In 1951, Herman Wouk won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny, a brilliant novel of a World War II minesweeper. Like much of the good literature of the Second World War, its grand themes played out in a very specific microcosm representative of the world at large. Other authors took a similar tack. Probably the finest novel to come out of the war, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, followed a single platoon as it engaged in battle on a fictional South Pacific island. John Hersey’s A Bell For Adano focused on the American military administration of a small Italian town. The War, it seemed, was too big, its horrors too unimaginable, to tackle head-on in a War and Peace style epic.
Yet, in the 1970’s, Herman Wouk decided to do just this. In two volumes, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Wouk attempted to capture and chronicle the maelstrom that engulfed the entire world between 1939 and 1945. Running to almost 2500 pages, Wouks story is truly epic. And, while not the most literary or stunning novel about the War, it’s truly one of the most ambitious and engaging.
In order to provide a framework to such an expansive work, Wouk resorts to a bit of a gimmick – he invents the Henry family and writes them, and their close associates, into every single major event between 1939 and 1945. Hitler’s invasion of Poland? One of the Henry sons is strafed by the Luftwaffe on the way to Warsaw. England’s entry into the war has Pug, the family patriarch, advising President Roosevelt on Lend-Lease and meeting Winston Churchill. Another of the Henry sons is is shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack. And on and on. While this conceit might stretch the limits of credibility, it does serve to organize the novel. And, in and of themselves, the characters are quite likable and engaging, if a bit two-dimensional.
But characterization isn’t Wouk’s purpose in this novel. He wants to tell the story of the Second World War from the annexation of Czechoslovakia to the Battle of Midway to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the creation of the atomic bomb. In this regard, Wouk succeeds wildly. In fact, it’s one of the most enthralling, and accurate, works of history I’ve ever read. While he goes a bit overboard with the military tactics (pages and pages and pages of naval warfare strategy – I skimmed a bit), he keeps the narrative moving while packing in facts and figures to impress on the reader what a monumental period of history this was.
It’s also a sobering piece of history. As it must be, the Holocaust plays a central role in this book and Wouk’s writing in these segments is wrenching. Two of the book’s main characters are American Jews who begin the war in Italy and, as the German expansion spreads across Europe, the atmosphere of disbelief changing to dread is palpable. Once the characters are finally, through bad luck and bad choices, in the hand of the Germans, the true terror of the Nazi plan becomes apparent. Wouk’s descriptions are hard-hitting – the inside of cattle cars, the mass graves, the gas chambers – but they are never sensational. He deftly walks the line between temerity and exhibitionism that is required for such a solemn and horrific topic.
These volumes have their flaws. The characters aren’t fully fleshed out, the dialogue is clunky, and emotional arc rather predictable. Yet, this is probably inevitable in a book with such sweeping ambitions. In a more focused narrative, as in Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, more attention can be paid to the individual characters and relationships simply because more time is spent in one place. In a story with a cast of hundreds and the entire globe as its setting, focus is going to be sacrificed to broader visions.
Winds of War and War and Remembrance deserve a place among the great novels of the Second World War. Despite their flaws, they manage to capture the world at one of it’s most perilous moments, a time when great evil threatened the globe in a way that has not happened since, a time when the political and social configuration of humanity was shattered and then reconfigured. These books lay bare not only the horrific horrors of war but also the necessity with which they are sometimes waged. And, above all, they remind us that. as the final lines of this epic conclude, “remembrance can lead us from the long, long time of war to the time of peace. “