Lessons from “Blood And Ruins:” I’ve been dim-witted and I’ve been smart

Richard Overy’s mind-blowing history of World War II, Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945, has had a profound impact on the way I think — and not only about war but about myself.

I have always had confidence in what I learned in public school. We had terrific teachers. However, I was not confident about expressing my thoughts about what I knew. I suppose I was afraid of doing it badly and then my classmates would think I wasn’t as smart as they thought they were.

Do we all feel that way at some point in our lives? Maybe it’s a women thing, I’m not sure. Certainly I never thought of myself as stupid, and I’ve acquired a lot of hard knowledge throughout my life, in and out of school. Yet, until I read Blood and Ruins, I hadn’t fully perceived World War II as indeed a world war. So what did I think it was, that major event called World War II?

What I mean is, all my reading of 20th Century history concentrated on what happened in Europe and its contiguous mass territory, the Soviet Union. I didn’t know much about the specifics of the Pacific war — conducted primarily by the United States — in the eastern part of the globe.

Because Blood and Ruins is an microscopically detailed history of the whole war, I was necessarily drawn into every military episode outside of Europe. It was a revelation. What the Japanese did (primarily to the Chinese) in their invasive attempts to create an expansive empire throughout the Pacific was monstrous. The Japanese military and leadership were as monstrous as Hitler and his military.

Prof. Overy’s painstaking and relentless enumeration of the horrific destruction throughout the half of the planet I’d never previously paid much attention to, the people the Japanese killed and how they killed them, well…for the first time in my life, the awful decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nakasaki seemed more rational than vengeful.


I don’t remember how long ago it was when I found myself wondering why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, with whom he had forged a non-aggression pact. Why would he open another front, and a massively long one at that? Sure, the “why,” insofar as Hitler’s strategy is concerned, has long been known to anyone who’s read about the war. And Overy, a war historian, is as detailed in laying out Hitler’s purpose and planning as he is with every military operation.

My thoughts about it had settled into my head in a form which had never changed: what a stupid, crazy move. But also in my head was the assumption I must not know all the facts.

Well, thanks to Blood and Ruins, I now know I was right. And my same long-held wonderment at the German insanity was true about the Japanese (now that I had to pay attention to it). Why on this earth would the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, thus provoking a huge country with a population heretofore loathe to enter a war in defense of other countries, not itself?

Crazy and stupid. Two nations (three, to include Italy) with complex military “strategies” devised by apocalyptic madmen.

So for all these years, I’d been smart. It feels very nice.



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