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Tell it Like it Was
Stephen Ambrose talks about his new book, The Victors -- a synthesis of his work on the Second World War

November 12, 1998

victorbk picture "I am an unabashed triumphalist," Stephen Ambrose has recently written. "I believe this is the best and greatest country that ever was." This sentiment may help explain why Ambrose, the author of twenty books, most of them military history, chose to tell the story of Lewis and Clark's journey of discovery. Ambrose's Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996) is a gripping account that has become a fixture on the best-seller lists, and has inspired a resurgence of interest in the topic. For most of this decade, though, Ambrose's passion has been writing about another triumph -- the Second World War.

Unlike most historians of that war, Ambrose concentrates on the lives of the men who actually fought -- for example, those who landed at the beach in Normandy and spent weeks of the coldest winter in forty years living in foxholes. Ambrose relies on thousands of oral histories and interviews, and he tells many of the soldiers' stories in their own words. It was this focus on the experiences of the common soldier that led Steven Spielberg, the director of Saving Private Ryan, to turn to Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers (1997), Band of Brothers (1993), and D-Day (1994) in an effort to understand what the Second World War was really like. Ambrose was later asked to be a consultant for Spielberg's film -- and was one of the first people to see the completed version. But there wasn't much consulting to do: Spielberg, according to Ambrose, had gotten just about everything right. In his latest work, The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys-- the Men of World War II, Ambrose draws from five of his previous books to create an integrated one-volume history of the campaign in Europe from D-Day to Berlin, concentrating on Ike and the soldiers who fought for him.
Discuss this feature in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

Coming to Life (October 1998)
An interview with Anne Fadiman, the new editor of The American Scholar, whose latest book proves what she has always suspected -- that there is an essayist lurking inside her.

Redefining Rape (October 1998)
Alarmingly, when it comes to sexual assault, "no" doesn't always mean "no" in a court of law. The legal scholar Stephen Schulhofer talks about his new book, Unwanted Sex, and about why the laws need to change.

Body Language (October 1998)
What's behind the work of John Edgar Wideman, the author of the new novel Two Cities, is simple: if you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk.

Manifest Destiny (September 1998)
A conversation with Robert D. Kaplan, whose latest work, An Empire Wilderness, suggests that the future of the United States won't be at all what we expect.

Fear of Falling (September 1998)
Andrew Todhunter talks about his new book, Fall of the Phantom Lord, about the rock climber Dan Osman, and examines the lure of putting one's life on the line.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Ambrose is the founder of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and the National D-Day Museum, in New Orleans, which is scheduled to open on June 6, 2000 -- the 56th anniversary of D-Day. But unless Ambrose has a change of heart, his days as a military historian are over: he's written that he's looked at "enough destruction, enough blood, enough high explosives," and has told his wife, "I ain't going to study war no more." His next project is a book on the building of the transcontinental railroad.

Ambrose spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

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Stephen Ambrose
You wrote in the introduction to The Victors that it was the most fun of any of your books to write. Why so?

Because it brings together the people I'd written about the most and am most intrigued by -- the guy at the very top, Eisenhower, and then the guys out in the field who had to carry out the orders -- while skipping everybody in between. I found it a very appealing way to look at the American side of the Second World War in Europe. It gave me, frankly, almost a feeling of being a novelist or a moviemaker, in that I was able to cut from one scene to another in a way that we don't usually get to do in narrative history, going from up where the gods live and hurl their thunderbolts, down to the trenches in which those thunderbolts explode. Normally one of my books would either be about Eisenhower or about the common soldiers. But trying to combine the two, going macro-micro, macro-micro, back and forth like good novelists do, was great fun.

Do you have any interest in writing a novel?

I did try, but my editor, Alice Mayhew, told me to go back to doing what I do well.

What drew you, someone who has never fought in a war, to become a military historian?

