SOMEWHERE BETWEEN the perspectives of history and the warmth of personal recollection, the American experience of World War II lingers on in a peculiar compartment of the mind. For most people under 30, that war may already be one with Bull Run and Thermopylae. But anyone 40 or above is likely to remember it—whether in horror or in heroism—as the shaping experience of a lifetime. Despite ambiguities and reservations laid down by the revisionists, it was, after all, a struggle in which it was still easy to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys—and the good guys won.
The torrent of words raised in celebration or regret has necessarily dealt in fragments. The scope of the war, the vast numbers of lives involved, make any whole accounting of it impossible. In some ways, the best hope for a unified dramatic impression lies in fiction. Yet American war novels so far have ranged from broad-gauged pop, with legions of far-flung participants (Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, 1948), to hysterically myopic, if sometimes heartbreakingly funny indictments of war as madness (Catch-22, 1961). In between, slogging platoons and companies (led by Sergeants Mailer and Jones) glumly pressed military microcosms into the service of an important but dreary message: combat is sheer hell.
Literary Logistics. Now comes Herman Wouk with serious intentions, a book more or less the size of War and Peace, and an opening dedication to his two sons marked with the single Hebrew word zachor (remember). Cynics might have been forgiven for thinking that with The Caine Mutiny Wouk had already written his World War II novel and moved on more or less permanently to such subjects as the plight of the Jewish princess defending her virtue (Marjorie Morningstar), or creeping decadence in the Caribbean (Don't Stop the Carnival). Not so. A thoughtful man, an Orthodox Jew and a methodical, ambitious writer, Wouk has just poured some seven years of his life into The Winds of War and its yet to be completed sequel. His aim: nothing less than to do for the middle-class American vision of World War II pretty much what Tolstoy did for the Battle of Borodino.
The literary logistics involved are, to put it mildly, colossal. Winds begins in the Washington of 1939, in the mind of Commander "Pug" Henry, an upright WASP of the old school who is about to be posted to Berlin as the new U.S. naval attaché. The book ends a few days after Pearl Harbor. By that time Henry has served Franklin Roosevelt as a special observer in Germany, Britain and Russia, acquired a pregnant Jewish daughter-in-law who is still trying to escape from Nazi Europe, refused to give his foolish, flighty wife a divorce, and seen his first battleship command, the U.S.S. California, blasted by Japanese torpedoes before he can even go aboard her.
In exasperating moments, the title of an imaginary radio serial called One Man's Family Goes to War flashes to mind. Pug Henry is a useful enough American character, a blend, say, of Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith and NASA's Neil Armstrong: Godfearing, highly disciplined, pragmatic, undemonstrative, scrupulous, brilliant but unimaginative—the best we had in a time when that best seemed more adequate to deal with the world than it does today. As the book goes along, one is inclined to forgive Henry, and the author, the narrative necessities that shoot him hither and yon and miraculously equip him with the Russian and German necessary to do his work for Wouk, F.D.R. and the reader.
F.D.R.'s Martinis. Not so the other Henrys. The wife who would worry about getting her hair done on the day of Armageddon, a wayward daughter caught up in the sleazy radio industry in New York, two naval-officer sons, all are conventional appurtenances, without the emotional or dynastic depth to support a drama on the scale of World War II. What soon becomes clear, though, is that Winds of War is an upside-down Bildungsroman, in which the author, not the characters, keeps growing. Wouk's passionate interest in the war, his desire to evoke it, often carries him (and sometimes the reader) beyond conventional narrative into a curious kind of telescoped history.
Throughout, Wouk confronts great personages headon. His research has been massive; yet a sense of strain afflicts conversations with the likes of Hitler, Göring and Roosevelt. Did Wouk invent or acquire from some historical footnote that bit about the President's martinis? ("This is an excellent martini," Pug says to a beaming F.D.R. "It sort of tastes like it isn't there. Just a cold cloud.") Hitler's nervous little knee kick is familiar, but what about those "snatching, greedy fingers" as the Führer gobbles iced cakes at a reception? There are no great scenes. But a number seem splendidly effective. Among them: a Russian tank battle in the snow; an exchange of cheers and threats at a Kremlin party for a visiting U.S. delegation in 1941; Americans—including Henry's daughter-in-law—caught in Poland by Hitler's armies, being returned to freedom despite an SS officer who tries to discover which ones are Jews; a dinner party in New York where a feckless and likable young Communist talks blithely about the state withering away.
