Art Out of Chaos: The Literature and Movies of World War II

Benjamin Baruch Woody

June 6, 2019 was the 75th anniversary of D-Day. As most of you probably know, this is the day that the Allied forces began the offensive push to defeat the German Army. This anniversary got me thinking about sacrifice, heroism, a generation that is quickly fading away, and it got me thinking about literature and art. Your library is chock full of World War II literature and movies. Without any research whatsoever, I would guess that there are more books about World War II in the Jackson County Public Library non-fiction section than any other subject. Wait…I forgot. There are way more diet books.

Today we are going to examine World War II literature and art through three sections. We will examine the narrative history literature, World War II fiction, and the movies of WW II. These are things that I can recommend because I have either read or watched them. This is not a comprehensive collection; it strictly stems from my own experience. One note: For the most part, this commentary will not touch on Holocaust literature. This is a bleak genre that I have extensively studied, and because of its importance and intellectual heft, it deserves its own blog.

My favorite narrative history of World War II is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The first book is from 42-43 and follows the North Africa campaign. The second volume covers 43-44 and Sicily/Italy. The third volume runs through 1945 and covers Western Europe. This series is masterful. Atkinson is a diligent researcher and his characters come to life on the page. Any history buff will not be disappointed.

My favorite single volume is Stud Terkel’s “The Good War” : an Oral History of World War Two. Terkel spent many years collecting the stories of men and women who took part, in various capacities, in the War. This book is harrowing, heartbreaking, and, yet, strangely uplifting. It both breaks and restores your faith in humanity.

The book that I think might be the most important is William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This book is not for the faint of heart. It is brutal, unflinching, and prophetic. The parallels with this book and certain current events is both uncanny and frightening. Everyone should read this book.

Here are some more non-fiction history books that I recommend:

  1. The Second World Wars : how the first global conflict was fought and won by Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson is one of my favorite historians (his work on the Peloponnesian Wars is a masterpiece) and his books are always full of interesting ideas.
  2. Unbroken : a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Laura Hillenbrand is quite simply a genius. She and Michael Lewis are the two greatest living non-fiction writers in the English Language. Read both of her books and pray to the Library gods that she is working on another.
  3. Inferno : the world at war, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings. Hastings is just a joy. You could learn much about modern warfare just reading Max Hastings. He has written comprehensive histories of every war from WW I through Vietnam.

James Jones’ From Here To Eternity is my favorite WW II work of fiction and one of my favorite novels ever. Closely based on Jones’ own experiences at Pearl Harbor and the South Pacific, this novel is not so much a picture of the War (it mostly takes place before the attack on Pearl Harbor) as it is an examination of the Army, of the struggle of a generation to come to grips with their own boredom (obviously this will change in a hurry), and a haunting tribute to all of broken humanity. There is a quiet dignity in Jones’ bewildered characters. They struggle without knowing why. They remind me of Camus’ Sisyphus. The sequel to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, is also excellent.

The comic masterpiece of an age, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller must be read. This book will send you into stitches. The absurdity of it; the sheer madness of bureaucracy. This novel has it all and it is serious when it needs to be. I spent 5 years in the Army and was a part of two wars. No other piece of art comes as close to the real experience of the military as this novel. Read it and weep with laughter.

Many people love Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I think that it is just ok but I will include it because Mailer does loom large over the literature that came after the War. He is a Heavy, but I always found him bloated.

There is no shortage of WW II films. There are literally thousands. I consider Schindler’s List the greatest movie ever made (although it is not my favorite). It may be the most powerful work of art I have ever experienced. Steven Spielberg is very good at WW II movies. Below is a list of films and series that I personally love (in no particular order).

  1. Saving Private Ryan
  2. Patton
  3. The Longest Day
  4. The Great Escape
  5. Inglourious Basterds
  6. Band of Brothers
  7. Downfall
  8. Das Boot
  9. Bridge on the River Kwai
  10. Casablanca