War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them.
A GENERATION PASSES
Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of the Doughboys, the only surviving American veterans of World War I. Just a few dozen of them remained when he began his research, including a man who transferred bodies to Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and another who regretted not serving in combat. Though not all of the subjects are chatty, their remembrances give Rubin the opportunity to provide dignity to the elderly and show how a simpler time was actually quite complicated.
Rubin reminds us that 1.3 million men were killed in just one battle, the Somme. The era of WWI saw segregation as the norm, as well as the marginalization of women, who could not serve in combat. Immigrants were a significant presence in America, but the culture of the day was to support the U.S.—or else. Those are among several themes explored by Rubin, who is so determined to detail the battles and tasks of his interview subjects—while discussing other topics such as the challenges of interviewing 100-year-olds—that he’s nearly foiled by his own ambition. Still, he manages to fashion a nice ode to a generation whose role in shaping modern-day America is fading from public consciousness.
HITLER’S ART HEIST
Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy examines the United States’ attempt to save valuable artistic works in WWII-ravaged Italy. Bombings and gunfire were not the only threats: The Nazis were smuggling art from various Italian cities, including works by the most famous artists of the Renaissance. Salt mines in Austria were converted into a hideout for thousands of pieces of art, some of which belonged to Adolf Hitler himself.
Saving Italy works best in showing how a picture is worth more than a thousand words. For the Nazis, the paintings and sculptures were spoils of war. For the Italians, art was a crucial part of their history, one that the Americans recognized. Out of that concern rose “a new kind of soldier charged with saving, not destroying, what lay in the path of the conquering army.” Among these soldiers were the book’s two protagonists, “Monuments Men” Deane Keller and Fred Hartt.
Though some readers may grow impatient with the book’s structure, which loads the story with a detailed accounting of military strategy (including the Nazis’ surrender), Edsel tells a readable and ultimately triumphant story.
WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey possesses the juiciness of a beach read. Peter Carlson’s excellent book covers the plight of two reporters from the New York Tribune, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, who were captured by Confederate troops in the Battle of Vicksburg.
Since both men were non-military personnel, they were quickly paroled. But getting released was another matter entirely. Because the Confederacy so loathed the Tribune and prisoner exchanges between the North and the South had stopped, Browne and Richardson were stuck in purgatory. After 20 months, escape on foot and horseback to Union territory near Knoxville, Tennessee—a 340-mile journey laden with potential enemies—was their only option.
Carlson works with wonderful efficiency, describing the political and social environment both men faced but never losing sight of the story and its momentum. The writing is compact and vivid as readers are escorted to the hell both men endured. “Freezing rain fell all night,” Carlson writes, “and in the morning the corpses piled outside the dead house glistened with a thin coating of ice.”
THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY
I’m guessing the New-York Historical Society doesn’t have corpses, but it probably has everything else. The Civil War in 50 Objects, written by Civil War historian Harold Holzer, is a fantastic museum tour of a book. Fifty items out of the Society’s nearly one million Civil War items are presented in mostly chronological order. Holzer provides historical background and context for each piece, which range from a pike used by John Brown’s freedom fighters to a footlocker belonging to Lt. Col. William H. Paine of the Fourth Wisconsin.
The beauty of the book is its format. Readers familiar with the Civil War can head to an item of particular interest—as a reformed beat reporter, I flipped right to the prison newspaper—while casual readers will enjoy an inviting atmosphere for a historically intimidating subject. With such an effective strategy, it’s no wonder that Holzer is an editor. Perhaps he should have been a general.