Societies are problematic things. Empires, too. They never seem capable of locating that moment of stolid clarity, when all is good on God’s earth and everyone can get about his or her business without being inordinately harassed by barbarians or the taxman. Either they’re on the ascent and nervous about keeping up appearances, or the downward slide has set in and everybody’s yelling to hang on. Civilizations, by definition saddled with a commentariat that likes to opine about such things, can be like patients eternally on the analyst’s couch. Things aren’t going well, they might say. It all seemed fine a few years ago. And then…things just changed. I’m not sure when it happened, or how. This colors how we look to the past. Most analyses of the Roman Empire skip past the glory days and settle in for a good long Gibbon-quoting look at how things fell apart. That’s the good stuff, it would seem.
The United States is thrashing through a rough bout of self-analysis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the doom-saturated 1970s. Most of today’s agita stems from a legislative and executive branch whose dysfunctionality could make Italian politicians sigh in relief at for once not being the worst on the scene. Faux-libertarian partisans scamper over each other to tear down every institution or rule that impinges on their narrowly-defined “freedom” while fatally indecisive progressives bleat from the sidelines. Both sides withdraw into self-selected ideological ghettoes. A miserable economy, terrorism, and a sense of the inevitability of environmental collapse don’t help matters. Why else the flood of apocalypse fiction and films?
A sign of just how bleak the country’s sense of the future is can be found in Max Brooks’s World War Z. Although the speculative novel — which rather cleverly reimagines Studs Terkel’s The Good War as an oral history of a world-spanning zombie onslaught — spends much of its time in rather bleak scenery, it also contains a clear trumpeting of hope. Because after Brooks gets done reporting how different nations respond to the assault of the undead, the interviewees (particularly the Americans) talk about how they fought back. Not only do they restructure a shattered nation, they recapture the concept of purpose, of collective action, of citizenship.
It’s a kind of hope that is almost nowhere to be found in George Packer’s awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul, The Unwinding. It’s a big and unwieldy book with outsize aims and somewhat foggy construction. The book — a couple sections of which have appeared previously in The New Yorker — tries to grasp at the ineffable, to get the patient on the couch to dig deep into their subconscious and say how that makes them feel. By the end of everything, the book may not have achieved one great breakthrough in the manner of cinematic shrinks, but it has illuminated a lot of dark corners and diagnosed a host of concerns. The cure, that’s something else.
Packer takes a similarly broadminded view of his subject as he did in 2005’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, his last substantial work of nonfiction. There, his reportage covered everything from the corridors of power and ineptitude in the Pentagon and the Green Zone to the dust- and shrapnel-littered streets of Baghdad. Here, the sweep is just as big, but with potentially broader implications: the unraveling of American society:
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape…When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life: organized money.
The structure of The Unwinding is a curious one. Instead of taking the literal approach of the journalist who has logged the miles and filled notebooks with impressions and quotes, Packer decants his theory into an episodic string of personal narratives of ordinary citizens. They live the days and nights of a country where bulwarks against rapacious greed and antisocial behavior have been steadily dismantled by forces on all sides of the ideological divide. Those alternating narratives are then interspersed with several thumbnail portraits of celebrity Americans (politicians, rappers, TV stars) whose collective grandeur provides something of a chilling and distant counterpoint.
Packer’s people make a lively mix, and one that doesn’t feel mechanically plotted. He delivers as lyrical oral history the lives of a factory worker from Ohio, a North Carolina entrepreneur, a tech billionaire libertarian, and a number of Tampa residents just trying to keep their lives from unraveling after the bursting of the real estate bubble. The writing attempts to catch each one of their voices without aiming for mimicry. There is clipped data delivery in the chapters on Peter Thiel (the PayPal billionaire who began using his monies for libertarian causes), a richer flow from Dean Price (the North Carolinian progeny of nails-tough tobacco farmers), and an evenhanded, slightly depressed viewpoint from former Democratic political operative Jeff Connaughton.
Again, Packer doesn’t come at the subject directly. One imagines a multi-volume corpus, each one spilling over with appendices, if that were the desire. He comes at it laterally, with a multitude of viewpoints from inside the collapse. The wearied but iron-backed voice of Tammy Thomas details the twinned collapse of the industrial backbone of the Ohio River Valley and the norms of working- and middle-class society that stitched its formerly proud neighborhoods together, black and white. The silence of the factories (dismantled by faraway executives in leveraged buyouts far removed from practical matters of mere profitability) is mirrored by the collapsing, ghostly blocks of once-tidy homes. “She was still amazed by the gaps and silence where there had once been so much life,” Packer writes. “Where had it all gone?”
