Thursday, August 16, 2012

Inferno by Max Hastings - Part One

For those who want a month-by-month detailed overview of World War II, Hasting's Inferno is amazingly comprehensive.  Since he’s written other tomes on various events in the war, he dreaded being redundant here; thus, some sections are frustratingly brief.  The information he gives, however, is more than enough to overload your brain cells.  Because there is so much material, I want to cover a couple of key subjects in this review and finish up with further thoughts in next week’s post.

STATISTICS - The number of lives that were lost is staggering.  Hastings writes, Many people met death far from any battlefield.  The Jews of Europe suffered the most dramatic fate, but millions of other civilians – Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Chinese, Malays, Vietnamese, Indians – were extinguished by willful murder, chance explosion, disease or starvation. (p. 485) Around three quarters of all those who perished were unarmed victims rather than active participants in the struggle. (646)

An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945.  Thirteen million died under bombardment or in German-occupied regions. (329)  There is no commonly agreed total of war-related deaths around the world, but a minimum figure of 60 million is accepted… Russia lost 27 million and China at least 15. (645)
FIGHTING METHODS - Since I had recently finished James Bradley’s Flyboys, I was particularly interested in Hastings’ comparison between the Axis and the Allied fighting methods. (Bradley saw them as equally brutal.)  Hastings builds a strong case for the different viewpoints of the enemies.   

The Japanese army in its new conquests sustained the tradition of savagery it had established in China, a perversion of virility and warrior spirit which was the more shocking for being institutionalized.  Soldiers of all nations, in all wars, are sometimes guilty of atrocities.  An important distinction can be made, however, between armies in which acts of barbarism represent a break with regulations and the norm, and those in which they are indulged or even incited by commanders.  The Japanese were prominent among the latter. (212)

To the Japanese and Russians, the lives of their soldiers and civilians were completely expendable.  Hitler assumed he could easily take over Russia, but it did not occur to Hitler, after his victories in the west, that it might be more difficult to overcome a brutalized society, inured to suffering, than democracies such as France and Britain, in which moderation and respect for human life were deemed virtues. (139)

With the exception of a few such enthusiasts as Patton, Allied commanders understood that they were mandated to win the war at the lowest possible human cost, and thus caution was a virtue, even in victory. (643)

Japanese willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender, even in tactically and indeed strategically hopeless circumstances, disgusted Allied troops.  American and British soldiers were imbued with the European historical tradition, whereby the honorable and civilized response to impending defeat was to abandon the struggle, averting gratuitous bloodshed.  Americans in the Pacific, like British soldiers in Burma, felt rage towards an enemy who rejected such civilized logic. (424)

Hastings is scholarly, eloquent, and clear-eyed. This fascinating and hefty book is one of the most articulate and even-handed overviews of the war that you’ll ever read.  

1 comment:

Sherry said...

I read Hastings' book, Winston's War several months ago, and I thought much the same thing, that it was quite interesting and well-written.