A History of the Second World War with the Battles Back In

By Benjamin Schwarz




The history of warfare is extraordinarily difficult to evoke. Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern historiography, directed the historian to find out and convey ”what really happened.” This is a daunting assignment, whatever the subject; it is nearly impossible when the subject is war. The evidence is always muddled and usually contradictory, the eyewitnesses traumatized; the task of the military historian is to create order — but not an artificial order, with tidy accounts of battles and neat blocks and precise arrows on maps — out of events characterized, even defined, by chaos. In ”A War to Be Won,” two of America’s most accomplished military historians, Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, attempt to write a comprehensive account of the military operations of World War II, which means they must impose order on the chaos of not merely a battle or even a campaign, but on what the British historian John Keegan has aptly called ”the largest single event in human history.”

Murray and Millett juggle various aspects of the conflict — air, naval and ground operations, changes in tactics, partisan resistance and military technology, to name a few — as well as its various theaters and campaigns, including Russia, the North Atlantic, Western Europe, the Pacific, China, North Africa, Italy, the Balkans and Burma. And, unlike many of their peers, they bind these narrative strands together instead of considering them in isolation. They remind us that when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Germans had just been halted in front of Moscow; that when Stalingrad was besieged, the British were winning the battle of El Alamein; and that when the British and Americans were landing in Sicily, the Russians were winning the battle of Kursk.

But if the book’s scope is awesome, it is also limited. For Murray and Millett have written an operational history of World War II — a history, in other words, of what took place on the battlefield. They are not concerned with the conflict’s political, social, diplomatic or economic dimensions, or even with all its military ones. The enormous contribution of logistics — raising, arming, equipping, moving and maintaining forces in the field — to the outcome of conflict falls outside the book’s purview, as does the role of intelligence. (In their concise account of the battle of Kursk, for example, Murray and Millett note that Russia knew Germany’s plans, but they don’t say how: for months before the battle, British code breakers had been supplying the Russian military with detailed information on German intentions.)

Murray and Millett’s focus on the leadership of generals and on combat is also unapologetically old-fashioned. Much recent military history seems to be the history of war with the battles left out. Following the vogue of the new social history, many of today’s military historians have turned their attention to topics like the role of women, propaganda, morale and social change. And even when they make it to the front lines, their emphasis is likely to be on the experiences of common soldiers, rather than on commanders and their decisions.

79604-004-97F44643All of this isn’t to fault Murray and Millett — they set out to write a general operational history, a worthy goal, and they’ve succeeded admirably. But their narrow focus does pose some problems for a general audience. Since they don’t cover politics, economics or diplomacy their book can’t serve as a comprehensive survey of the war, unlike the British historian R. A. C. Parker’s masterpiece of compression, ”Struggle for Survival,” or Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint and John Pritchard’s considerably longer general history, ”Total War.” And though it’s clearly written and extraordinarily well organized — it comes with helpful appendixes aimed to explain military terms and concepts to the nonspecialist — A War to Be Won” is also very heavy going. Large sections of the book will strike some readers as a recitation of faceless units moving in unfamiliar places. Murray and Millett also enter a crowded field: In the past 10 years or so Martin Gilbert, Gerhard L. Weinberg, H. P. Willmott and John Keegan have written general military histories of the war. Murray and Millett’s account is more analytically sophisticated than these books, but it fails to match the brio and vividness of Keegan’s treatment.

”A War to Be Won” falls between two stools: it’s too long and detailed for many nonmilitary history buffs, but it’s not long and detailed enough for those equipped to value it fully. The Second World War is by far the most written-about conflict in history — in addition to the exhaustive multivolume official histories issued by all the major belligerents, important monographs have dealt with every theater, campaign and major battle. World War II buffs are likely to appreciate, but not be sated by, Murray and Millett’s balanced and well-paced account of the Soviet Union’s Operation Bagration, for example, and would probably prefer the more meticulous treatment in John Erickson or Earl Ziemke’s histories of the Soviet-German front, and, if those weren’t enough, Gerd Niepold’s exhaustive chronicle of that specific operation, ”The Battle for White Russia,” to mention only the major works written in English.

Still, Murray and Millett have synthesized the massive body of operational studies and, although their clear, levelheaded chronicle offers no startling revelations or novel interpretations, they ably illuminate the differences between the popular understanding of various issues and the scholarly consensus. Most readers have been told that the German military was the most operationally skillful and that Soviet battlefield strategy was leaden and unimaginative in comparison. But, as Murray and Millett point out, echoing the conclusions of Willmott and other scholars, the Russians’ brilliant use of encirclement and deep battle (whose success was in part due to the large number of Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge trucks they had received through lend-lease) constituted the most innovative and ”devastating display of operational art in World War II.” Soviet operations from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1945 ”were far superior to anything the Germans had achieved early in the war.”

Similarly, although the received wisdom holds that strategic bombing played a relatively minor role in winning the war, Murray and Millett, drawing on the specialized literature, show that it had a significant effect on operational strength. Strategic bombing disrupted both German and Japanese logistics and communications, and slowed or halted the Axis’ production of weapons like the new, faster class of U-boat. But Murray and Millett go too far in arguing that strategic bombing forced Berlin to devote its increasingly scarce resources to the production of retaliatory V-1 and V-2 missiles, weapons whose cost far exceeded their benefits. It’s true that for domestic consumption the German leadership called these missiles ”revenge weapons.” But the Germans’ primary motivation for producing these missiles wasn’t reprisal but rather the hope (misguided, but similar to the logic behind much of the Allies’ strategic bombing) that such weapons would break British morale and thereby force London to make a separate, compromise peace. Given Germany’s strategic fortunes, the V-weapons would almost certainly have been used even without Allied strategic bombing. Murray and Millett seem to have the relationship between strategic bombing and the German V-weapons backward: if anything, strategic bombing delayed, rather than instigated, the development and production of these weapons.

”A War to Be Won” is often intimidating in its complexity and its attention to minute detail, but the abundance of information is necessary, since it illuminates what is perhaps man’s most complicated and chaotic endeavor: making war. More than any other conflict, World War II was a huge improvisation; it repeatedly changed its style of combat — the war started with cavalry charges on the plains of Poland and ended with the atomic bomb — and its field of decisive action as it wore on, consuming over 60 million lives in the process. Although Murray and Millett don’t shrink from making harsh, and perceptive, criticisms of commanders like Omar N. Bradley and Mark W. Clark, their purpose is neither to critize nor to praise but to enter the minds of military decision makers. ”A War to Be Won” shows how these men saw the situation at the time, what choices they believed were available and why they made the ones they did in the fog of that especially foggy war.

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