Cowley (What If?, 1999) was the founding editor of Military History Quarterly. Under his guidance, the journal published not only traditional historical essays from prominent writers (such as Stephen Ambrose and John Keegan), it also collected and printed firsthand accounts of 20th-century battles. Cowley has here collected 44 of these essays, and he organizes them chronologically, opening with a section on the German breakout into Poland and France and closing with works on the brutal end of the war in the Pacific. In addition to the expected contributions from Ambrose, Keegan, and William Manchester, there are intriguing glimpses into the war’s less well-known operations: Dan Kurzman, for instance, brings to life the plan to sabotage Hitler’s A-bomb program by raiding Norway’s heavy-water plant, and George Feifer follows Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’s bizarre race to complete one final motion picture for the Reich before its disintegration. Eyewitness memoirs (such as William Whyte’s account of patrolling Guadalcanal as a junior Marine officer) lend a participatory air of authority to the proceedings. Although there is nothing new here in terms of historical research, these essays will revive the drama and sense of desperation that marked WWII for a new generation of readers.
Useful for the military scholar and captivating to the general reader, Cowley’s collection is likely to stand among the best histories of the year.