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The War

by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Knopf, New York, 2007, $50.

It’s long been called the Good War. And if ever a war had to be fought, World War II was probably it. Of course, that didn’t make the fighting or the dying any easier —either for the soldiers on the battlefields or for their families and friends on the home front.

The appeal of The War, the print companion to Ken Burns’ documentary, is that it avoids the big picture and sticks resolutely to the men in the foxholes and manning the aircraft carriers, stays close to those at home organizing scrap drives and buying bonds. What we get here is a view of the war from the perspectives of the ones who actually fought it and those who were scared sick for them.

There are stories from abroad: an account from Sascha Weinzheimer, who spent the war in Manila with her family as a prisoner of the Japanese; the exploits of Quentin Aanenson, a young fighter pilot from the Midwest flying missions over Europe; and the European ground war, seen through the eyes of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed entirely of Japanese-Americans, many of whose families had been relocated to internment camps.

News of the folks at home includes the dispatches of Al McIntosh, a newspaper editor in Luverne, Minn., who wrote about how the war impacted the Midwest. His columns chronicled everything from a soldier’s lost dog to the joy a parent felt when a postcard arrived from a son in the South Pacific, saying he was OK. McIntosh also wrote of the sorrow that enveloped his own small town when a War Department telegram arrived.

The stories are remarkable, but the photographs carry the most emotion. One picture taken in Sicily in 1943 captures how civilians react when war pulls into their street: In the foreground, a medic administers plasma to a wounded GI; in the background, four females watch from a doorstep. The eldest, a woman in her 60s, clutches her hands, while beside her, a middle-aged woman looks on with infinite compassion, an understanding of suffering etched into her every feature. A third woman, perhaps in her early 20s, stares off bleakly past the camera. Beside her, though, is the focal point of the photograph: a curly-haired little girl, 5 or 6, who peeks out through half-shut eyes, one tiny hand creeping tenuously to the neck of her dress in a gesture of horror.

Although this most certainly was a justifiable war, it was, like all wars, tragic and merciless and gory and wasteful of the lives it ripped apart. A British veteran is quoted: “The adult world should forever hang its head in shame at the terrible, unforgivable things done to the young.”


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here