In this general historical survey, Ray attempts to explain to contemporary readers why his generation fought WWII.
After comparing each nation’s military, economic, and political circumstances during the inter-war years, Ray argues that a general mood of appeasement in France and Britain enabled Hitler to make escalating demands for territorial concessions. War followed after Hitler went too far by invading Poland. Moving from the European theater to the Middle East and the Pacific, Ray shows how each nation became involved in the conflict. Extensive treatments of combined arms tactics, strategic bombing campaigns, as well as submarine, air, and tank warfare demonstrate the specific considerations that shaped leaders’ decisions about the war. Ray uses the postwar settlements to foreshadow the growing antagonism between the Soviet Union and the US. One must wonder, however, if Ray’s survey explains why people fought the war. Because he focuses on the actions of war leaders, it is difficult to understand why ordinary people participated in the conflict. Furthermore, the racial motivations of the antagonists are hardly mentioned. Hitler is rightly treated as an anti-Semitic warmonger, but the motivations of the millions of Germans who pursued the Third Reich’s goals are never investigated. The Holocaust is relegated to two pages in an appendix, as if it had little to do with German war aims, and important issues (such as Americans’ racial hatred of the Japanese or the Russian abhorrence of the German enemy) are not mentioned. Ray justifies the release of atomic weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the chestnut: “War is no party.” Moreover, the firebombing of Dresden is rationalized with the pronouncement that “international conflict is no picnic.” These exclusions and simplistic explanations leave the impression that the Axis powers were the only ones with their hands dirty, that the war was about, as Ray puts it, “men fighting for basic good against basic evil.”
Best for readers who yearn for Saving Private Ryan–like morality plays. Anyone seeking a comprehensive treatment of the course and consequences WWII should look elsewhere.