Sunday, June 1, 2008

No Shock, Just Awe

A couple of days ago, someone gave me a copy of "Reporting World War II," a collection published by the Library of America.

I highly recommend it to anyone in journalism who hasn't read a lot of these correspondents, or military people or anyone else who enjoys good close-up reportage.

What is striking is the fine writing, most on a low-key style that demands your attention lest you miss something. Correspondents' stories run from 1938 through the end of 1946.

Virtually all the big stars are here: Ernie Pyle, William Shirer, Brendan Gill, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward R. Murrow, Richard Tregaskis, Sigrid Schultz, A.J. Liebling, Wes Gallagher, Homer Bigart, Gertrude Stein and many others. You can pick your favorite theater or war, country, diplomatic strategy, abused peoples or writers; the book is organized in chronological fashion, starting with the Munich Treaty of 1938 and going through battles in Western Europe, the Pacific, North Africa, the Russian front and the atomic bombings of Japan, ending with one of the Nuremberg war-crimes trials in 1946. You can also read a fair amount of stories about the home front, including poignant accounts of the murders of black servicemen, told in the "Negro press," life in a Japanese-American internment camp, stories about war bond rallies and even complaints about accurate war information reaching civilians back home.

The other day, when appeasement and Neville Chamberlain's name were being thrown around, I looked up the former prime minister just to see if there had been any recent historical revision of his reputation. Unlike that radio idiot on the Chris Matthews' show the other day who was mouthing off about appeasement but then couldn't define it, I had a clear idea of its meaning as used to cudgel people of different political persuasions.

Much to my surprise, the Wikipedia article took a rather kinder view of Chamberlain's actions, different from what I remembered from history class and private readings. So I was glad to read Shirer's first-hand account of Chamberlain, who he compares to a black vulture. The contempt fairly drips from Shirer's words. Of course, I may be going in circles a little here--I read Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as a kid and formed some of my sense of history from that. Then, my thinking is confirmed by, voila, Shirer again.

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