Book Reviews

Book Cover: The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won

The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won

by Victor Davis Hanson
New York: Basic Books, 2017
652 pages, $48.00
ISBN 978-0-465-06698-8

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Reviewed by Mark Tunnicliffe

The so-called ‘post-war period’ ended in 1991 with the Peace of Paris and the re-unification of Germany, and with it, a new phase in human history. That said, we are still living with the legacy of the most destructive conflict humanity has ever inflicted upon itself: the Second World War. However, with the passage of time, historians are beginning to build a perspective, not only on the role of that war in driving the course of subsequent history, but on the nature and conduct of the war itself. Studies such as Richard Overy’s authoritative Why the Allies Won (London: Johnathan Cape, 1995) and Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory (New York: Random House, 2013-reviewed on these pages in CMJ Vol. 14, No. 1) provide analyses at various levels of granularity to demonstrate why that war was a lost cause for the Axis Powers.

Except that it wasn’t… By late-1941/early-1942, with the Soviet counter-offensive outside Moscow failing, a large British army surrendering at Singapore, US and British fleet losses in the Pacific, and the U-boat campaign still enjoying the late successes of its first “happy time” in the Atlantic, the nascent manpower and economic advantages of the Allies appeared irrelevant to an early Axis victory. The turning point of the war, then, was late-1942. Once the situation was stabilized – i.e. that the Allies were probably not going to lose – the question still remained: how did the Allied powers turn the situation into inevitable victory. Or did they also have help from the ‘character flaws’ inherent in the three main Axis powers?

This is the main lesson that the reader draws from Hansen’s analysis. The book’s title was chosen to illustrate the scope of the Second World War – a war fought in so many different and seemingly-unrelated locales across the globe, and employing heretofore unseen modalities. In Hansen’s account, the war progresses from an eminently winnable (from the Axis perspective) set of local engagements against “predicable enemies,” to a global war that they were incapable of winning. In other words, (although he does not use the term) Shakespearian hubris.

Hanson bases much of his discussion upon basic features of warfare known since classical times. For example, “…the winning side is the one that most rapidly learns from its mistakes,” and responds more quickly to changing circumstances. As a classical historian, therefore, he bases his arguments upon the old lessons of war – particularly those learned by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The structure of his book follows that of an earlier study (A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War, also reviewed in these pages – CMJ Vol. 7, No.2), in which he takes a thematic, vice chronological approach. Not surprisingly, he breaks the core of his discussion into themes based upon the original Greek elements of Air, Water, Earth, and Fire (although fortunately, he eschews the fifth one, Aether, to cover his discussion on ideology under the heading of “Ideas” instead). A final section containing chapters on command, leadership, and production is appropriately-entitled, “People.” The thematic areas examine the opposing capabilities in aviation (particularly strategic airpower), maritime forces, land operations, and firepower (largely on land), and notes that once the war had gone global, the Axis had no real means of attacking the core capabilities of their opponents, given their lack of a global maritime and air capability. His references to past military lessons are useful and appropriate, but the heavy weighting he places upon examples from the Classical period (and complete omission of anything from the Warring States period of China) betray his research background, and perhaps, his bias.

Indeed, a skeptical view of his book might suggest elements of a foray into a relatively new academic field for the author. In any book there will be small details of commission or omission that are either incorrect, or at least, open to debate. This one has a few. The PzKpfw Mk IV tank did not have sloped armour nor a KwK 42/70 gun, for instance – only the turretless Jagdpanzer version of this vehicle sported these features. The first plate in the book misidentifies German anti-tank guns (probably 75mm PaK 40s) as FlaK 88 anti-aircraft guns being produced in France. For a classical scholar to miss a detail on Second World War artillery is understandable, but failing to correctly translate the original French caption is a bit more problematic. In some cases, his omissions weaken his own thesis. For example, Hansen several times mentions a period in the Pacific war when USS Enterprise was the only carrier the US had in the Pacific. This was only strictly true as the Royal Navy had responded to a call for help from the US by transferring HMS Victorious to operate with Enterprise in the Pacific under US command, and using US carrier aircraft for the first half of 1943. Indeed, this example would have illustrated a point that Hanson makes elsewhere that the Allies (particularly the Americans and British) were mutually self-supporting, and that support did not just go one way.

However, to that skeptical reader, the question remains – do such glitches matter? In some books they can destroy the credibility of the author and his thesis. But not in this one. Here Hanson gets the big questions right. In the case of tank design, for instance, he deftly handles the common question (and one that this reviewer as a museum interpreter often has to field) – What was the best tank of the Second World War?” The “correct” answer is usually “…the one that is on the battlefield.” As Hanson points out, this is generally the tank that is produced in large numbers (because it could be assembled by masses of semi-skilled workers), transportable by rail and ship to the combat theatre, supported by an integrated and defended supply train, could navigate the bridges the engineers could construct, and was easy to maintain and operate. Usually this meant that that tank was a Sherman or a T-34. On the occasion that a Panther or a Tiger did encounter them, the finely-crafted German tank could knock them out – but not in the large numbers the respective Allies were able to get to the front.

Hanson also makes no apologies for the Allied bombing effort – noting that only the British and Americans were capable of mounting a serious and effective strategic bombing campaign. While outlining the costs and setbacks incurred in the air war over Germany, he defends it as vital to the final victory, making the usual arguments concerning disruption of German production and resources. Hanson also observes that Japan was essentially the first major nation to acknowledge defeat largely as a result of air power. The US campaigns in the Pacific effectively served to place the Japanese homeland within practical range of B-29 bombers, which then conducted low level fire bombing raids to lay waste to cities and infrastructure, leading to Japanese capitulation. Japan, in consequence, suffered an army of occupation, but, unlike Germany, not one of invasion.

Hanson is quite generous in his assessment of the role of the UK in the war – in its contribution, impact, and the competence of its leadership (both political and military). However, a potential frustration to Canadian readers is his penchant for flipping back and forth in his reference to the UK and the British Empire as if they were one and the same. In a sense, they were – Empire and Dominion forces used pretty much the same doctrine, uniforms, and equipment, and usually served under higher British command. But the figures Hanson often quotes (force size, GDP, and casualty rates, for instance) usually refer to the UK itself, tending to ignore, by way of examples, the relatively-large size of the Indian Army, the not-insubstantial contribution of the RCAF to Bomber Command, and the overall economic contribution of the Empire and Dominions to the larger British effort (the total Empire GDP during the war was, for example, about double that of the UK itself). This is to some extent understandable, because the nature of this contribution (which ranged from the sophisticated in the UK, to subsistence level in India) is hard to tease out in terms of its relevance, but Hanson might have done better to at least acknowledge it and take more care in making the distinction between the Britain and its Empire.

The Second World War (plural or not) was far too immense an event for one book to summarize or encapsulate. That said, Hanson’s well-written examination of the basic lessons of war that defined its successful prosecution (from the Allied perspective) provides a useful and important perspective. It does not replace earlier studies of the subject, but rather, it provides an excellent amplification and an additional point of view which deserves a place on the bookshelves of any student of this significant episode in world history.

That said, however, one wonders if his central thesis has not already been well summed up in the old misquote from Oscar Wilde: “To lose one world war may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Mark Tunnicliffe served for 35 years in the Canadian Navy, and another five with Defence Research and Development Canada, before retiring in 2013. He now serves as a volunteer interpreter and researcher at the Canadian War museum in Ottawa.