One of Wouk's best inventions is a series of chapters excerpted from a book by Armin von Roon, an imaginary member of the German General Staff. By turns Gothic and grotesque, or possessed of flashing geopolitical insight, Von Roon provocatively fills in the military and strategic history (Poland, Norway, France, Russia) in ways well calculated to stir indignation or imagination in American readers, who have a provincial tendency to think the war was really won or lost in Western Europe. Von Roon is most handy, indeed, in helping Wouk surmount one of the great problems posed by a book of this kind: the need to touch the imagination by undoing the encrusted assumptions that what actually did happen was inevitable.
Despite all its shortcomings, The Winds of War stirs again a sense of pain and folly at the incredible lethargy of Jews and non-Jews alike in recognizing the threat that Hitler represented. As to Franklin Roosevelt's political maneuverings (more or less against the will of the American people) to get the Draft Act passed, legalize Lend-Lease to Britain and Russia and set the Navy convoying supplies in the Atlantic, these now remote matters are thrust once again into a balance upon which the fate of much of the world seems to depend. For this lesson done, Wouk probably deserves a Distinguished Service Medal of some sort.
"When the two Henry brothers meet in 1940 after so long, there is so much they could say to each other. But with France falling I can't stop." Thus Herman Wouk neatly describes conflict that has preoccupied him for a decade.
A skilled workman, Wouk tried to calculate to a whisker the risks he took in thinning down his people to fatten up his history. With his book already climbing bestseller lists before official publication, perhaps he should no longer worry. Still, the doubt lingers.
Wouk first planned to do a global war novel way back in 1944 when he was serving as executive officer of the destroyer-minesweeper U.S.S. Southard. For a while The Caine Mutiny threatened to sprawl in that direction, with more home-front material and a subplot in Europe. Wisely Wouk cut it back and waited. It was not until 1962 that he began reading standard histories and serious note taking. Two years later he moved to Washington to be near the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, Robert Sherwood and Cordell Hull, the Morgenthau diaries, White House recollections light and heavy are only a few of the men and works he has studied. A special favorite is Langer and Gleason's The Undeclared War, which yielded a surprising tidbit that he put in the book, the sharp suggestion that the plan for Hitler's assault on Russia fell into American hands well before June 1941. Wouk has plunged into Hegel and the German transcendental idealist Johann Fichte for sections on the origins of German militarism. He has suffered through bomb-damage reports, the recriminations of German generals and the gung-ho accounts of flyers like England's Douglas Bader and Germany's Adolf Galland. He also worked with a Russian tutor so he could talk to people when he traveled to Moscow.
Few of Wouk's readers will care about this underpinning, or about the checking done on his text by such experts as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Llewellyn Thompson. Still, the sheer variety of his sources resulted in color as well as accuracy. Hermann Göring's 30-volume album of photographs, for example, was full of details on Hitler's dress, poses, even physical mannerisms. The anecdote about F.D.R.'s martini-mixing prowess turned up in Noel Coward. When it comes right down to writing a scene the first time, though, Wouk admits, "you just had to throw all the notes away and see what came."
Wouk is now firmly settled in Washington. His sons are grown (and, he reports, scared of the notion of writing by their father's up-at-5:30-a.m. work schedule). Though he is a board member of the National Symphony and a trustee of his Orthodox congregation, he finds that Washington, unlike New York, is not so overloaded with things to do "that you just give up on everything." He hopes to finish the sequel to The Winds of War within three years, but will say little more about it than that. Readers, remembering that pregnant Jewish daughter-in-law about to escape to Israel, may reasonably hope for at least a taste of Jaffa oranges.