Fighting Words

The definitive books on the battles of the 20th century.

by Victor Davis Hanson

WSJ Opinion Journal

1. “The Price of Glory” by Alistair Horne (St. Martin’s, 1963).

Over the course of 10 months in 1916, the French and Germans killed or wounded about 1.25 million of their best soldiers in a few wooded acres around a fortress complex near the French town of Verdun on the Western Front. Alistair Horne graphically describes the sheer physics of the human carnage, yet the battle was not entirely madness: The Germans had a diabolical plan to bleed the French white, and both sides saw that a German breakthrough at Verdun might prove catastrophic for the Allies. Thanks to Horne’s brilliance, Verdun is now seared in the popular memory as a slaughterhouse where well-meaning but often clueless 19th-century generals, usually from a safe distance, threw the youth of the 20th century into an inferno.

2. “With the Old Breed” by E.B. Sledge (Presidio, 1981).

There are some brilliant memoirs of the savage battle for Okinawa, but E.B. Sledge’s is by far the most haunting. Sledge, who landed with the Marines on both Okinawa and Peleliu islands, describes in matter-of-fact prose how the superior discipline and bonds between fellow Marines overcame the often brilliant fighting of the desperate Japanese, who hugely outnumbered the Americans and fought from impenetrable subterranean concrete and coral-covered gun emplacements. “With the Old Breed” might serve as an antiwar ode, but the book ends by reminding the reader how well the U.S. was served in its hour of need by rare men such as his own — men that Sledge thinks it may well need again.

3. “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan (Viking, 1976).

This exploration of the soldiers’ experience at Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme — all within a few miles of each other in the cockpit of Europe — introduced the young military historian John Keegan to the wider American public. Readers were fascinated with Keegan’s excursus on human qualities such as fear and honor, the effect of steel and shot on flesh, and the way men ate, kept warm and armed before battle. “The Face of Battle” ushered in a new genre of military history known as the “experience of battle.” Yet other efforts to convey ground-eye views of battle from antiquity to the present have never matched the level of detail and anguish, or the literary artistry, of Keegan’s acknowledged masterpiece.

4. “Stalingrad” by Antony Beevor (Penguin, 1998).

We in the West cannot quite comprehend what really went on in this distant battle of Armageddon that began in late 1942, but Antony Beevor provides an extraordinary account of a terrible conflict in which the Nazis’ tanks met the Soviets’ T-34s, the Luftwaffe’s best encountered skies full of rockets, and a million Russians fought the last crack troops that an exhausted Germany and Eastern Europe could throw at them. Soldiers on both sides accepted that capture meant either an immediate death or one far more grotesque from disease and starvation in frigid detention camps. At Stalingrad the Russians proved the better tacticians and even had the superior generals, ending for good any crazy notions that the Germans would go farther east.

5. “The Fall of Fortresses” by Elmer Bendiner (Putnam, 1980).

This too often overlooked memoir is the best personal account of American daylight bombing over Germany. The calm and reflective Elmer Bendiner, a navigator on a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” describes how the Army Air Corps in Western Europe asked bomber crews to do the impossible: fly in daylight without escort into the face of thousands of German fighters and experienced flak batteries. More than 25,000 airmen did not come home. This book, framed around the nightmarish second Schweinfurt sortie, shows how the crews’ high élan and skill fostered persistence despite perceived hopelessness. Bendiner reminds us in stark prose that, especially in the war’s early years, the enemy enjoyed advantages of equipment, command and terrain; we simply had superior morale — and more flexible and innovative soldiers, who deeply believed that things would finally get better.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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