I decided early on that I wanted to be a historian, and then I very quickly figured out that war is where the action is, and even more specifically, that the action's on the battlefield, where who wins determines the kind of world we're going to live in. I thought, I want to go to the heart of the matter. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries you have these great nation states hurling their young men at one another. The victory was really going to rest on who could do the best job of bringing up their kids to become efficient and effective soldiers. That's pretty grandiose, I guess, but I do think that, and thank God it's been the armies of democracy that have emerged from this as the triumphant armies. That fits all my prejudices -- I'm always in favor of democracy.

Read an excerpt from The Victors.

From the archives:

"First Wave at Omaha Beach," by S.L.A. Marshall (November, 1960)
"In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let's follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha company."

"'Is This Like Your War, Sir?'," by Arthur T. Hadley (September, 1972)
The line of battle, 1944-1945, revisited.

"The Real War 1939-1945," by Paul Fussell (August, 1989)
On its fiftieth anniversary, how should we think of the Second World War? What is its contemporary meaning? One possible meaning, reflected in every line of what follows, is obscured by that oddly minimizing term 'conventional war.' With our fears focused on nuclear destruction, we tend to be less mindful of just what conventional war between modern industrial powers is like. This article describes such war, in a stark, unromantic manner.

A central theme of your book is how the Second World War proved that a military fueled by a democracy is better than one formed by a totalitarian regime. Could you talk about how being a democracy helped us win the war?

On the home front we had free labor, which always outproduces slave labor -- and the Nazis were relying on slave labor. Hitler's technicians got stuck in ruts. They were ahead of the world in 1937, but in 1944 they were still building 1930s models. Most of all, we were helped by the fact that in the Army our soldiers accepted responsibility and seized the initiative, which are things that the children of democracy are very good at, and the children of totalitarians aren't. Hitler thought that his kids, brought up in the Hitler Youth, would always outfight kids brought up in the Boy Scouts, because his kids would unquestionably obey, and because they were fanatics. The problem with that was that ultimately the orders could only come from Hitler, so it was difficult to impossible for Germans to ever take the initiative. They would always be waiting for orders. They were paralyzed on D-Day. At a time when they had the means and the wherewithal to drive the British back into the sea, and the tank commanders were ready to go do it, they had to wait to get the okay from Hitler, who was a thousand kilometers away. It was just madness to run an army like that. You see the same thing on a smaller scale throughout the whole war. The Germans made great troops until the lieutenant got killed.

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Eisenhower greets reinforcements at Le Havre, France.

You describe several terrible decisions and lapses of judgment on the part of Eisenhower and those under his command, yet in the end you argue that he was the right person for the job. What made him so?

That he was able to hold the alliance together, that he was able to act decisively at the most critical moments, especially at the time of D-Day and then again at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Those were the marks of greatness.

How did the fact that Eisenhower had never been in combat affect the way he led the war?

He was unaware of the rigors of being a combat infantryman. He just hadn't been down there in the foxholes, so he was demanding more from his men than they had it in themselves to give. These guys weren't quitters, but he just demanded too much. The replacement system was sending untrained, unprepared men into the worst conditions that human beings have ever had to undergo. And that was ultimately Eisenhower's fault, because he hadn't gone up to the front lines, spent a night, and seen for himself.

Paul Fussell described in Wartime (which you quote in The Victors) the transformation that almost every frontline soldier went through in the Second World War -- from "It can't happen to me." to "It can happen to me, and I'd better be more careful" to "It is going to happen to me, and only my not being there is going to prevent it." How did this realization affect the way people fought, and the way the war was waged?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Books & Authors: The Other Side of War (February, 1997)
Paul Fussell -- historian, literary critic, and veteran -- wants to change the way Americans remember the Second World War.

