As any buff knows, the term “World War II” is something of a misnomer. In fact, the conflict consisted of several great wars taking place at the same time, culminating by 1945 in one horrific symphony of destruction. It is customary for Americans to recognize two component conflicts—the European and Pacific theaters—but that barely does the situation justice. There were at least five. They included the Anglo-American struggle against Germany in Western Europe, what Americans might call “Eisenhower’s Crusade”; the immense Russo-German war in Eastern Europe, “Barbarossa to Berlin”; “Mare Nostrum,” the Mediterranean and North African campaign—a war started by Mussolini but most emphatically not finished by him; the “Great Pacific War” between the United States and Japan, featuring amphibious landings, island-hopping and fleet and air battles ranging across the largest theater of war in military history; and, finally, the “war for Asia,” a vast continental conflict in which the maniacal military clique ruling Japan had been trying since 1931 to conquer China and the continent’s entire southeastern and southern littorals—a true case of imperial overstretch.

The good news is that all of these conflicts got the screen time they deserved during the past year. Like the greater war they describe, the offerings in this year’s “Best Books” list are unparalleled in their diversity. Starting with Western Europe (i.e., ETO-West), my choice for best book is Donald L. Miller’s Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (Simon & Schuster, $35). You may remember the author’s name. Last year’s “Best Books” column featured his very fine D-days in the Pacific (Simon & Schuster), a gripping narrative of the entire Pacific War that was organized around the D-days, the amphibious landings carried out by the U.S. Army and Marines. In that book, Miller displayed great skill at interweaving campaign analysis with testimony from those who were there. Masters of the Air is, in a sense, more of the same. This is “greatest generation” literature, to be sure. It is exciting to read, and it is going to sell a mountain of copies. It is also, however, an incisive critique of the U.S. bombing campaign over Germany. As Miller sees it, the real problem with the U.S. air doctrine of “precision daylight bombing” was that the entire idea was conceived by a handful of U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) officers sitting around, quite literally, in a room. There was no objective evidence whatsoever that it would work, no experimentation, no trial and error. The same can be said for the notion that the Boeing B-17 had no need for a long-range fighter escort, that it could defend itself against German interceptors. As Miller shows convincingly, no one had ever tested those propositions in the prewar era. In place of evidence, there were slogans, repeated until they became mantras. “The bomber will always get through” was one, and so was the Norden bombsight’s alleged ability to “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel at 20,000 feet.”

Neither proved to be true, and as always the men at the point of the spear—the bomber crews—paid the price when doctrine clashed with reality. They were not so much warriors in the classic tradition as human guinea pigs being used to test a hypothesis. Thrown into an unworkable— even horrific—situation, they had to fend for themselves and improvise. Anyone who still thinks of the air war as a glamorous parade of handsome flyboys sailing above it all needs to read Miller’s book. In terms of personal danger and nail-biting terror, the bomber crews endured conditions as rough as any infantryman. With German fighters swooping down, up and often straight at them at breakneck speed, U.S. bomber losses were excessive from the start. They stayed terrible as the tide turned, and they could still be shocking even after the USAAF had gained air superiority over Europe. Eventually, they would include 77 percent of those crewmen who fought. It’s a sobering thought: Casualties among USAAF bomber crews were considerably higher than those suffered by the entire U.S. Marine Corps as it stormed its way across the Pacific.

Much of the problem stemmed from the new battle environment. If the Germans didn’t get you, anoxia or frostbite might, and if you were injured from any cause, it’s not as though there was an ambulance immediately available. Meanwhile, officers in the USAAF—Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker, for one—often seemed more concerned with proving that the official doctrine worked than with finding a sensible way to deliver bombs over Germany.

Miller’s book works on many levels: strategic critique, operational analysis and testimonial to the brave “bomber boys” who brought the war home to Germany at a time when no other American force could. Masters of the Air is a terrific read, and I hereby designate it “Book of the Year.”

Moving over to the ETO-East, we had a bumper crop of good books this year. Geoffrey P. Megargee’s War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 (Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95) is a hard-hitter that bypasses the usual discussion of the Wehrmacht’s efficiency to examine its criminality. Murdering civilians was not an unfortunate byproduct of a harsh war or something the Germans turned to out of spite after their hopes for victory in Russia were dashed. It was instead part of the initial operational plan for Operation Barbarossa, with the full knowledge and cooperation of the General Staff.

Similarly critical is Wolfram Wette’s The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality (Harvard, $29.95), which states categorically that the “facts are no longer in dispute” as to the crimes of the German army; “the legend of the Wehrmacht’s ‘clean hands’ now belongs to the past.”

