War on War Books

Donald Miller has rewritten one of the best books on World War II, but will anyone care?

Only a couple of months ago, it looked as though Donald Miller had a publishing home run on his hands--a thoughtful, exhilarating, inclusive book about World War II scheduled to hit stores just as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' Band of Brotherswas finishing its critically lauded run on HBO. His work was--no, it is--nothing short of a publishing milestone: Miller has revised, expanded and substantially rewritten The Story of the Second World War, originally published at war's end by Henry Steele Commager, among the most revered historians of the American 20th century. A compendium of first-person accounts of battle, from its participants and its war correspondents, Commager's book was the very model of narrative history. It put you in the action, in the boots of the soldiers, the cockpits of its pilots, in the foxholes that became graves. It was a flawed piece of work, riddled with hundreds of errors bound to crop up when penning history on the fly, but an important work nonetheless--part textbook, part thriller. Miller had taken on the seemingly impossible task of updating Commager's work, without betraying it, and come out the other end holding in his hands the retitled The Story of World War II, among the quintessential books penned on the subject.

But that was before September 11, before the United States once again found itself at war, only this time with thousands of casualties piled up on the home front. To a generation that wasn't the Greatest Generation, a phrase that has made Tom Brokaw plenty of coin, World War II seemed but a speck in history's rearview mirror. Millions still watched Band of Brothers,a lovingly gung-ho adaptation of Stephen Ambrose's best-selling book that played like an episodic sequel to Saving Private Ryan, but no longer, it seemed, did they have much interest in reading about something that happened thousands of miles away, decades ago. Who needed Hitler or Tojo in 2001 when there was a new poster boy for hate? Who wanted to read about such distant places as Guadalcanal and Tinian when they need only look out their windows to witness, firsthand, the wasteland of war?

Where, only weeks ago, books about World War II filled the best-seller lists, suddenly climbing the charts--with a bullet--were titles about the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Muslim extremists, terrorists, the Twin Towers. Selling faster than latex gloves was Germs, the book on bioterrorism penned by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. Bookstores couldn't keep in stock The New Jackals, Simon Reeve's 1999 book on bin Laden and terrorism; Yossef Bodansky, heretofore the little-known director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, was selling by the thousands bin Laden and Al Qaeda books that, before September 11, sold in the dozens. Even Andre Kress Gillespie's 2-year-old history of the World Trade Center, Twin Towers, published by Rutgers University Press, still sits high atop The New York Timeslist of best-selling hardcover nonfiction titles. Of the 15 top books on The Times' current list, five are somehow related or relevant to the events of September 11.

Which left Miller and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, trying to sell a 704-page, 35-buck World War II book in what Miller calls the "black hole of publicity." The professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says he's been bumped from several major network shows in recent weeks, which not so long ago would have lined up to fete a book narrated, in large part, by the men who fought in the trenches. He says he and Joe Persico, author of the recently published and well-reviewed Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage, were scheduled to appear on one network talk show to discuss World War II. Instead, they were told by one programming executive, "Our audience wants to hear one thing. They want to hear about thiswar." In their stead, such authors as Peter Bergen, whose Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama bin Laden ranks among Amazon.com's top sellers, fill the hot seats and push their own product.

"You've got a situation today where an obscure, horribly written university-press book about bin Laden is selling 300,000 copies, where it sold 200 in its original edition, which is what it deserved to get," Miller says, though without a hint of bitterness in his voice. "Barnes & Noble had a huge order in for this book, and they cut back the order. Then, a week and a half later, they re-ordered and increased the order rather dramatically, thinking again there is a continuing interest in World War II and an interest in the parallels between then and now. My friend's a rep for Barnes & Noble, and he gave me the nitty-gritty on that one. Judith Miller's book is doing very well, and they didn't expect it to do that well. And neither did she." He laughs.

At the last minute, Simon & Schuster offered Donald Miller the opportunity to add an afterword, in which he could parallel World War II and the so-called war on terrorism. If nothing else, perhaps, the publisher felt it would make The Story of World War IImore relevant, more timely--as though such a thing were possible. He wisely declined, even though, during his current tour of national bookstores, where he speaks and signs, he is inundated with questions from an audience that wants to know, among other things, "Are we really at war?" and "Was World War II like the war on terrorism?" Miller figures he spends half of his visits talking about the comparative aspects of both conflicts. And his students likewise eat up teaching time worrying and wondering. "These kids are really upset about this war for a lot of reasons," Miller says, "the reasons I was upset about the war in Vietnam."

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