After a man had been in combat for a while he was a lot more cautious than on his first day. It had a very sobering effect to see what these wounds were like, and to realize that you could encounter death unexpectedly around every corner, so you moved with a great deal more awareness. For the overwhelming majority any thoughts of heroism quickly went away. Nobody wanted to get up and charge into that machine-gun nest. They learned how to sense the enemy, how to distinguish enemy noises; they learned how to work with their forward artillery observers, how to work with tanks, how to use their radios to contact airplanes, and so on. So it was a constant learning process -- cut short for too many, of course, before they'd learned enough.

So that's why the Allied Command sent almost no veterans to D-Day?

One of my favorite lines in that regard is from an Army ranger who told me, You know, people think that veterans are always going to be better than rookies, in war as in sports, but a veteran infantryman is a terrified infantryman. Experienced soldiers will take a lot fewer casualties, but for an assault over an open beach, guys who hadn't seen before what a bullet does to the human body were better than guys who had.

What was your reaction when you saw Saving Private Ryan for the first time? And how well did it recreate the kinds of experiences you've heard about from veterans?

I thought that I had just seen on the screen something that I'd been hearing about for twenty years and never thought I'd see. Spielberg showed it as it was. The only thing missing was the smell of gunpowder.

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Approaching Omaha Beach, mid-morning, June 6, 1944.

What did you think of Spielberg's choice of showing the most horrific of the D-Day landings?

If you're going to make a movie about war, you don't want to blink. I think that he has created a new genre with this film, and that we'll never again have a World War II movie in the John Wayne style. That's a good thing. A war in which machine guns never overheat, and you never run out of ammunition if you're an American, and each American gets to kill 372 Japanese, and wounded soldiers die without suffering -- well, they won't be able to make movies like that anymore after Saving Private Ryan.

You have interviewed hundreds of veterans of the Second World War. How, in general, did they reconcile their wartime experiences with their reentry into civilian life?

The overwhelming majority of them had no problems. They'd seen all they ever wanted to see of war. They never wanted to see a high explosive go off again; they'd had enough of death and destruction; they wanted to get out and build. This applies equally to German and American veterans. They became a great generation of builders. The biggest thing war does is give young men experiences and friendships that were just critically important to their lives and that they would never have had otherwise.

But basically, war's just a goddamned waste of time. And that's overwhelmingly what GIs felt after they knew they were going to live, after the atomic bomb went off, and they didn't have to invade Japan. Hey, I'm going to live, and I better start thinking about a future. The first thing they thought about was that they'd just wasted the best years of their lives. That was overwhelming, the sense of needing to make up for lost time. They were good kids when they went over, and they were good kids when they came back. A whole lot more mature. They had learned an enormous amount. For the guys who didn't get wounded, and even for many of those who did, it was a very positive experience. They learned a great deal in the Army, and I'm not talking about military skills; I'm talking about discipline and teamwork, and seizing the initiative. It opened up opportunities that many of them never would have had otherwise, just as the GI Bill opened up college to millions of guys who never could have gone to college had it not been for the war.

In The Victors you include a few responses you received from veterans to certain stories you told in Citizen Soldiers. What sort of response to your books have you gotten from veterans?

I get an overwhelming amount of mail, and it is basically summed up in one guy's remark: "Thanks for writing about my war." Generally it's: "We've read enough about Bradley, Eisenhower, and Patton." They like it that I write about medics and machine-gunners and the guys who were out there doing the work.

You have been called a "popular historian," and your books, unlike many works of history, are page-turners. Could you talk about the philosophy behind the way you write?

I write a continuous narrative. I long ago learned never to flash forward and back, to tell the story chronologically because that's the way it happened. And as soon as you do that you just get a driving force to your narrative. The characters don't know what's going to happen next, so I don't want the reader to know, either. If Meriwether Lewis goes around a bend in the river and nobody had ever been on the river before to write about it, I want my readers to be surprised just like Lewis was at what he saw. That's the way I write.

What about the way you teach?

I like imagining myself at a campfire when I teach, and I want those students who are out at the outer edge of the light from the campfire where I can just see them, I want them leaning forward just a little bit to make sure they don't miss what happens next.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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