Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans
Won the War in the West, 1941 -- 1945
Andrew Roberts is a writer who evokes the style and magisterial scope of Winston Churchill as historian. It is no accident, for Winston Churchill has been a fascination of this author and, to a considerable extent, it is Churchill's worldview that shapes Andrew Roberts' understanding of World War II. In Masters and Commanders, however, Roberts is not looking only to Winston Churchill and his leadership of the war. To the contrary, Roberts makes the case that the Allied conduct of World War II came down to an absolutely unprecedented partnership between Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Alan Brooke, and George C. Marshall.
In Roberts' fascinating account, Roosevelt and Churchill emerge as the great political strategists who are able to work together to forge a united effort among the Allied powers. They were complemented by General Sir Alan Brook and General George C. Marshall, who brought military genius to bear on the daunting challenge of defeating Nazi Germany. Masters and Commanders is an absolutely compelling read as a work of history. Roberts has done the hard work of the historian in digging out correspondence and historical records in order to fill in significant gaps in our knowledge of the relationships between and among these four significant leaders. The strength of this book is that, in making his case, Roberts allows us to meet each of these four men in a whole new way.
Because Nazi Germany was an autocracy, Hitler was able to impose a grand strategy on his generals that a few at the beginning, but many by the middle and almost all by the end, thought suicidal. Subservient subordinates such as Jodl and Keitel failed to ask searching questions, and few other German generals had the access or the courage to criticize their Fuhrer’s plans to his face, on the rare occasions that they were give the opportunity to be apprised of them beforehand. Flawed strategies, such as the ‘no withdrawal’ policies in Tunisia, Russia and Italy, were therefore not subjected to the kind of unsparing analysis that would undoubtedly have halted their adoption in a democracy. By complete contrast, the strategies of the Western Allies had to be exhaustively argued through the planning Staff, General Staff, Chiefs of Staff and then Combined Chiefs of Staff levels, before they were even capable of being placed before the politicians, where they were debated in microscopic detail all over again. As we have seen, the British and American Chiefs of Staff spoke their minds without fear or favour, in a way that Hitler’s lieutenants could not. Even Stalin, as the war progressed, gave more and more autonomy to the members of the Stavka (High Command) in Moscow, as well as to commanders in the field.
Neil Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann took place almost a half-century ago now, and though his name lives in infamy, the story of his capture and its significance is largely lost to the current generation. Now arrives Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb, and the story comes alive again.
Bascomb has written the only full account of Eichmann's capture and its aftermath. He tells the story with great skill, and he sets the record straight on a number of questions. The most interesting fact about the search for Adolf Eichmann in the years after World War II is the fact that he was not even on the top list of wanted Nazi criminals at the war's end. Eichmann's central role in administering the "Final Solution" and the murder of millions of Jews in Germany and central Europe became evident only in the years after the war.
Eichmann's eventual capture and arrest owed much to a German prosecutor, who sent Israeli officials word that Eichmann was living in Argentina with his wife and sons. From there, the Israelis took over the investigation and search. Bascomb writes the story like a spy thriller -- which it certainly is. But this story is much more than a thriller, it is a much needed reminder of the necessity of moral judgment, legal justice, and personal accountability. Bascomb's account of Eichmann's capture is an adrenalin-laced read. His account of Eichmann's trial in Israel is shorter, but very important.
Eichmann was executed in Israel on May 31, 1962. He was the first and, so far, the last person executed after trial in Israel. Hunting Eichmann serves as a reminder of why the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann remains one of the most important events of the twentieth century.
As dawn broke the next day, Harel turned over the last page in the thick dossier. He was deeply unsettled by the portrait he now had of Adolf Eichmann. Here was a man, Harel surmised, who had assembled the apparatus to kill millions of people, who had separated children from their mothers, driven the elderly on long marches, emptied out whole villages, and sent them all to the gas chambers. All the while, he had been beating his chest in pride for being faithful to the SS oath, a soldier and an idealist. It was clear to Harel that Eichmann had killed without compunction and was an expert in police and intelligence methods. Of this he had no doubt. If Eichmann was still alive, he had managed to elude his pursuers time and again and had removed all traces of his existence over the past dozen years. This new information from Germany, solid as it appeared to be, might be yet another false lead. Nevertheless, given what he now knew about Eichmann, Harel set about finding out if that was the case.
Alan Huffman, Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History (Collins).
The explosion and sinking of the Mississippi riverboat Sultana is one of the least known events of the most tragic period in American life. In April 1865, with the war won and the nation exhausted, the Sultana moved up the Mississippi carrying hundreds of Union soldiers. An estimated 2400 passengers were on the vessel when it exploded and sank in a fiery disaster that cost almost 1700 lives.
Adding insult to injury, most of the passengers aboard the Sultana were newly liberated prisoners of war who were finally headed home. Though unknown to most Americans today, the sinking of the Sultana represents the worst maritime disaster in this nation's history. Sultana is a book that makes for compelling reading that reaches the heart.
Perry Summerville awoke to find himself flying through the air. His first thought was that the Sultana had been running close to shore and he had been swept off the deck by an overhanging limb. When he hit the water he plummeted into the depths, came up about a hundred feet from the boat, and began swimming back toward it, calling for help, only to see that it was on fire. He instinctively turned downstream and swam away, which was not easy on his bum leg, with his shoulders and chest severely bruised by the blast and fall, and his back scalded by the steam. He found a section of the boat’s railing to hold on to, and he glanced back in wonder at the terrible scene, at the silhouettes of people clamoring on the decks, some being consumed by flames, while hundreds dove into the water, in most cases to drown.
Doug Stanton, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan (Scribners).