My choice for best book in this area, however, deals with more pragmatic concerns. John Lukacs has been one of America’s most noted scholars of Central and Eastern Europe for many years now, and in his new book, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (Yale, $25), he offers his interpretation of Barbarossa’s origins. Lukacs is a traditionalist. He emphasizes the role of individuals in history, and he instinctively distrusts complicated explanations when a simple one will do. For decades, historians have tended to see the origins of the Russo-German war in the two competing ideologies of National Socialism and Communism. According to this view, a war between such hostile systems was sooner or later inevitable. In a sense, by turning on his Soviet ally in 1941, the inveterate anti-Marxist Adolf Hitler was simply being true to himself. Other scholars have pointed to Hitler’s obsession with acquiring German Lebensraum in the East, an idea that he had expressed in print all the way back in 1924 with the publication of Mein Kampf. Finally, there is the “hubris explanation,” that Hitler’s early military successes went to his head, unhinged him and led him to his doom in Russia.

Lukacs isn’t buying any of these. In fact, virtually every document of the era shows the same thing: Hitler’s main concern in 1941 was to find a way to bring Great Britain to heel, nothing more and nothing less. A lightning campaign that crushed the Soviet Union would remove Britain’s last potential ally on the continent. Barbarossa wasn’t an expression of Hitler’s ideology, therefore, but rather a stratagem in his war with Winston Churchill. For all the ink spilled over the importance of ideology, Lukacs thinks that the actual paper trail is thin. The famous Hossbach memorandum of 1937, in which Hitler outlined his plans for war to his service chiefs, scarcely mentions the Soviet Union. Likewise, Josef Stalin barely figured at all in Hitler’s calculations during the Munich Crisis of 1938. And in July 1940, when Hitler first ordered his generals to begin planning for a campaign in the East, he was hardly dreaming of Lebensraum in Ukraine. More urgent was the need to finish off England without having to cross the Channel. “There was method, not madness, in his reasoning,” Lukacs concludes.

For his part, Stalin was no longer peddling Communist ideology—if, indeed, he ever had. Lukacs sees him more as a “Caucasian chieftain” or a “peasant tsar,” a head of state much more than a party boss. Indeed, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had essentially ceased to exist, smashed by Stalin himself during the purges of the 1930s. He, too, was playing at strategy, and he fancied himself a statesman rather than a revolutionary. As Lukacs points out, this is not to argue that he was very good at it—quite the contrary. Stalin’s refusal to note the mountain of intelligence reports of the impending German attack flowing in from all possible quarters will forever mar his record. It almost cost him his job, and it came very close to costing his state its very existence.

Here, too, Lukacs is unimpressed with some of the more fanciful theories that have appeared of late, especially the one that has Stalin planning a strike into Europe in 1941 (and which therefore makes Operation Barbarossa a “preventive war” from the German side). A brute he may have been, but Stalin admired Germany (and Hitler) and had a healthy respect for the fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht. He was also on record repeatedly as warning the Western powers that the USSR was not about to “pull their chestnuts out of the fire” with regard to Germany. An intensely suspicious figure, he viewed reports of the German buildup as an attempt to goad him into a war that he felt certain he would lose. Likewise, his officials and aides rarely pressed the issue with him. They learned to pull punches in their reports, hesitating to tell him things they knew would anger him. When Richard Sorge, his spymaster in Tokyo, tried to tell him the truth, Stalin called him “a little shit”; when intelligence regarding Luftwaffe preparations for the impending attack came across his desk, Stalin blew up, telling his intelligence officer what he could do with his report. And when it finally happened, and the news broke that 3 million German and Axis soldiers were pouring over the border, he nearly collapsed altogether: “Everything is lost. I give up.” Lukacs’ book is essential reading on the true turning point of World War II: the day the Soviet Union was dragged into it.

Moving to warmer climes, we cross the Mediterranean to North Africa. The winner here is Ralf Georg Reuth’s Rommel: The End of a Legend (Haus, $24.95). Rommel remains one of the war’s stars. He has been profiled again and again, and there are more movies about him than all the other German generals put together. Reuth successfully avoids the trap of writing yet another biography and instead grounds the discussion in various specific areas of Rommel’s life and career: his relationship to Hitler, his skills (or lack thereof ), his relationship to Dr. Josef Goebbels’ propaganda machine (the book’s most intriguing chapter), the role he did or did not play in the resistance to Hitler and the legends that built up around him after his death.

