When my dad used to read alot, one subject fascinated him above all others. Every birthday, Father's Day, and Hanukkah, at least one of the book I gave him was a memoir, biography, or history dealing with World War II. I thought this was somewhat peculiar because he was there himself in France and Germany in 1944-45. When he moved out of the family house, he was able to donate a nice collection to the San Jose State history department.
As of late, I find myself following in Dad's footsteps. A month or two ago, browsing at Kepler's, I picked up Alex Kershaw's The Few, the story of American flyers who joined the Royal Air Force to fight Hitler before Pearl Harbor. The book is short mainly because there is so little to draw on. Of the eight airmen featured in the book, only one survived the war.
Then came JFK: Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton. It takes the Kennedy story only to 1946. President Kennedy's father was ambassador to the UK at the beginning of the War in 1939. Over half the 800 pages of the book is dedicated to the war years of 1939-1945. Fascinating stuff. JFK's reckless youth was redeemed by the war. The legend is that Jack's older brother Joe was the one slated to be president and Jack took his place when Joe died during the war. Not necessarily so. And it might have been Jack's wartime heroism that impelled Joe to volunteer for the suicide mission that cost him his life.
Just last night I finished Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England by Lynne Olson. She tells the story mainly from memoirs, diaries, and newspapers of how Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had appeased Hitler before the war and then did little to prosecute it once it began, was replaced by Churchill. Some people saw the danger that Hitler represented and some did not. My graduate thesis covered some of this some territory, and I was not nearly as hard on Chamberlain as Olson was.
Here's what these books have in common and what make them so compelling. The authors write about a time when people could choose to fight against unadulterated evil (or appease it or do nothing). I remember the scout who cleaned my room at Oxford. Despite German bombing, despite casualties overseas, she always said the war years were the best years of her life. Everyone was pulling together, there was a heightened sense of being alive even as death threatened. What are we doing with our lives now that can compare with helping to defeat the evil that was Hitlerian Germany? There could not be any doubt about life's meaning then. There was no noirish sense that even the good guys were bad. Until Hitler died in that bunker, there existed a cause worth dying for in a way that neither Vietnam nor Iraq could be. I wasn't there and wish I could have been. I understand my Dad's fascination.