That keen sense of loss and cloudy chaos rings chime-like through The Unwinding. Packer starts each chapter with a cacophony of voices plucked from a particular year’s media stream. Then the oral histories themselves show people thrashing about as they always have — for careers, for love, for purpose, for the damn rent — only increasingly without any help from a larger society. Unions decline, families fall apart, executives break the company apart for a stock dividend, and politicians cower in terror of the almighty bond market.
Set against the fears and dreams of those trying to hang on to the ladder, or just find out where the rungs have gone, Packer’s vignettes of the powerful come with more of a bite. The Colin Powell shown here is a sympathetic and flailing figure, a striving child of striving immigrants who can’t grasp how much the system he has mastered could fail him so: “He needed structure to thrive, but the structures that had held up the postwar order had eroded.”
As a non-dogmatically progressive writer, Packer’s profile of Newt Gingrich as an opportunistic and cynical blimp of self-aggrandizement is to be expected. A few short paragraphs sum up the corrosive contributions of the helmet-haired flamethrower and lover of total war to the body politic (“Whether he ever truly believed his own rhetoric, the generation he brought to power fervently did. He gave them mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him”). But less expected is Packer’s stinging critique of the unforgiving nature of fanatic self-improvement cultists like Alice Waters and Oprah Winfrey:
But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism, positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all of her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house…they were not always attuned to their divine self; they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.
In Packer’s view, Americans in the age of institutional failure and social nullity are particularly vulnerable to this special, new gilded age breed of manic preachers. After all, where else are they to turn? One line of description about an Indian immigrant to Florida, Usha Patel (who elsewhere gripes about the laziness of her adopted countrymen) sums it up best: “Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.” That solitude is one of the book’s uniting factors, whether it’s the emptied and distrustful neighborhoods of Youngstown where Tammy Thomas becomes a community organizer or the cheap, Ponzi-scheme Florida suburbs where everybody is broke, overmedicated, underemployed, and barely aware who their neighbors are.
Solitude isn’t a problem for the likes of Thiel, whom Packer seems to regard as a particularly perfect creature of the age. An innovator with less patience for society than even most of the technically-minded, Thiel embraced libertarianism early in life (partly rooted in his selective reading of science fiction, much like Gingrich and his love of Isaac Asimov) and spent his riches on trying to make those techno-fantasies come true. At the same time, he covered himself in ostentatious displays of wealth, like some latter-day Gatsby miserably inhabiting the corners of his own parties.
That splashing-out of previously obscene monies receives Packer’s most vituperative treatment in his capsule biography of Robert Rubin. While flitting as fiscal “wise man” from Wall Street to the Clinton administration through the 1990s and 2000s, Rubin preached the new gospel of deregulation. He amassed a vast fortune for his advice ($126 million between 1999 and 2009) and when the economy collapsed under the weight of toxic deals he did not want regulated, no apology or reconsideration was forthcoming.
Throughout, Packer is channeling not just his subjects but the writers from that last epoch of vast class divisions in America, the 1930s. His writing echoes both the determined corps of WPA oral historians and the novels of John Dos Passos (the latter of which he explicitly credits). The book draws heavily on the land itself, at least what can be seen of it through the crush of worry about debts, chaos, security. Packer begins and ends things with Price’s dream of a house on ancestral acreage. Packer’s last line is a hopeful one, but one charged with struggle: “He would get the land back.”
The tone of The Unwinding is that of long and anxious conversations unspooling into the night, on a breeze-strafed porch in a foreclosure ‘burb or in a living room where the TV yammers on mutely. There is a lot of passion in the book, forlorn frustration, and anger to spare. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t end with that dread affliction of the modern issue text: the “What Can I Do?” epilogue packaged with an easy 10-point plan to restore America, and some social media links. The societal decline that Packer illuminates is deeper and broader than can be helped by some Facebook likes. But the book keeps the wider perspective. Though there’s anger here, fury even, hysteria doesn’t make an appearance. After all, as Packer notes, “There have been unwindings every generation or two…Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”
All the country can hope for is a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to help everyone remember the appeal of community…also that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
With the release of George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, zombies became the monster of choice for those wishing to blend in a little social commentary with their horror. Ever since then, people have found zombies for the “thinking man” everywhere, from the hit movie 28 Days Later to obscure horror novels like Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead by Kim Paffenroth or Pariah by Bob Fingerman. Even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has a bit of an edge to it, according to its author: “The people in Austen’s books are kind of like zombies. No matter what’s going on around them in the world, they live in this bubble of privilege.”
