Thursday, December 10, 2020

Review of Stephen Ambrose' The Victors

When I began reading The Victors and realized that it was compiled from many of Stephen Ambrose’s other books on World War II, I was disappointed. I thought I’d be reading the literary equivalent of ‘refried beans.’

It was a needless concern.

Although I recognized some passages from Citizen Soldiers, D-Day, and Pegasus Bridge, the book read as a fresh telling of the momentous stream of actions that comprise the Allied victory in the Eastern Theater of Operations. Ambrose begins with D-Day and continues the account to the signing of surrender on May 7, 1945 in Reims. Most of the account details the actions of the Americans and the Brits, with less about the Canadians, even less about the French, and practically nothing about the Soviets.

Effusive in his praise of Eisenhower but equally unafraid to critique and criticize, Ambrose gives the reader a clear picture of what Ike had to deal with as he led a multinational coalition of competing egos, competing national and strategic priorities, and competing deficits in the character or competence of the general officers serving under him. Marshall, Montgomery, Bradley, and Patton occupy the lion’s share of attention when Ambrose writes of the generals, although accounts of many other general officers are included in the pages.

Most importantly, Ambrose exercises one of his great strengths as a writer and historian: he brings the reader down to the squad level of combat, with the privates, sergeants, and lieutenants. Through numerous interviews with the men who were actually there, the author puts the reader in the soggy foxholes with the soldiers as they battle the Germans plus rain, snow, mud, hunger, cold, trench foot, dysentery, and extreme sleep deprivation.

The book includes some good photographs, but only one master map. I would have enjoyed more maps, especially when the author invested several pages detailing specific battles. Here and there Ambrose embeds passages explaining tactics, weapons, policies, or even the politics hidden behind strategic decisions—these digressions were always fascinating.

Ambrose’s respect for the common soldier crafted from the common citizen is on display in The Victors. He concludes the book with a retrospective tribute to the enlisted men without whom no victory would have been possible. It is well deserved.

I walk away from The Victors marveling at the near superhuman endurance of the teens and twenty-year olds who not only survived the extreme conditions, but beat back the powerful German army. Will there ever again be such a generation? May God grant that there will never be the need. Five stars, highly recommended.

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