I’d wager that World War II has been written about more than anything else in history, and that includes the Kardashian baby and Miley’s twerking. This is understandable. One of the world’s most civilized countries—one that gave us Goethe, Nietzsche, good beer—suddenly contracted social rabies and tried burning the whole thing to the ground. Hence: Endless reporting, art and analysis. As it’s the most pivotal global event of the 20th century, it’s something a man should be passingly conversant in, so you don’t look like a completely uninformed, entitled nitwit in front of your leathery grandpappy who doesn’t understand why kids today are such entitled nitwits (these dudes don’t have any truck with no government shutdown, and they won’t with you, neither). Because the war has been written about at such length, this list is by no means exhaustive. But it’s a place to start, you whippersnapper.
A.J. Liebling: World War II Writings
Liebling, a war correspondent from The New Yorker, was on hand in the early days of the war, long before the Americans turned into the elite fighting force that stormed Normandy and swept across the continent. In North Africa, the American military was still seen as the hapless, bowlegged little brother of the British, and Hitler had not yet suffered the reverses that would ultimately spell the end of the Reich. Liebling’s early dispatches—including Mollie and Other War Pieces and Normandy Revisited—make for some of the best war reportage you’ll ever hope to read.
My grandfather was a Marine at Okinawa, and this book makes me understand why he chose never to talk about his experiences there.
Hitler’s Empire, by Mark Mazower
The Nazis in Mazower’s account talk a good game about a “Thousand Year Reich” or whatever Satanic Prussian fever dream they had at the time, but the author shows clearly that they had zero plans for governing their conquered territories beyond making shit up as they went along. Reading about these guys looting and mass murdering their way across the continent—with no idea how to actually go about ruling those they hadn’t gotten around to killing yet—actually does the impossible: It makes our own government look good by comparison.
Retribution, by Max Hastings
Hastings covers the last year of the war with Japan in frightful detail: Iwo Jima, crazy old General MacArthur, Curtis LeMay and the effective incineration of Japan from the sky. It also engages, as any World War II endgame book should, the myriad analyses of dropping atomic weapons, both in terms of morality and strategic aims. Many think that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a not-so-subtle message for the Soviets. Hastings doesn’t totally buy that, but he gives the argument a fair shake.
HHhH, by Laurent Binet
Reinhard Heydrich is often considered a second-tier Nazi villain; his name isn’t thrown around like Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Goering. But Heydrich drank the same evil Kool-Aid that sustained those guys—perhaps even a concentrated, extra-evil flavor. Known popularly as “The Butcher of Prague” and by Hitler personally as “the man with the iron heart,” Heydrich was one of the main culprits behind the Final Solution. Fortunately, he was assassinated in 1942 by a pair of daring Allied commandos—a Slovak and a Czech, both exiled from their homeland by the Nazis. Binet’s book is meta-historical: It’s a fictionalized account of an author trying to write a book about the killing of Heydrich, which itself became HHhH. The story itself needs no embellishment, though; there’s no need for Tom Cruise with an eye patch muttering “We’ve got to kill Hitler.”
With the Old Breed, by E.B. Sledge
Sledge, who in Spielberg’s miniseries The Pacific is portrayed by an older version of the kid from Jurassic Park, was an enlisted Marine who was at Okinawa and Peleliu. My grandfather was also a Marine at Okinawa, and after reading Sledge’s book concerning his time enjoying the Emperor’s hospitality, I now understand why he chose never to talk about his experiences there.
Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre
Malcolm Gladwell liked this book, but despite that, it’s actually pretty sweet. A bunch of British intelligence guys (including 007 creator Ian Fleming), stage a massive deception using a found corpse and science in the days leading up to Normandy.
Life and Fate, by Vassily Grossman
The War & Peace of World War II, Grossman’s epic novel Life & Fate is 900 pages of absolute war and not much peace, taking the reader inside Stalingrad during the Nazi siege. But writing a book about the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was known in the Soviet Union, wasn’t quite enough to give Grossman a pass with the Soviet authorities when it came time to publish his masterwork. Grossman’s ruminations were considered dangerous enough by the Soviet authorities that they confiscated the manuscript and typewriter ribbons, and it wasn’t published until years after his death.
The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
This is probably the most gripping World War II book I’ve ever read. You almost feel bad for Mailer, having written such a perfect debut, because for all his later fame in covering the “Siege of Chicago” in 1968 and headbutting Gore Vidal, he never again wrote another novel this good.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
The film version really does no justice to Joseph Heller’s tragicomic masterpiece. While it occasionally can be difficult to keep track of the ensemble cast of zany characters, Yossarian’s attempts to get grounded from bomber duty by way of insanity (his argument: you’d have to be insane to fly these missions) reflects the nonsensical logic of war in a way that would be heartbreaking if Heller wasn’t so damn funny.
Willie & Joe, by Bill Mauldin
Like famed journalist Ernie Pyle, cartoonist Bill Mauldin covered the war from the POV of the common grunt. His famous Willie & Joe comic strip, which at one point had General Patton threatening to throw him in jail, eventually netted the 23-year-old Mauldin the first of his two Pulitzers. Mauldin conveys in a single panel what many writers couldn’t in 300 pages.