Of course, after fifty years, the zombie genre has hit the creative doldrums. Instead of covering new thematic territory, zombies simply became more physically frightening – bloodier, gorier, faster. And the stories in which they starred became more mindless, content only to revisit the themes of Romero’s Living Dead series. Okay, people become selfish and shortsighted in a crisis; okay, zombies can stand-in for mindless consumerism, ignorance, or ideological conformity. Is that really all the zombie genre has to offer?
In 2006, Max Brooks turned the zombie story on its ear with a supreme act of genre-bending. Because most zombie stories had to be, well, stories, they necessarily focused on a single person or a small group of survivors. But Brooks wrote World War Z as an oral history, which allowed him to form a kind of pointillist view of the “zombie war” from almost two dozen points of view. Thus we see the war through the eyes of a soldier who fought in every major battle in North America; of the Chinese doctor who discovered Patient Zero; of two unlikely heroes who survived the war in Japan even after the islands had been evacuated. And instead of focusing on how crisis brings out the worst in individuals, though there is plenty of that, Brooks mostly concerns himself with big picture: the failure of governments and societies. In that sense, World War Z sets out to do exactly what oral histories of the end of the world have always done.
According to Brooks, Studs Terkel’s 1984 book The Good War “influenced me more than anything… When I sat down to write World War Z, I wanted it to be in the vein of an oral history.” In terms of narrative framing, Brooks follows Terkel almost exactly; The Good War is basically a series of interviews with people who fought in, or lived through, World War II.
The Good War is as much biting social criticism as a mere compilation of conversations. On the very first page of the book, Terkel lobs a rhetorical grenade right at the reader: “the disrememberance of World War II,” he writes, “is as disturbingly profound as the forgettery of the Great Depression.” It’s an odd sentiment to read, especially nowadays. After all, we live in a post-Saving Private Ryan, post-Band of Brothers world, where bookstores have separate World War II sections and the History Channel has at least two hours of World War II programming a day. Surely no one could “disremember” World War II.
About a hundred pages and a dozen interviews into the book, however, the reader begins to see what Terkel means. For most, World War II was the adventure of their lives and an “epochal victory” over evil. But many also remember their feelings of ambivalence, helplessness, and confusion in the face of a world-spanning conflict. More than one person remarks that everything after the war “is anticlimactic;” others, like the Italian immigrant who said that the war “obliterated our culture and made us Americans,” are downright regretful.
Although The Good War is a strongly antiwar book, Terkel shrewdly lets his interviewees make the point for him. There are, of course, the stereotypical antiwar voices: the disillusioned veteran, the vaguely contemptuous academic, the shallow celebrity. But Terkel manages to find people whose insistence that “people in America do not know what war is” seems much less rote. An orderly in a burn ward who describes how she “had to keep the skin wet with these moist saline packs. We would wind yards and yards of this wet pack around people. That’s what war is.” An admiral who insists that “the twisted memory of [World War II] encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.” An otherwise happy veteran who closes the book by saying, “I hope I can die of old age, before the world starts the war.” And scariest of all, the congressman, Hamilton Fish, who founded the precursor to the House Un-American Activities Commission and who insisted that the United States would never use the bomb solely because “we are a God-fearing country.”
The Good War is a record of profound change, as “a country psychically as well as geographically isolated had become, with the suddenness of a blitzkreig, engaged with distant troubles. And close-at-hand triumphs.” But it also shows the variety of opinions that people can hold about something that seems, at first glance, a simple struggle between good and evil. It is a necessary counterpoint to cloying, chest-thumping, action-packed narratives of war, as Terkel intended it to be. And, by coming out with a strong antiwar message during one of the tensest periods of the Cold War — just after Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air Flight 007 and both sides deployed new nuclear missiles throughout Europe — it showed that something as simple as a collection of interviews could say as much about its present day as it did about the past.
