Sunday, September 25, 2011

#68: D-Day: The Battle For Normandy by Anthony Beevor

Penguin Press, New York: 2009. 592 pages

Anthony Beevor is perhaps best known for his book about Stalingrad. For this text, he uses sources from U.S., English, French and German archives to try to get a round picture of the campaign that went from the invasion of France to the liberation of Paris. The tale is replete with crazy stories, horror, absolute random violence and random kindnesses. What is missing to a point are villains and heroes. If anyone is a hero here, it is in an abstract sense. Villains are in the SS (where they should be) and are products of a fucked up worldview.

The "indoctrinated" view of most SS soldiers that Beevor takes makes sense in this PC addled world of ours. In the diary entries that Beevor uses (which are used brilliantly and poignantly I might add) the German troops themselves tended to dislike the SS troops. US troops used some SS prisoners as human shields on jeeps. The French Resistance would just as soon murder one of those bastards as look at 'em. And, by and large, I did not care. This is difficult for me to say, but the SS troops, officers and leaders strike me as a group of gangsters-cum-art-thieves who happen to have tanks and artillery. For this reader, it is difficult to find any sort of sympathy for them. If anyone is sympathetic here, it is the much-maligned-by-U.S.-authors French.

Beevor details the suffering of the civilians of Caen (bombed to bits by the Allies because Monty could not close the deal on the ground), the incredibly dangerous and irreplaceable work of the French Resistance before and after the invasion and the relationships of the Free French Forces with the Allies. I found the descriptions of the work of the Resistance following the invasion more compelling than the description of the invasion itself. Perhaps because the buildup and the invasion is a well known subject to this reader, the somewhat uneasy relationship between the Allies and French Resistance read like a combo soap opera and John Wayne movie.

What authors such as Beevor do is subtly shift the "hometown hero" trope used by some historians and put the reader on the lines with these draftees and volunteers of both armies. In reading this text (and the next text that I will review) the reader gets the sense that combat is random, destructive and for the most part, impersonal. It is all frightening but when it gets personal it becomes terrifying. This is the value of these books when done well: leaving the reader with the idea that I NEVER want to be in a situation like that, but that men in our midst once did these things.

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