Every student of the war knows the Rommel myth. He was a brilliant, thoroughly apolitical, soldier. No Nazi, he fought a good clean fight in the desert, earning a well-deserved reputation as one of history’s greatest commanders. Belatedly realizing the demonic nature of the regime he served, he took an active part in the plot to kill the Führer, was discovered and committed suicide in return for a promise not to harm his family.

Reuth argues that not one of these statements is really true. Rommel was hardly apolitical. His entire career was based on Hitler’s favor, and his attitude toward the Führer might reasonably be described as worshipful. He was very much Hitler’s fairhaired boy, a young officer who was repeatedly promoted over more senior (and sometimes more deserving) candidates due to Hitler’s intervention. His exploits at the head of the Afrika Korps were exciting, to be sure, but they were also an ultimately valueless sideshow. His disinterest in the dreary science of logistics, his love of action, his tendency to fly off wherever the fighting was hottest: All these may make for a good movie, but they are disastrous for an army commander under modern conditions, and they all contributed materially to his failure at El Alamein.

Above all, he was an insufferable publicity hog. He was a creation of Nazi propaganda, which made him into not only a hero but also a model Aryan and National Socialist, a man who could overcome far stronger enemies through sheer force of will. Nor was he merely a passive bystander to the creation of his own myth. He was an active accomplice. He loved nothing better than having a camera crew along with him while on campaign, and he would regularly order scenes to be reshot if his posture was insufficiently heroic or the lighting had not shown him to his best advantage.

Like all media creations, Rommel soon learned the price of stardom. During the years of victory, the German propaganda machine used him as an example for the nation. When things soured, he became a diversion from the increasingly bad news on all fronts. Churchill and the Allies even used Rommel’s brilliance as an excuse for their own bungling in the desert. And when he no was longer useful for any purpose, the regime dropped him altogether and eventually killed him. The charade didn’t even stop after his death. Once again, he had become useful, this time as a knight with clean hands, an anti-Hitler resistance fighter who could stand as an example for a newly democratized Germany.

In fact, there’s one thing you can rely on after reading Reuth’s book: Rommel was loyal to Hitler to the end. He would no more have taken part in a plot to kill the Führer than he would allow a supply officer to give him operational advice. Hitler had made Rommel’s career, and each man recognized in the other a kindred spirit—superior personalities unshackled by orthodoxy or convention. Both had risen to the top of their respective hierarchies, and both were determined to stay right where they were. The conspirators had approached Rommel, certainly, but only in the most oblique fashion possible, and no one ever said anything to him about assassination.

Heading for points east, we come to the most crowded field of all: books on the U.S.-Japanese conflict in the Pacific. H.P. Willmott’s The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action (Indiana, $35) is going to remain the definitive account of this decisive battle for years to come. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac, $35), likewise, is going to be on the top of the heap for a long while and is particularly useful in correcting previous deeply flawed accounts of the battle.

Alvin Kernan’s The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons (Yale, $26) tears the cover off an absolute military disaster: the annihilation of four squadrons of Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers at Midway. Often buried in the good news of an overall victory, and sometimes even rationalized as an important component of the victory (by luring down Japanese fighters so that U.S. dive bombers were able to attack unmolested from high altitude), the destruction of the Devastators appears here in far starker colors. Fifty-one planes went in, seven came back; 99 of 128 crewmen were killed; and not one torpedo hit home. Kernan, who was at the time an aviation ordnance-man for Torpedo Squadron 6 onboard the carrier Enterprise, ticks off the ingredients of disaster: obsolete aircraft, faulty doctrine and shoddy torpedo technology. As in Miller’s Masters of the Air, it was the men in the aircraft who paid the price.

All are good books, but the best is Robert S. Burrell’s The Ghosts of Iwo Jima (Texas A&M, $29.95). Ever since that horrible campaign, historians have justified it by the “emergency landing” theory. While Marine losses on Iwo Jima were sickening, so runs the argument, they were more than balanced out by the number of aircrew rescued from damaged bombers that made emergency landings on the island’s airstrip. Burrell argues, politely, that this is a myth, one concocted ex post facto to justify the decision to land on the island.

