January 8, 2012

Len Deighton: Blood, Tears and Folly

   Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II by Len Deighton (1993) – 3.5 out of 5 stars

This book was a readable and interesting look at several facets of World War II. Focusing on the period from the start of the war up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Deighton attempts to present a objective look at what happened and analyze the factors contributing to the outcome. The material is arranged topically, beginning with the naval battle in the Atlantic, moving to the German conquering of Europe, the war in Italy and North Africa, the battle of air forces, the German assault on Russia, following by the Japanese war in the Pacific.

There is a lot of material covered in this book. It was tedious at times, particularly if you’re not a war history buff, but it was quite informative. He does not provide a dry recounting of events but traces back to the root of the conflicts and provides an analysis of why things happened the way the did, and what might have been different.

This account of WWII left me with these impressions:

Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to be manipulated by those who have. Reading Deighton’s account of World War II, it was apparent that there were many lessons from the the first World War that went unlearned by the British but were heeded by the Germans and this gave them a distinct advantage as a result.

The failures and setbacks (both of the Allies and the Axis) were most often attributable to failures in leadership, the lack of which was a key factor in there even being a war on the scale that there was. In recounting the route of the British and French forces in 1940, he writes:

“The Allied defeats in 1940 were not due to a failure of quality or of quantity. Their air forces were very big and had many well designed aircraft. The French air force had well over two thousand modern fighters, more than twice the number deployed by the Luftwaffe. The French army had excellent tanks and more of them than the Germans and British put together!

“Some said it was a victory won by the close coordination of air and ground forces, a triumph for radio communication and ruthless aggression. But the collapse of Britain and France was mostly the outcome of the West’s profound failure in political, industrial and military leadership. The men with the authority to write specifications had not done it well enough: and the designers were not skilled enough. Education at all levels of British society was not good enough. Those who had become used to easy profits from outmoded factories failed to meet the nation’s needs. There had been no political will to stop Hitler at a time when he would not have dared to go to war. The military leadership, from top to bottom, had been totally outclassed on the battlefield.” (211-212)

Though generally a well-established fact, the book gives a striking account how na├»ve the political leadership was leading up to the war, and documents the many mishaps throughout. Folly seems to be the focus throughout, as Deighton seeks to dispel myths and correct popular conclusions regarding why things happened the way they did. Deighton’s look should be considered objective in the sense the sense that he does not shy away from being critical of the decisions of leadership or strategy, or pointing out apparent incompetence. However, he still writes as an Englishman being critical of his own nation’s performance while accepting that the Allies were nonetheless well-intentioned.

In many of the accounts, particularly with regards to the war on the seas, the reader is left with the impression that it was the Germans who lost the war more than the Allies who won the war. The unpreparedness of the West was apparent throughout, and you can’t help but conclude that this was a war that either should not have happened or could have been a much smaller conflict. There was a real sense in which the fear of war and turning a blind eye let to a much larger and much bloodier conflict than any could have imagined.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an account of WWII, but it reminded me of the horror which was that war and the one preceding it. The number of lives lost in 7 years – 20+ million military deaths and 50+ million civilian deaths – is simply inconceivable. The brutality on the battlefield was great, but the brutality extended well beyond the battlefield. This was in a world that thought it was done with war following the Great War of 1914-1918. That should serve as a sober warning to those who would think that such atrocities and violence are not possible in our time, a mere 60 years later.

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