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War on Earth, Ill Will to Men : THE SECOND WORLD WAR: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt: $29.95; 800 pp.) : THE SECOND WORLD WAR by John Keegan (Viking: $22.95; 600 pp.; 0-670-82359-7) : THE CHRONOLOGICAL ATLAS OF WORLD WAR TWO by Charles Messenger (Macmillan: $32.50; 224 pp.; 0-02-584391-5)

December 24, 1989|Don Cook | Cook is an author and former Paris Bureau Chief for The Times

Half a century ago in 1940, the full fury of World War II was about to engulf Europe, and after that, virtually the entire world. Hitler's war--for that is what it was, at least in its European beginnings--was the last great armed conflict to be launched by a major nation in pursuit of the infamous doctrine laid down by Karl von Clausewitz in 1833: "War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means."

We now can see 50 years later that the Gotterdammerung ending of Hitler's war in Berlin in 1945 also was a burial for the Clausewitz doctrine, at least in Europe. Perhaps in Iran and Iraq, or in Lebanon or the Philippines or in Southeast Asia or Latin America, there are forces that regard war as simply "political relations by other means." But this ended in Europe when Germany and France joined in Jean Monnet's European Coal and Steel Community in 1953.

Europe has enjoyed the longest unbroken period of peace in all its history, and now we are seeing the Soviet threat of war as a political instrument against its European neighbors also being dismantled by Mikhail Gorbachev week by week. It is too costly to maintain, too wasteful, and war is too ghastly even to pretend to contemplate any longer.

Not surprisingly, the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II is spawning various works that re-examine what happened and how it happened. These are not "revisionist" histories, because there is nothing really to revise in the light of historic records that are now open. Unlike the outbreak of World War I in 1914, which probably could have been prevented if there had been some exercise of common sense instead of a great-power diplomatic muddle, the march to war by Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939 was as straight as Berlin's famous Unter den Linden heading for the Brandenberg Gate.

England's two most prominent contemporary writers of history--John Keegan and Martin Gilbert--approach the retelling of this monumental and complex military-political story of six years of war with very different writing styles and focuses of historic interest. Keegan, who once taught military history at Sandhurst, England's West Point, is much more analytical, concise and coherent in a book that is 200 pages shorter than Gilbert's massive 800-page "Complete History."

Gilbert is the most prolific of writers, as his five-volume biography of Winston Churchill attests, and he races through World War II at a breathless pace. The book is crammed with detail that mixes the trivial with the important and jumps back and forth from one theater to the next with the speed of a television viewer channel hopping late at night from one old movie to another.

On one single page, I found Gilbert recounting the deportation of 24,000 Jews from Western Galicia, Hitler's award of the Knight's Cross to an SS divisional commander, Rommel halting at El Alamein in North Africa, an Australian raid on the Japanese in New Guinea, 124 Allied merchant ships sunk in the Atlantic, and the smuggling ashore on the French Riviera of a French-born British agent to open up an escape route for Allied airmen.

It is a pity that Gilbert, with his vast knowledge of Churchill and the records of the great wartime conferences, does not give us a little more insight into the politics of the war and a little less of a catalogue of deportations and atrocities. He deals with the Casablanca Conference in one paragraph and does not even mention that Gen. Charles de Gaulle was there.

But in retelling the well-known battles of the war itself, both authors have fitted into the jigsaw of combat the story of the vital importance to victory of Allied intelligence and code-breaking. This side of the story of the war was held in remarkable secrecy for 25 years after unconditional surrender, and although much has been written about the work of the Poles and the British on the German "Enigma" code machines and the work of the Americans in breaking Japanese naval and diplomatic codes, these are the first full-scale histories of the war that analyze the effect of rapid and accurate intelligence on the course of battle and decisions of strategy.

The two most important examples are the Battle of Midway in the Pacific early in 1942 and the Battle of Normandy in Europe in 1944. It is well known that breaking the Japanese naval code enabled Adm. Chester Nimitz to position the U.S. Navy correctly off Midway Island instead of falling for a decoy force steaming more openly to the north toward Alaska. But Keegan, in a masterly account of the battle, makes clear that even though the fleet was in the right place, it was still "luck and a shrewd guess" that put dive bombers from the carrier Enterprise on top of a Japanese carrier group just as it was refueling its planes. As Keegan dryly summarizes: "Within exactly five minutes, from 10:25 to 10:30, the whole course of the war in the Pacific had been reversed."

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