By Stephen E. Ambrose
Simon & Schuster
396 pp., $28
Stephen Ambrose would be first to admit he's treading very familiar ground with this book. After nine other books on Eisenhower and/or the men who served under him, it's hard to avoid overlap. Anyone who read the most recent in this series, the bestselling "Citizen Soldiers," will recognize a number of repeated anecdotes and narratives.
The remarkable thing about Ambrose's crisp, quick-march way of presenting history is that you really don't mind. Twice is hardly too many times to be told about the bravery of Lt. Waverly Wray, who singlehandedly thwarted a German counterattack in the wake of D-Day. Or how clever GIs finally learned to rip through Normandy's hedge rows.
The reader gets much new material, as well - notably, added insights into the relationship between the top brass, personified by Eisenhower, and the front-line soldiers. The positive side of that relationship was a genuine regard for the average GI's courage and ability.
The negative side of the relationship was the distance between men in the fox holes and those whose orders governed their lives. Ambrose sharply criticizes the tendency of US commanders to stay back from the front and thus fail to grasp the horrendous conditions faced by the troops. He interviewed hundreds of men who served on the European front; few ever saw an officer above the rank of captain.
Still, the morale of the GIs in the face of a tenacious, sometimes better-equipped enemy was remarkable. Somehow, despite command failings, logistical foul-ups, and the chaos of combat, most GIs knew the fight was worth it. As they turned back the last great German thrust, the Battle of the Bulge, Americans, says Ambrose, established a "moral" as well as a military superiority. That sprang, he says, from teamwork and trust up and down the ranks. "Democracy proved better able to produce young men who could be made into superb soldiers than Nazi Germany."
That's Ambrose's message in a nutshell. Patriotic, but pragmatic, too. He has repeated it enough that it ought to have sunk in with readers. In the introduction to this book, Ambrose hints he's ready to move on to new subjects - perhaps the building of the intercontinental railroad. I'll be there.
* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.