Wednesday, May 26, 2010

No Simple Victories

Day 106 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Todd is reading Six Frigates: the Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, by Ian W. Toll. Todd was in the U.S. Navy. What a good book to be reading and pondering as we come up on Memorial Day, the holiday created to honor those who died in military service.

We had only an ad hoc navy during the American Revolution, and it took time and debate to create an official navy in the 1790s, but it was firmly in place for the War of 1812. Looks like this book lays out the issues and isn't just about the battles, and reviewers praise the first book of Toll, a financial analyst before he was a writer. I love the names of the six frigates that formed our early Navy: Constitution, Constellation, Congress, President, United States, and Chesapeake.

One of the Navy websites (linked above) is America's Navy: a Global Force for Good, which brings up something Quentin has encountered. He is reading No Simple Victory, by Norman Davies, about World War II. I'll let Quentin give you his summary:

I've 10 pages left in No Simple Victory, Norman Davies' effort to capture the whole of WW II in Europe Short version: This was essentially a conflict between two horrific totalitarian states. We ended up aiding one of them, which ensured defeat of the Nazis and incidentally established us as a premier economic power. America's sacrifices and strategic efforts were modest, relative to what others did and went through. In hindsight, particularly with the public awareness of the death camps and the repression of information about the gulag, we found a WW II narrative of "a battle against evil" that we still believe. Every other country has a strange and particular narrative of the conflict. Not a ton of laffs, but a very healthy corrective to Stephen Ambrose, etc.

And tonight my book group will be discussing Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford, reminding us that nothing was simple on the homefront, either, even in the United States, distant from so much of that war, but dramatically involved by way of Pearl Harbor. This novel handles gently the rude fact of our concentration camps for Japanese-Americans during WW II. Here is another debate, of course, but the novel shows amazing patience and loyalty in the face of that terrible dislocation of American citizens.


Kathleen said...

Quentin is ALSO reading A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel, which lays out some info on how the brain works when reading words or hearing words, which is what relates to yesterday's entry on the See What I'm Saying Book. Turns out I wrote about the WW II book he is reading, due to the upcoming holiday.

Both books--the reading book and the WW II book--explore different ways we compose and understand narrative.

marydee said...

Thanks, Quentin, for the book suggestion -- a book about reading? I must check it out. Reading this blog can be dangerous...I keep adding to my stack of books!


Kathleen said...

Mary, Manguel has more than one book on books! And Francine Prose has Reading Like a Writer, and Jane Smiley has 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Plus, there's been a little surge of books about reading lately, maybe to counter all the research/trends that show we are reading less!

Anonymous said...

I will have to read Norman Davies' "No Simple Victory," and see how (and whether) it succeeds in broadening the canvas on which we see WWII.

Books like Ambrose's "Band of Brothers" and "D-Day" do have an individual and particular view of the war: "our" war, or (as I believe I recall him saying) "our fathers'" (or brothers', or uncles') war": the American view of the war generally being limited to the period in which the US was engaged in the fight. (Just as our monuments do.) Likewise, other nations' (and authors') narratives may focus on their own particular experience: whether recounting their clash with Germany, Italy, the USSR, Japan, or another player. Or, indeed, whether they are telling the story from the standpoint of someone within Germany, or Japan - though there are a variety of potential viewpoints regardless of nationality. (I recall reading at one point the official contemporaneous German account of the battle of Stalingrad, ordered to be written up in order to promote a better understanding of the course of the battle. Quite obviously that tells a different story than might be presented by Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Niemöller, writing about the German home front.)

I think of the many books that have been written about WWII and its aftermath (and the decade before the war's outbreak - whether you date that from 1931 or 1937, 1939 or 1941) - as being tiles in a mosaic. Whether it's "The West Point Atlas of American Wars: Volume II" (which maps the Japanese territorial changes and battles from before 1937 to the proposed invasions of the Japanese mainland in November 1945 and March 1946); or John Keegan's "The Second World War," "Six Armies in Normandy," "Barbarossa"and others; Williams Shirer's "The Nightmare Years" or "The Collapse of the Third Republic:" John Lukacs' "The Duel" or "Five Days in London: May 1940;" or the contemporaneous Clark Lee's "They Call It Pacific" (published in 1943), Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen's "DIary of a Man in Despair" (written during the war, and published after after the war - and his death in Dachau) or Marc Bloch's "Strange Defeat" (also written during the war, in 1940, but published after the war in 1946) - they all form tiles or pointillist dots by which we form our picture of events.

But, the framework I find most compelling does not cast the story into a narrative of two competing ideologies, into whose wake the US was swept. Rather, it is a more complex story of the conflict between what seemed to be the faltering ideal of democracy (and parliamentary government) and mass movement ideologies. Not simply a conflict between totalitarian regimes and ideologies, but a challenge of those regimes to the notion and practice of democratic / electoral government; with irredentist, super-nationalist, and radical movements denouncing incumbent and gradualist systems as fundamentally illegitimate and exhausted.

The fact that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR ultimately clashed (after both they, and other, similar movements around the world, had attacked democratic / parliamentary regimes throughout the 1920s and 1930s) is a fact, but I don't think it is the sole or ultimate fact. Both challenged the existing orders, domestically and around the world, in the names of either a glorious (imagined) past, or a radiant (and equally imaginary) future. The ultimate fact, I think, was power, and the conflict between them came down to which was going to succeed the democratic, parliamentary and formerly imperial states of Europe.

But that's just part of the story. Events in Latin America and Asia had their own dynamic and motivations. And, the latter is ultimately what sucked the US into the war, in spite of America's generally isolationist tendencies. More tiles in the mosaic.