Comprehending the Big Lessons of World War II

Victor Davis Hanson’s latest work, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, is a synthesis of existing scholarship on World War II, presented with insights from the history of warfare throughout the ages befitting the author’s expertise in the broad sweep of military history. The book is arranged topically, with sections dealing with air, naval, and land warfare as well as the ideas, weapons, economies, and people that energized, fought, fueled, and led the conflict. Hanson’s analysis of the bloodletting from 1939 to 1945 is perceptive and provocative and his exploration of counterfactuals provides plenty of material for speculation among those well-versed in the history of the war.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and noted classicist, makes frequent allusions to pre-modern battles and wars, illustrating how geography, tactical circumstances, and human nature weave their way throughout time. Thus we learn that the Normandy invasion “was the largest combined land and sea operation conducted since the invasion of Greece by King Xerxes of Persia in spring 480 BC,” which led to the epic battles at Thermopylae and Salamis. Hanson also explains what is different about World War II, including the racism and ideology that fueled the conflict and which led to the industrialized slaughter of millions in death camps and by starvation.

Hanson categorizes World War II as a war of machines. The book examines various aspects of long range bombing, carrier aviation, and submarine wars in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, always with an eye to determining why the Allies won and the Axis powers lost. Tiger, Panther, Sherman, and T-34 tanks; Katyusha rocket launchers and American howitzers; Lancaster and B-29 bombers; Messerschmidt, Zero, Spitfire, Hurricane, Thunderbolt, and Mustang fighters; Essex class carriers and fast battleships; the iconic M-1 rifle and Sturmgewehr 44; and other weapons are analyzed for their role in the fighting and outcome of the war. Having examined the implements of combat, Hanson pays due attention to the supreme leaders and military commanders who devised strategy and led operations, as well as the economic output of the great powers that made victory possible or defeat inevitable.

Hanson reminds us that numbers matter in war. Germany may have produced individual champions such as Tiger tank ace Michael Wittman—whose crew was responsible for destroying 138 enemy armored vehicles—but his unit was in time overcome by superior numbers and his vehicle dispatched by a Canadian Sherman “Firefly” tank. German air and submarine aces likewise had astonishing success against Allied aircraft and ships. It did not matter; in the end superior Allied production, logistics, and increasing combat capabilities overwhelmed the Axis, despite the individual heroics of their champions. Better armed and armored vehicles could win tactical battles, but were not necessarily better than fleets of “good-enough” combat vehicles that could be produced in large numbers, maintained in operating condition, and organized in combined arms formations that together were more than the sum of their individual parts.

Germany and Japan were successful in regional “border wars,” spurred on by leaders who lacked accountability to their people. Mussolini’s Italy was not even successful in this limited sense; its “parallel war” in Greece and Egypt ended ignominiously as soon as German forces intervened to bail out their Axis partner. Once strategic miscalculations created a global struggle against more powerful combinations of adversaries, Axis leaders foundered in a sea of illusions and an inability to work together. As the fighting moved on to distant theaters in western Russia, North Africa, Burma, and the vast reaches of the Pacific, the Axis powers could not field the type of expeditionary forces with the necessary logistics to prevail. The Allied powers could, and the result was the capitulation of Italy, the annihilation of the Wehrmacht, and the destruction of nearly every city in Japan.

Hanson notes the complementary capabilities of the Allied militaries. Great Britain developed powerful naval and air capabilities that kept the flame of resistance alive in the dark days after the fall of France. The United States developed the ability to project power from North America onto the African, Asian, and European continents. Airpower, naval forces, and artillery provided American soldiers considerable support, backed up by an immense logistical apparatus stretching from factories in the United States to battlefields literally oceans apart. The Red Army did the bulk of the ground fighting during the war, supported by a massive fleet of tanks and artillery. Lend-lease helped—as did geography, which allowed the Red Army room to retreat and recover. The titanic struggle—the largest in the history of warfare—left tens of millions dead and western Russia and Germany in ruins.

Hanson weighs the merits of Axis military forces and finds them deficient in a number of areas. The Wehrmacht was tactically and technically proficient, but could not make up for Germany’s lack of seapower and long range bombers, or Hitler’s penchant for engaging great power enemies who enjoyed a massive preponderance of economic and military power. Germany’s junior partners, the Italian and Japanese militaries, were outclassed in most forms of warfare. Racial bigotry and martial élan could not provide in spirit what the Axis soldiers lacked in the way of technology, arms, equipment, and supplies.

Authors must make difficult decisions about what to include in a book of this scope. Hanson makes good choices, but a separate section on code breaking, intelligence, and deception operations, which played enormous roles in the Battle of the Atlantic, the war in the Mediterranean, the Southwest Pacific campaign, the Normandy invasion, and the war on the Eastern front, would have made a worthwhile addition to the manuscript. Additionally, while Hanson does not ignore logistics, the topic probably deserves its own section as it is so often ignored by operational accounts of the fighting. For instance, a massive fleet of auxiliary ships enabled the U.S. Navy to operate without permanent bases in the Pacific. In the fall of 1944, the U.S. Navy’s main base in the Pacific was not a fixed port but Ulithi atoll, a largely uninhabited group of islands notable only for the existence of an anchorage protected from the weather. Here U.S. ships were supplied, fueled, armed, and repaired without need for port facilities far from the battle zone in the Philippines.

A few quibbles inevitably arise. Perhaps the most nagging is Hanson’s adoption of French historian Marc Bloch’s “strange defeat” thesis for the fall of France, labeling the collapse of the French army “inexplicable.” This is one of the few lapses in Hanson’s judgment; in fact, historian Robert Doughty has pinned the debacle on the French army doctrine of methodical battle, coupled with poor operational leadership. The defeat of France was not strange; it is understandable once the inner workings of the French army are taken into account.

This minor reservation aside, Hanson has tackled the history of an immense and difficult subject in a balanced and skillful manner. The text flows smoothly, although those who lack a basic understanding of the war might find it more difficult to navigate. The book is highly recommended for all readers interested in World War II history.

About Peter Mansoor

Colonel Peter R. Mansoor, U.S. Army (Retired), is the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History and a frequent commentator in the media on national security matters. He assumed this position in September 2008 after a 26-year career in the U.S. Army that culminated in his service in Iraq as the executive officer to General David Petraeus, the Commanding General of Multi-National Force-Iraq, during the period of the surge in 2007-2008. He has authored a history of this experience, Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and The Remaking of the Iraq War, which was a finalist for the inaugural Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History in 2013.

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4 responses to “Comprehending the Big Lessons of World War II”

  1. THE TASTE OF WAR:WORLD WAR 2 AND THE BATTLE FOR FOOD is an excellent account of an overlooked area of logistics.

  2. The French crumbled because a large portion of Frenchmen sympathised with the NAZI ideology and still do.

  3. One of the biggest lessons of world war 2 is that Communism won and it led to the Cold war. In addition Cultural Marxism spread across Europe and America.

  4. Hanson’s realization – US won war because US had industrial capacity which exceeded everyone else’ and US had geography (2 oceans) as protection – was a lesson learned long ago by realists who viewed history without an ideological burden

    Nice of Hanson to repeat it, but nothing is revolutionary here