Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Victors by Stephen Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose is America's greatest assembly-line historian. And in The Victors he takes assembly line history writing to a new level with this cut-and-paste summary of the best passages of his prior World War II histories.

The Victors covers the time period between D-Day until the fall of Berlin, and the pages contain what everyone should expect from a Stephen Ambrose book, vivid, colorful and lifelike portraits of the war from the soldiers themselves.

If you want to understand the strategy, tactics or geopolitics behind World War II, you'll get more insights and better information from reading other historians. I'd start with John Keegan's exceptional The Second World War.

However, if you're new to the subject of World War II and you want a fast-reading and gripping (and admittedly American-centric) survey of what life was like in the war, Ambrose will give you exactly what you need. Ambrose's great gift was his ability to dig colorful stories and anecdotes out of the hundreds of GIs he interviewed over the past decades.

The problem with Ambrose is that he's been mining this treasure trove of interviews for multiple books now. And this is one of the more egregious examples of an author retreading material from other books.

Granted, Ambrose's other World War II books--among his best are Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers and D Day--either covered incomplete portions of the war, or were conceptual in nature (Band of Brothers covers the history of a specific company in the war, D-Day covers the leadup to the the execution of the Normany Invasion, and the thesis of Citizen Soldiers was that American military success really came from the flexible and adaptive actions of the average soldier). There was a gap in Ambrose's oeuvre since he hadn't attempted a complete history of World War II. This book is his attempt to plug that gap.

But if you've read any of Ambrose's other WWII books, The Victors will have some passages that seem awfully familiar. And my suspicion is that he had his team of assistants string together a chronological list of stories and anecdotes from his other books, creating a quilt of sorts that adds up to a more or less complete history of the entire war.

And The Victors reads generally well, except at points where the reader stumbles onto some unexplained Army acronym, or a reference to some person without prior context (these are both textbook examples of the types of oversights that happen when one cuts and pastes passages from other books).

I recommend this book to readers who are newly interested in World War II. But for any readers out there who have already tackled any of Ambrose's other World War II books, don't bother with this one.

One final comment on Ambrose. Back in 2002, there was a flurry of media coverage of allegations that he plagiarized portions of a number of his books. I've listed a few links below that you can read if you're interested in reading further. It's a fascinating subject in and of itself.




For Further Reading:
As Historian's Fame Grows, So Do Questions on Methods at the New York Times
The Plagiarist: Why Stephen Ambrose is a Vampire at Slate.com
Should Stephen Ambrose be Pardoned? at Slate.com

Suggested Reading List for The Victors:
The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945-The Day the Rhine River was Crossed by Ken Hechler--seen as one of the best accounts of the US Army in action in WWII
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
The Second World War. by John Keegan
The Second World War a massive six-volume history by Winston Churchill (best parts: The Hinge of Fate, Closing the Ring and Triumph and Tragedy)
War As I Knew It by George Patton
Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II
The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day by Cornelius Ryan

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