How is it that books, especially good ones, wind up in stacks, piles, and shelves without ever having been read? There are a number of avenues, of course, but as good a bet as any for me is length. How can I commit to a book that will clearly take weeks, if not months, to read when my ever expanding “To Read” list grows at a much faster clip than that?
That is precisely why Herman Wouk’s classic, The Winds of War, found its way to my bookshelf and remained there for years after I received it (a hand-me-down from someone else’s shelf, in fact). Yep, its 885 pages got it benched — and this: Winds of War, along with its even heftier sequel, War and Remembrance, have been included among the greatest American war novels of all times, and that’s all well and good, but I’m just not a war novel (much less a WWII novel) person.
Except that now I don’t know… maybe I am.
What I certainly have tired of are the books in which WWII or the Holocaust serve as the background. I know this puts me a bit outside the pale as so many — so many — of the generous book recommendations I have received over the years take place during that time period. And yes, there are some wonderfully character-driven, plot-driven, prose-driven novels written against the backdrop of the 1940’s, but that’s just it. The background becomes so common, so familiar, that it threatens to dwarf the action in the foreground, and, for me, often does.
Wouk’s Winds of War is different. This 2015 piece by David Frum in The Atlantic captures it better than I can, especially when he quotes Henry Kissenger’s praise for Wouk’s writing: “It is the war itself.” Wouk takes you across the globe into all of the arenas of action, and into the confidence of the most renowned (and infamous) world leaders; into the nitty-gritty details of military planning aboard a battleship, and then up above it all to the eagle eye perspective of a fighter pilot. “Wouk never lets the reader forget that the Second World War was the biggest collective undertaking in the history of the human race,” writes Frum. “No movie could ever depict it, because no movie could ever have the budget.” Instead, Wouk gives us the details that allow us, the reader, to imagine it all for ourselves; to place ourselves in its midst.
With the war in the foreground, each generation, since the novel’s publication in 1971, is free to see its own context as the backdrop. Of course, my context was the current pandemic, and against that backdrop, a number of themes felt tremendously relevant: How much luxury and comfort are Americans willing to sacrifice for a greater good? Is unrestricted admittance and aid of “others” a threat to the American ideal or the realization of it? Leaving aside for the moment legitimate questions about calling this pandemic “a war,” how can we harness the competence of America’s military to identify needs, craft clear missions, and — more often than not — get the job done?
Then there were passages like this:
The mark of the amateur in any field is to lose one’s head when the going gets hard. What marks the professional is his competence in an emergency, and almost the whole art of the soldier is to make sound judgments in the fog of war. Hitler’s propensity to lose his head took two forms: calling a panicky halt to operations when they were gathering momentum, and changing the objective in mid-campaign. … But Hitler was incapable of listening to anybody. This undid him and ruined Germany.
I’ll let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions about the relevance of that one.
There was this, which in a sweeping novel that seems to accept war as necessary, even at times noble, made me pause and also consider its absurdities:
Gliding across an imaginary line that splits the Pacific Ocean from the north to the south polar caps, the sunrise acquired a new label, June 23 . Behind that line, June 22 had just dawned. This murky international convention, amid world chaos, still stood. For the globe still turned as always in the light of the sun, ninety million miles away in black space, and the tiny dwellers on the globe still had to agree, as they went about their mutual butcheries, on a way to tell the time.
Wouk is better known for the stories he tells than the turn-of-phrase with which he tells them. Nevertheless, there are now a few post-its in my copy marking passages like the above, and this one from his foreword:
Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war, but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind. In this sense the most insignificant writer can serve peace, where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing.
So when all is said and done (all 885 pages), how did I feel about this book? Well, let’s just put it this way: Blue Bicycle Books (who is offering free home delivery during this pandemic — buy local!) expects to have War and Remembrance on my doorstep in the next couple of weeks. I have to see what happens to the Henry and Jastrow families next!
Yeah, it was that good.