Besides The Good War, 1984 saw the publication of Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday, a documentary-style oral history that takes place five years after a 36-minute nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
(First things first: yes, this is the same Whitley Strieber who wrote the alien abduction book Communion and the environmental sci-fi novel The Coming Global Superstorm, which inspired the movie The Day After Tomorrow. But the Whitley Strieber of Warday still has a few years to go before all of this.)
Warday matches World War Z even more closely in terms of tone, themes, and narrative techniques. Strieber and Kunetka imagine their way into a United States devastated by a “limited” nuclear exchange — one that still managed to vaporize San Antonio and Washington, D.C., and render New York, New Jersey, and most of the Midwest uninhabitable. The bombs themselves are horrific enough: at one point, a superheated tidal wave from an offshore nuclear blast inundates the New York subway, and the authors can hear the screams of the drowning cut off by the “nasty bellow of water.” But even worse is the aftermath.
As they travel around the country, Strieber and Kunetka document the dozens of ways in which a nation that once prided itself on individual liberties and a stubborn, can-do attitude has turned into a collection of petty fiefdoms whose laws “are an affront to the very memory of the Bill of Rights.” The government requires doctors to turn away patients who have been exposed to enough radiation to significantly shorten their life expectancy. The relatively untouched parts of the country now refuse to accept “illegals” from others — a trainload of orphans from Philadelphia are turned back at the Georgia border, for example, and when the authors smuggle themselves into California, they are chased out at gunpoint by immigration police. And with perfect journalistic aim, the authors document the death of American self-confidence in a series of fictionalized polls that ask questions like “Do you think that the destiny of this country is presently in the hands of other nations?” and “Do you believe that the federal government should abandon the War Zones permanently?”
As Strieber told People magazine in 1984, “We did not want to write a book about explosions. We wanted to take people into life beyond The Day After — to wake them up in the New World of the years after.” And his and Kunetka’s decision to make Warday a cautionary tale about nuclear war without focusing on the warfare itself makes it a successful cri de coeur. “Modern nuclear war,” they write, “means life being replaced by black, empty space” — both physically and spiritually. Nuclear weapons might destroy our homes and lives, they suggest, but only we can decide to abandon our principles in the face of fear, ignorance, and a permanent state of pessimism.
Chances are, however, that you’ve never heard of Warday. Although the book spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list and earned Strieber and Kunetka the equivalent of a million-dollar advance today, it has been out of print since 1985. It isn’t that the book lacked timeliness; 1984 meant plenty of post-apocalyptic pop culture, including Mad Max the television shows The Day After in the United States and Threads in the UK. Yet after that brief burst of success, people put down Warday and never really picked it back up.
Maybe the book bit a little too hard. It’s shocking, for example, to hear a Canadian traveler joke about the “Uncle Sam Jump” (the postwar American equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge), or to hear about American nannies considered to be a status symbol by wealthy foreign businessmen — in other words, to see the United States treated like a developing country. More importantly, Warday portrays the American Republic — “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness,” according to George Washington — as something extremely fragile, and not easily restored once lost. And all this at the height of the Cold War, when Ronald Reagan told Americans that no rational human being would prefer authoritarianism to democracy.
Warday is also relentlessly grim. The fact that World War Z is about zombies means that it flirts with silliness and the adolescent flair for ultra-violence against things that aren’t quite human beings — see, for example, the helicopter pilot who uses his rotor blades as a giant zombie buzzsaw during the Battle of Yonkers. And both The Good War and World War Z end with American victories, which at least balances all of the loose ends, postwar traumas, and moral gray areas in both books. In the end, a happy ending and plenty of flag-waving patriotism makes the bitter pill of social commentary go down much easier. With Warday, there are no such spoonfuls of sugar. We’re left knowing only that the authors have succeeded in their journey, and arrive home simply to endure the “epidemic of shortened lives.” Strieber and Kunetka are only the historical equivalent of a bucket brigade, passing on knowledge of their post-apocalyptic world while knowing that in the end it helps no one.