In fact, he says, the storming of Iwo Jima arose out of interservice rivalry. With the Philippines taken by the Army, and the Navy unsure of its next step after crushing the Japanese fleet in the Philippines Sea and Leyte Gulf, the U.S. effort in the Pacific had reached a crossroads. The Army wanted to go for Formosa (a big island requiring a huge land force), and the Navy was aiming at Okinawa. Deadlock loomed, broken only by the intervention of the new kid on the block: the USAAF. Its leaders backed the Navy’s Okinawa plan in return for Navy support for Operation Detachment: a landing on Iwo Jima. The rationale at the time was to establish a base for long-range fighter escorts for U.S. bombers. The Boeing B-29, a huge—and hugely expensive—aircraft, had so far failed to live up to its billing as a war-winning weapon, and its success was essential to the creation of a postwar independent air force. The one service branch not consulted about storming Iwo Jima? The Marine Corps.

The Marines hit the beach, suffered and died in huge numbers (Burrell gives a casualty figure of nearly 30,000) before finally taking the island. Unfortunately for the USAAF, Iwo proved to be completely unsuitable as a base for long-range fighters. Another justification was necessary for an American public shocked by the high death toll. Enter the emergency landing theory. To Burrell, the often-quoted numbers simply don’t add up. The argument that Iwo Jima saved 2,251 planes (and the lives of nearly 24,761 airmen), he notes, fails to take into account that some 500 of the planes that landed on Iwo Jima were on training missions; others were simply refueling, not damaged and limping home. It’s a simple matter of scale: It’s hard to imagine that Iwo Jima saved 2,200 Superfortresses when the entire Japanese military only accounted for 218.

This is an excellent book, well researched and clearly written. It is also controversial, and there already have been rumblings and counterblasts against the author’s arguments within both the Air Force and the Marine Corps. Don’t worry about Burrell angering the Marines by attacking their icon, however: He is a Marine.

And, finally, to the Asian mainland. There are probably 50 books published on the war in Europe for every one published on Asia. The reasons are many: The geography is unknown to American readers, the place and personal names are tongue-twisting and the languages required for serious research are not easy for Westerners. Nevertheless, the small number of books is usually balanced by their excellence, and interested readers can almost always satisfy their urges. This year, the choice was obvious: Dixee Bartholomew-Feis’ The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan (Kansas, $34.95).

The outbreak of war with Japan found Washington desperate for intelligence on the occupied territories in Asia. Indochina was about as far inside the Greater East Co-Prosperity Sphere as you could get, however, and there was no U.S. presence there of which to speak. The first expedient was to share intelligence with the British, Chinese and French through the so-called GBT network (for the last names of the three operatives: Laurence Gordon, Harry Bernard and Frank Tan). Later, small teams of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agents arrived, mainly to help rescue downed Allied fliers and to send weather reports. They also made contact with local political groups and secretly began arming and training them to fight the Japanese.

If only it had stopped there. In 1945 two things happened. First, in March the Japanese formally occupied Indochina, completely overthrowing French rule. Then, in August Japan itself collapsed. The tiny American presence in Indochina now found itself in the midst of a full-fledged revolution, spearheaded by a party known as the Viet Minh. Its leader, Ho Chi Minh, was a Nationalist who had been fighting the hated French for Vietnamese independence his entire adult life. He was also a Communist. The OSS largely ignored the latter and concentrated on the former. After all, it had been working with Communists in Europe for years. Anyone helping to fight Japan or Germany was by definition a friendly. These were operatives who had been recruited during the Roosevelt era, and if the president had been clear on one thing it was that the United States was not fighting a war to reestablish the colonial empires in Asia or anywhere else. They sympathized with the Vietnamese people, saw the Viet Minh as the best hope for an independent Vietnam and helped Ho whenever they could despite meager resources.

The role of the OSS in helping bring Ho to power has been hashed and rehashed over the years. Like everything about the American role in Vietnam, it will continue to generate controversy. Where this book shines is the prominent role it assigns to Ho himself. Far from the passive recipient of either American aid or enmity, the man code-named “Lucius” emerges here as a wily politico who used the Americans to his own advantage. Something as innocuous as asking his new friends for a pair of Colt .45 revolvers or an autographed photo of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault could become a crucial factor on the Vietnamese political scene, especially when Ho would brandish them as proof to rivals and friends alike that he had Washington’s ear.

For their part, the OSS men were minor functionaries suddenly being treated with all the respect due to a Roman proconsul. It’s no surprise it went to their heads from time to time. Above all, what emerges from this book is how far Indochina sat on the back burner of U.S. policy concerns in 1945. No matter what was to come in the future, Vietnam was at the time the ultimate sideshow. It makes me wonder what obscure corner of the world—someplace that barely registers today—might very well be on the front burner a few years from now. It also reminds us once again that World War II left no corner of the world unchanged.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.