Every war constitutes a collection of human stories from the edge of courage and the extremes of existence. Author Doug Stanton tells the story of a small group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers who went into Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001, and then went after the Taliban. In Horse Soldiers, Stanton follows the experience of these soldiers as they experience the euphoria of an immediate victory only to find themselves ambushed, out numbered, and in an apparently hopeless situation.
Horse Soldiers is a story that demands to be told and Stanton tells it well. No one reading this account will believe that the establishment of a lasting peace in Afghanistan will be anything but unspeakably difficult -- and unquestionably important.
In reality, everyone had already decided that they would not be taken alive, if a gun battle came to that. They’d sat on their cots and written what they called their “death letters”—last missives home to wives and family about last thoughts. One Special Forces soldier had poured his heart out. He truly expected not to come home at all. “If you are reading this letter,” he wrote to his family, “things are not well for me. And I [had] so many things I wanted to do with you both. I love you and think of you as often as possible. You made me the happiest man in the world.” He had told his fellow soldiers, “Look, we’re in this together. And we need to know that coming back isn’t really an option for us. If we get killed in the process, we get killed. I don’t want [us] to shy us away from what we have to do.”
After writing their letters, the men removed wedding rings and emptied wallets of any possibly incriminating photos of family and friends (images and information that could be used against them in a torture session) and dropped these tokens of identity in large manila envelopes provided for the occasion. These were sealed and handed for safekeeping to the chaplain.
Norman Stone, World War One: A Short History (Basic Books).
Though World War II is a matter of almost constant fascination for modern Americans, the same cannot be said in the same sense for World War I. For most Americans that first world war appears so distant from our modern historical consciousness. At the beginning of that war, Europe was governed by crowned heads who ruled as if history would never sweep them away. In World War One, Norman Stone does what few historians would even attempt to do -- he tells the story of World War I in a brief 200-page account that puts the disaster of this global war into an understandable context.
Stone, an historian who formerly taught at Oxford University, now lives and teaches in Turkey -- the site of some of the most intense and disastrous fighting of the first world war. Without flinching, Stone tells the story of the hubris and insane optimism that brought Euro ispe into this disaster and he recounts the blunders and grinding murderousness of this war. Most Americans want to know more about World War I and, most importantly, they want to understand what that war meant. World War One: A Short History is a great place to find those questions answered.
A fire eating diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian foreign ministry called the Archduke’s murder ‘a gift from Mars’ – a wonderful excuse to solve all problems. Austria would be great again, Russia would come to hell, even Turkey might be taken over. In six weeks, a Bismarckian victory. It was, the German emperor said, ‘Now or never’. War was to be provoked, and the murder of the Archduke provided a perfect occasion. The Austrians were told that they should use it to attack Serbia, Russia’s client, and the means chosen was an ultimatum, containing demands that could not be accepted without the loss of Serbian independence. As it happened, the Austrians were not at all enthusiastic for war with Russia – Serbia, yes, but Russia was too great. The worries translated into delays – the Hungarians to be placated, the harvest to be brought in, and so on. Discreet banging on the table came from Berlin, and on 23 July the ultimatum was sent off. On the 25th, it was accepted but with reservations, and the Austrians declared mobilization – still no declaration of war. There was more banging of the table in Berlin, and war was declared on the 28th.
Robert Harvey, Maverick Military Leaders: The Extraordinary Battles of Washington, Nelson, Patton, Rommel, and Others (Skyhorse Publishing).
Robert Harvey, a recognized military historian, argues for what he calls a "golden age of military leadership." He dates this from 1757 and the Battle of Plassy to 1945 and the defeat of Germany and Japan. As he considers this era, Harvey argues that a succession of great military leaders redefined war and military leadership in order to produce the modern world and the shape of the military we know today.
In calling military leaders leaders "mavericks," Harvey points to leaders who had greatness thrust upon them. Many of them came from humble backgrounds and experienced setbacks and embarrassments that would have ended the careers of lesser men. In the end, these men changed the world and their military exploits are the stuff of legend. These men, generals, admirals, and marshals -- were paragons of leadership who reshaped both the world and the art of war through their genius. Harvey tells the story through essays that trace the stories of twelve remarkable leaders whose strategies and leadership qualities are studied even today. Maverick Military Leaders will be enjoyed by anyone seeking to understand war, leadership, and the shaping of the modern world.
Douglas MacArthur displayed a thoroughly old-fashioned taste for sharing the risks of the frontline with his men when it had become unfashionable; cool thinking on the battlefield; a huge penchant for seizing military opportunities as they arose as well as a gifted tactical grasp; a devotion to his men; and a desire to keep the numbers of casualties down even among the enemy. He also displayed some skill in selecting officers (although too many were sycophants); superb coordination of command and control in battle; the high intelligence evident in his speeches, his paternalist rule in Japan and his humanist attitude to his profession of war; contempt for disadvantageous odds; and an insufferably charismatic, superior and flamboyant personality. He was almost addicted to insubordination from an early age—towards Pershing, Roosevelt (whom, however, he admired) and then Truman (whom he did not).
Like so many of the mavericks, he became a major political leader and administrator, as proconsul of Japan for six years, following in the footsteps of Clive, Washington, Wellington and Grant. Yet, like all of them except Washington, he was a poor politician on his native soil, failing to understand that military glory, command and proconsular authority abroad cannot readily be transferred to the sphere of democratic politics, with its compromises, half-truths and accommodations with lobbies. In Asia, however, like Caesar, ‘he did bestride this narrow world like a colossus’. He was a maverick, one of the very last of the great warriors and a genius in warfare.
A special note. Horse Soldiers and The Unforgiving Minute contain brief episodes of inappropriate language that emerge, in the main, from conversations recounted in the context of battle.