Still, if Warday sails too close to the Scylla of moralizing heavy-handedness, at least it avoids the Charybdis of slapdash social commentary that permeates World War Z. Granted, a zombie apocalypse can be a metaphor for many things, but Brooks never quite seems to know exactly what his stands for. Right off the bat, he tacks leftward, lamenting the fact that lax FDA regulation contributed to the panic and sneering along with the reader at the official who asks, “Can you ever ‘solve’ disease, unemployment, war, or any other societal herpes?” (Just in case anyone doubts Brooks’s political sympathies, the stand-in for the Bush administration ends the book literally shoveling shit). But then Brooks finds a savior in authority, tradition, and centralized planning: Israel becomes a police state and survives relatively unscathed, the Queen inspires a nation by refusing to leave Windsor Palace, Nelson Mandela (who goes unnamed) saves South Africa from being overrun, and, most of all, a charismatic American president announces his decision to take back the world aboard an aircraft carrier.
So are we supposed to hate government, or embrace it as our last, best hope? Are individuals and individual liberties important, or do we need Great Men (and Women) — aided, of course, by a competent bureaucracy — to compel us toward safety and salvation? What is its message about violence, when it portrays the mass “killing” of zombies in painstaking, almost loving detail? And does the fact that World War Z is a monster story mean that we cannot take it seriously at all, even though it clearly invites us to do so?
Obviously, the World War Z references a variety of Bush-era woes. And Brooks’s reviewers draw attention to World War Z’s “parallels” and “metaphors” and “expressly political and socioeconomic material,” but they never identify what the book is supposed to mean. What purpose, except for the thrill of recognition, do all of these modern-day references accomplish? They don’t add up to an overarching moral point, except to get us even angrier about “incompetence in high places and lack of preparedness” — which, incidentally, is exactly what George Romero tried to tell us in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is not to say that World War Z is a shallow book by any means. It has scary moments and exhilarating ones, violence and poignancy, and quite a few colorful personalities (though Brooks resorts to stereotypes a bit too often when it comes to international characters). Still, it’s a bit disingenuous to claim, as the book’s dust jacket does, that Brooks does for zombies what Studs Terkel did for World War II. Yes, his choice of narrative frame refreshes a genre that had already entered its baroque phase. But World War Z never quite manages the same level of moral pique as The Good War and Warday; it is so constrained by its undead subject matter that it can only gesture at modern-day relevance before falling back on the same shopworn themes. Although it has more brains than the average zombie story, it still doesn’t have much of a heart.
Studs Terkel died at 96 on Friday. In Chicago, Terkel’s adopted home, he was regarded as a local treasure. Terkel had a long radio career hosting shows on which he conducted wide-ranging interviews, but he was perhaps best known for his series of oral histories.The genre is now quite popular, encompassing topics from punk rock to Saturday Night Live to George Plimpton, but Terkel was, if not its inventor, then its popularizer and most accomplished practitioner. He used his oral histories not to get the inside dirt on celebrities, but as a way to illuminate the lives of everyday people. Terkel’s best known books include Working, in which he found the everyday dramas in the working lives of dozens of Americans, and The Good War, a Pulitzer winning oral history of World War II. More recently, Terkel’s Hope Dies Last was published. The book is a study of a subject at the core of Terkel’s efforts in preserving the voices of the 20th century, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it.Bonus Link: The Chicago Tribune tells us “Why Studs Terkel Mattered“.
On Feb. 9th, the documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the War in Iraq went into limited release across the U.S. The movie follows the National Endowment of the Art’s (NEA) program to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experience into words. Although the movie itself has gotten mixed reviews, the program has been considered a great success. After workshops across the nation led by the likes of Vietnam veteran and novelist Tobias Wolff and Tom Clancy, soldiers’ writings were collected in an anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The book includes short stories, poems, letters and essays, arranged by theme and, unlike the movie, has received a considerable number of accolades.Brian Turner, whose book Here, Bullet, a collection of poems on the war in Iraq, was reviewed here last week, was a participant in the workshop, and appears in the movie reading his poem “What Every Soldier Should Know.” Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the movie or pick up a copy Operation Homecoming, I have in the past found great value in the first person accounts of World War II collected by Studs Terkel in his book The Good War, and especially in Haruya Cook’s and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War (an absolutely stunning accomplishment that is a must read for anyone interested in Japan’s part in WWII.) The power of these accounts to educate and inform can’t be overestimated and all indications are that Operation Homecoming will be an excellent resource for those interested in another perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.More information on the Operation Homecoming Program is available through the NEA.Bonus Links: Operation Homecoming mentioned in the New Yorker “War Issue.” And a list of World War II non-fiction compiled with help from readers of The Millions.
