The true impact of war is often lost in the numbers. It is only when a human face is introduced that we fully understand what it means to go to war. In a month when our country memorializes its war heroes, these four books help humanize the war experience in a powerful way.
World War II: The Definitive Visual History leads the reader on a chronological journey through World War II. An oversized book filled with hundreds of photographs, graphics and maps, it begins with the unsettled political landscape following World War I and the circumstances that enabled Hitler and Mussolini to gain power. It chronicles key battles, such as Guadalcanal, D-Day and Iwo Jima, and the bombing of Hiroshima. It also explores the aftermath of the war, including the rebuilding of Germany and Japan and the growth of Communism. But it is the photographs and personal stories that are truly gripping. The key figures—Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Eisenhower—are well represented. So, too, are images and stories of the common man, from the foot soldier to the concentration camp survivor. World War II is a worthy book for the shelves of the serious student of war, or for the coffee table of any reader who seeks a comprehensive history of the world’s greatest conflict.
In Mark Faram’s Faces of War: The Untold Story of Edward Steichen’s WWII Photographers, we are treated to the war photography of Edward Steichen, a veteran art and commercial photographer who did some of his most memorable work while in the U.S. Navy. Steichen gained fame shooting fashion and celebrity photographs for Vogue and Vanity Fair, but at the outset of World War II, the 62-year-old enlisted in the Navy. He was named a lieutenant commander and led a team of photographers in capturing images aboard ships and aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theater. Steichen captured images of men at war, and also at leisure in the belly of naval vessels. The black-and-white photographs are striking considering that despite the tight and often tense conditions aboard Navy ships, Steichen was able to find dramatic lighting and place his subjects at ease. Steichen created simple, but profound images that changed the art and craft of war photography.
Lives forever changed
The subjects of A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighter’s Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home also had a dramatic impact on the history of war. They were the members of the U.S. 369th Infantry, the first African-American regiment to serve in World War I, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Author Peter Nelson relates that these men distinguished themselves from most other black soldiers, who were relegated to supply duties, and earned a chance to fight in the trenches in Europe. But they were unable to overcome their country’s segregationist tendencies, and fought with the French and not with white U.S. soldiers. Despite this slight, the Harlem Hellfighters served with distinction and became one of the most feared fighting units in the war.
Soldiers Once: My Brother and the Lost Dreams of America’s Veterans is Catherine Whitney’s book-length essay recalling the tragic life of her brother, a Vietnam veteran, and the United States’ continued involvement in war. The story begins on the day before September 11, 2001, when Whitney buries her 53-year-old brother, Jim Schuler. He served three tours in Vietnam, but as he aged, his life unraveled. As Whitney searches for answers to her brother’s experience with post-traumatic stress syndrome, she reflects on the costs of war for a new generation of soldiers sent to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers Once is part memoir, part meditation and a thoughtful look at the impact of war.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago. His late father, Gerard Slania, earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star Medal as a soldier in World War II.