Since January 1 I have been listening to the audiobooks The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s immense 2-volume novel about World War II. I finally finished it last night, listening to the final passage twice because it’s so powerful. The books were blockbusters and turned into a hit television miniseries when I was a kid; because I was from a military/diplomatic family, perhaps, they seemed to be on every bookshelf. I don’t know that they have been standing the test of time, though Herman Wouk certainly is, having recently celebrated his 101st birthday (and published a new book at age 100!)
However, I’m a big fan of Wouk, especially City Boy, which I constantly recommend. I put off reading the Winds of War series forever both because I was daunted by its size and because I wasn’t much interested in war novels. This year I finally dived in.
One of the problems with audiobooks is you can’t highlight passages; there were quite a few that I wanted to note, for the portentous gloom on the present or for providing insights into World War II I never had previously.
For the first, there are several times where a passage seemed to be as appropriate to our own times: the easy dismissal of Hitler as a clown upon the national stage, the casual dismissal of concerns about genocide, the fear that refugees might be terrorists, even commentary on how new technologies are changing the world. If it was published in 2016, I might have find some of the analogs too obvious!
On the second: By the 1970s when Wouk completed the second book we must have already been steeped in the lore of World War II: that America selflessly saved the world once they realized Hitler was a monster. Wouk disabuses any reader of that notion, conveying the slow entry into the war, the ambivalence and distrust of intelligence about the Germans’ treatment of Jewish people and others, and the reluctance to take Jewish refugees (sound familiar?) One character in particular is a frustrated diplomat who eventually quits the foreign service because he sees so little response to the alarming information he’s uncovered; there is also a passing vignette about Jewish people escaping from Auschwitz and making their way all the way across Nazi-occupied Europe to bring evidence to the Allies and being met with indifference.
There are also protectionists at home, isolationists, people who don’t want to expend resources in Europe, and another major character (THE major character) is a Naval Officer with amazing insight and precognition laboring to get the U.S. military to even lend equipment to Allied Europe for the war. Wouk doesn’t even spare Jewish Americans, who can be as maddening as antisemites; he gives us this point of view through a Jewish American who eventually ends up at Terezin and Auschwitz and survives; she lives in Europe and sees the problems firsthand, but when she returns home early in the novel she is frustrated at the ambivalence of friends and family, even echoing the wariness of accepting Jewish refugees.
Wouk also presents a series of arguments against America and the Allies through a German military official; his point of view is presented as passages from a book purportedly translated after the war by the naval officer mentioned above. Through his words Wouk presents the German point of view, but also challenges the easy moral superiority of the allies: the English have conquered and colonized the world, the German reminds readers; America is built on genocide of Native Americans and slavery. I don’t know if Wouk intends to mock liberal Academics by having a Nazi war criminal make the same arguments, or if he means merely to face the facts and force readers to do the same.
Because the thing is, despite all this — and as a devout Jewish writer — Wouk is clearly a patriot, and ultimately his masterpiece is a love letter to America. But his is not a jingoistic, uncritical patriotism: it is a patriotism steeped in true knowledge of his country. Among other revelations is that such a patriot used to exist.
Throughout the novel I felt like the book, despite many flaws, was authentic in a way World War II novels can no longer be, because it is written honestly and from living memory, and not with hindsight or imbued with current political and historical values. But in retrospect, it must be informed by the late 1960s and 1970s when Wouk wrote it, as much as it is the work of a World War II combat veteran. I suspect that Wouk’s purpose was at least partly to address the Vietnam-era anti-military mood, but without asserting a pro-Vietnam-war stance.
Yet, I think the historical importance of the books is that they capture the mood of the war so well, and Wouk incorporates many facts and real people in his book to also make the books a thorough debriefing on the war.
I would be remiss as a reviewer if I didn’t say that this is also fundamentally a statement by a man of faith, affirming his Jewish identity and religion. Early on in the book I wondered why the principal characters were Christians, even anti-Semites (when one of the Henry boys brings home a Jewish fiance, the talk behind is back is vicious). There is one lapsed Jew in Aaron Jastrow, a famous American writer who winds up “stateless” after living in Italy for many years, and is thus cast upon the tides and ends up in Nazi hands. Through his trials Jastrow comes back to his faith; perhaps ironically since it is the identity he tried to cast off that dooms him. Wouk’s writing is at its best here, and the work almost feels confessional. If not exactly against atheism, it is an argument at least for a such-thing as “intellectual man of faith.” That, too — like the unblinded patriot — might be an idea that has fallen on hard times.
Finally, on a personal note: As a fanatic of City Boy, I had to keep reminding myself that this was by the same author. Perhaps the only correspondence is honesty about how bowled over and weakened men/boys can be by love, but there is little similarity between the tall, beautiful, courageous military men who carry Winds of War and the plump, smitten, bookish Herbie Bookbinder. Herbie is deeply relatable; even as I cheered them on, I felt little affinity with the Henry men. Literary novels might fall into bins: the personal/local/autobiographic, and the epic/sweeping/historic. I like both but favor the former. I need to read City Boy yet again and write a fan letter to Mr. Wouk before he turns 102.