After yesterday’s World War II fiction post, now it’s time for the non-fiction. Once again culling from the excellent comments left in my original post on the topic from a while back, here are the books:Many readers suggested Anthony Beevor’s books Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945. Writes Steve: “Beevor’s Stalingrad is the better of his two books on the war. Stalingrad was the true turning point in the European war (although you will see many smart folks argue that the turning point was Pearl Harbor, the Russian Front broke the Wehrmacht and Stalingrad, with Kursk following, was the breaking point). The scale of the battle is just amazing. I loved Atkinson’s book, but reading about Stalingrad makes you wonder whether we could have won a battle like that and thankful we did not have to find out.” Tripp writes, “Fall of Berlin 1945 is great, but is also terribly depressing. The end of the catastrophic Russo-German conflict is described in all its brutal horror.” Also fans of the Beevor books were CHatten and S. Dougherty.Tripp also recommends Eric Bergerud’s Touched With Fire: “It concerns the land war in New Guinea and the Solomons. The fighting differed from Europe in a number of ways. For one it is tropical, making the fight somewhat similar to Vietnam. For another the two sides were more closely matched in air and sea power which forced the US to fight differently. It’s an excellent read.” Steve also suggests Russia’s War by Richard Overy, “a very good overview of the Russian Front” and Five Days in London by John Lukacs “about the period immediately following Dunkirk, when any sane nation would have sued for peace and the British decided to fight on alone,” and says that “William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich sets the standard and rightly so. For a thousand page tome it is incredibly readable and never less than fascinating.” Sand Storm also recommends Shirer, but S. Dougherty says “it was poor history by the time it was published.”Another controversial pick is Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose, which Sand Storm liked, but S. Dougherty suggests steering clear. Sand Storm also liked a pair of biographies, Patton by Ladislas Farago and American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur by William Manchester, as well as In Harms Way by Doug Stanton about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in shark-infested waters. Bryan D. Catherman suggests Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley. Don Napoli recommends Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles who was killed in action during the war. Kate S. likes Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War as well as Uwe Timm’s In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, “an extraordinarily powerful memoir that has to do more with the aftermath in Germany than with the war itself.” “For a more personal look at the war,” CRwM recommends Studs Terkel’s The Good War: “I’m a sucker for almost any Terkel book, but this one stands out even that body of excellent works.”CHatten has “a couple of other suggestions on the eastern front, a side of the war which Americans tend to not know much about. Years ago I read a book by a German war correspondent: it’s just called Stalingrad by Heinz Schroter. It’s doubtless out of print and it’s journalism more than history and only from the German side. But still, it’s worth reading. The author was at the battle and the horrific stories and sheer immediacy conveyed by the book gives you a real sense of what it was like to endure this military disaster from the German side. I recently also read Writer at War by Vasily Grossman. Grossman was a Russian writer who worked as a war correspondent; most of the book is excerpts from his journals and reporting. Again, there’s some vivid writing about the unbelievably horrible eastern front, and the entire book gives you a sense of the mixture of idealism and brutality which characterized the Soviet side of that monumental conflict.” Grossman’s newly rereleased novel also appears on our fiction list. S. Dougherty has four suggestions, The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, “an engrossing memoir written by a German soldier.” “Ian Kershaw’s recent biography of Hitler is excellent — though there are other good ones, his is bifurcated and the second volume deals with the 1936-1945 time period, which fits your bill nicely.” A World at Arms by Gerhard Weinberg is “massive and slow-going, but comprehensive).” Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning is about “the banality of evil — a look at the killing squads that moved through Poland in the wake of the fighting.”Really great suggestions everybody. I’ll be bookmarking this post as well. Obviously this list could go on forever, but if you have anything to add, please leave us suggestions in the comments.Update: Lynne Scanlon suggests the first book on the list by a female author. To War with Whitaker by The Countess of Ranfurly is “a diary of an audacious woman who manages to follow her soldier husband to the Middle East. Whitaker is the “faithful servant” who accompanies them. Fascinating. Funny. Fraught.” It was recommended to her by Grumpy Old Bookman.See Also: World War 2 Fiction