Among U.S. military leaders, George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, rates highest marks from the authors: He "possessed an austere personality, so austere that a mere glance was enough to suggest to Franklin Roosevelt that even the commander in chief should not call him George." Marshall had an exceptionally keen eye for talent. That eye lighted on Dwight D. Eisenhower. "The Allied high command represented one of the few instances in history where allies truly cooperated in achieving larger objectives. Much of the credit was Eisenhower’s. If Ike deserves the accolade of ‘great,’ it rests on his performance in managing the generals under his command, as fractious and dysfunctional a group of egomaniacs as any war had ever seen," Murray and Millett declare in their pungent style.

Douglas MacArthur, however, is treated as savagely as the English posthumously treated Oliver Cromwell — the body exhumed, hung from a gibbet, the head hacked off and displayed atop a pike. "MacArthur’s paranoia, lust for personal publicity, personal ambition, structured and comfortable life-style, and hypochondria were well-known in the army. . . . His emotional balance was precarious. These personal foibles . . . diverted attention from what should have been the real issue: MacArthur’s professional military competence. His erratic performance in the Philippines should have led to his relief and retirement, but, instead, the Medal of Honor and a flood of media attention, encouraged by [President] Roosevelt, diverted attention from America’s military disasters. Then, having created a monster, FDR and the Joint Chiefs had to live with MacArthur and his powerful friends."

The verdicts on both Eisenhower and MacArthur do not diverge from what has become consensus judgments of the pair but, like the numerous profiles that are intimately part of the authors’ operational theme, combine verve with insight.

Murray and Millett also give their due to some of the lesser known leaders. Adm. Ernest J. King Jr. is not a familiar name to those who are not students of the war, but the authors credit him with a rare tenacity in leadership, particularly against Tokyo. As U.S. chief of naval operations and also commander of the Pacific fleet after December 7, 1941, King "had one mission: crush Japan." This was a complicated objective with the "Germany First" strategy to which the U.S. was committed. "King was just the man to ruin the Japanese, since he had a lifetime of practice in crushing rivals and embarrassing associates . . . and he had spent his naval career learning from adversity, usually of his own making." Achieving flag rank "improved King’s behavior not a whit. He raged at subordinates in public, ruled his bridge with fear, and railed at incompetents. . . . He made life miserable for anyone around him. . . . Yet his sheer mastery of every aspect of naval warfare and administration kept him moving from one challenging assignment to another, despite his personality."

Omar Bradley is roughed up, though less savagely than MacArthur, and portrayed as an inferior commander, quite different from his popular postwar image. Gen. Patton, even with his eccentricities, is credited as a first-rate battlefield leader. British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery "proved to be one of the great field commanders of World War II. He was not a nice person; dogged, conceited, vain, completely sure of his own abilities. . . . He was rigorous and enthusiastic, and exhibited considerable flexibility; he was a first-class trainer; and he understood the mind and stomach of the common soldier."

On the Axis side, Erwin Rommel was "the premier battlefield commander of the war . . . a leader of men, with a profound ability to inspire his troops to do their utmost in the face of enormous difficulties," the authors contend. "He was also undoubtedly a firm supporter of the Nazi regime; yet on a number of occasions he disobeyed some of its more odious orders." Yamashita Tomoyuki is notable for the campaign in Malaysia and his defense of the Philippines as one of the outstanding Japanese soldiers.

It is Adolf Hitler certainly who is the malevolent maestro in the horror of World War II in Europe. In a profoundly perverse sense, it was fortunate for the Allies that his monstrous pride totally dominated Nazi strategy and tactics that, in the end, were fatal for the Thousand Year Reich. And neither in "strategic nor moral dimensions did the generals challenge Hitler. Even in the operational and readiness issues that the army regarded as its domain, it found Hitler oblivious to advice." Not the least of Hitler’s egregious errors was his underestimation of the United States.

But as individuals guided the brutal events set in motion by World War II, it is the collision of armies on which Murray and Millett focus their book, the campaigns in every corner of the globe in which World War II was fought. The authors are excellent explicating the war on the Eastern Front, a theater which for many readers is probably not very specific. (In a shadow from nearly half a century, the Russian submarine Kursk, lost with all hands in the Barents Sea in August, was named after the city where "the climactic battle of World War II — the largest battle in human history," took place in July 1943). The resilience of the Soviet armies and the willingness of Stalin to expend his soldiers’ lives is beyond our ability to conceive today. Despite the military catastrophes of 1941 and 1942, the communist state remarkably was able to sustain an adequate armaments industry, with U.S. Lend Lease contributing significantly when the Soviets were able to go on the offensive.

No less thoroughly do the authors recount the campaigns in Africa and Asia, the climactic operations in Europe, and the dual U.S. campaigns against Japan in the Pacific. All are detailed, analyzed, and fit smoothly into the global mosaic — the anomalies and opportunism of a world at war also noted: The terribly costly bomber attacks on German heavy industry were of limited effect, in part because what equipment losses the Nazis suffered "were quickly replenished by the ever-helpful Swedes and Swiss." The authors also include the absurdities that are indelibly part of war. When the Greeks, for example, were hammering the invading Italians in late 1940, Gen. Uboldo Soddu was to try to save the disastrous day, but "he whiled away his evenings writing musical scores for movies." The gallows humor is also present: During the bleak days in the Mediterranean when Malta was besieged, the British had only three obsolete aircraft left on the island, which were famously nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity.

The role of intelligence throughout the war is a consistent thread of the narrative. The capture of a German "Enigma" coding machine early in the war and the British "Ultra" program that cracked it (as well as later variations), providing the Allies continuous knowledge of Nazi plans and movements, has been well documented. What is astonishing still, however, is the stubborn and consistent refusal of the Germans to concede how thoroughly their intelligence had been compromised — it just couldn’t happen. U.S. intelligence was also one of the shining contributors to victory in the Pacific, without which the pivotal 1942 battles of the Coral Sea and Midway might not have been recorded as victories.

There is one flaw in A War to Be Won. In a history as extensive as this, maps are not just helpful, they are crucial. Harvard University Press presumably deserves the indictment both for too few maps and for the fact that some of them, the single-page versions particularly, defy legibility.

From page to page in this superb history, Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett do not permit a reader to ignore the essence of any great war — that, as William Tecumseh Sherman tartly put it, "all is uncertainty & chance." It is only one of the virtues of this book that it will not permit a reader to indulge the complacency of hindsight. There was nothing destined about Western victory. Hitler’s Germany "came perilously close to destroying Western civilization."