5 April 2018
After reading several histories on the breadth of World War II and many, many more on specific aspects of the conflict, I have to agree with author Hanson’s observation that it exhausts superlatives. The sheer statistics become mind-numbing, if not incomprehensible. The viciousness, especially in its final months, shock. That is become the combatants knew what current leaders and military personnel seem not to know, “in any existential war, only the side that has the ability to destroy the homeland of the other wins.”
WWII is one of the few major wars where the losing side killed more soldiers than the winners, and where far more civilians perished than soldiers. It sparked a powder keg of warped values where society, politics and militarism became conveniently and confusingly mixed, “National Socialism was to be a force multiplier of Prussian militarism.” Fascism was to return Italy to the glory of the Roman Empire and Japan’s Bushido was to prove superiority over other nations and races in every sense of the word.
These ideologies marked a stark change from the old boys’ school of deliberate diplomacy. The psychology and motivations of new leaders along with modes of action and industrial might signaled this would not be a static or contained war. It was less about pride and flag and more about resource starved and seemingly threatened Axis powers lashing out. This was a sea-change to the status quo. Consider what the English ambassador to France confessed in 1930, “We English, after the war (First World War), made two mistakes: we believed the French, because they had been victorious, had become Germans, and we believed the Germans, through some mysterious transmutation, had become the Englishmen.”
This was a war of manufacturing, supply, communication and logistics. Men and materiel could be moved like never before. Technology gave man new ways to fight and to arm ever larger militaries, “A Jeep or tank in 1945 looked more like its counterpart in 2016 than in 1918.” Hitler was said to remark that he would never have invaded the Soviet Union had he known of Stalin’s tank production capabilities.
The Nazis created ever more models or tank and airplane while the Allied powers accepted deficiencies in design and, instead, opted for massive standardized output. The Sherman and the T34 flooded battlefields. Hanson writes a beautiful and insightful line, “We often forget that the Third Reich was postmodern in creative genius but premodern in actual implementation and operations.” In other words, the Axis powers should have won in theory.
In reality, the Allied nations economic output created larger, better equipped militaries. It was dramatically lopsided. I remember reading elsewhere that for every Japanese soldier there was one man behind supporting him. For every American soldier in the Pacific theater, there were 12-14 men. Those men being in logistics, motor pool, communications, mess tent, etc.
Hanson makes this point time again. That is, how numbers of men and materiel overwhelmed. The book gets granular, right down to rate of fire of various machine guns. This is where his style of research, analysis, and writing differ from a Ryan or Beevor who lean more to narrative and individualized stories. Hanson’s work is more academic but not dry. It substantiates by offering more substance. That makes it a more involved read.
One cool bit comes in the form of an alternative history musing. Could the Axis have hunkered down mid-war, held the won territory and mobilize conquered assets to wage a different war? I will not share the conclusion as this is a fascinating sub-topic.
Hanson succinctly summarizes, “The Allies learned to fight like the Axis; the Axis never learned to produce like the Allies.” This devastatingly cruel conflict could have been avoided, claims the author, if not for “British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration.” I enthusiastically recommend this work.