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WWII book a solid history of a defining conflict

World War II 365 Days
World War II 365 Days
By Margaret E. Wagner

Abrams / The Library of Congress: 2009

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This review first appeared in the March 22, 2009 issue of the North County Times.

There are no – have never been and never will be any – good wars.

But there are those moments in history that define a people and a time, that reshape everything that comes after – and on that score, World War II remains the singular event of the past century.

Not only did World War II redesign the political maps of the globe, but it was one of the rare conflicts in which afterward both sides – victorious and defeated – agreed on who the bad guys and who the good guys were. In addition to being the largest, bloodiest and most wide-ranging war in history (being truly global, unlike World War I, which was mostly confined to Western Europe), WWII was by far the most documented war in history. Nearly every nation sent both still and movie photographers with its troops to document the war, and books were being written about it while the battles still raged.

"World War II 365 Days," by Margaret E. Wagner, co-published by Abrams and the Library of Congress, is one of the best single-volume histories of WWII yet published.

The book is organized in two concurrent narratives, which can be a bit confusing at times. The pages aren't numbered – instead, each two-page spread is devoted to a single day of the year. Along the bottom of each page is a list of notable events (or sometimes just a single event) that happened on that date during the war (or in the immediate run-up or aftermath). For instance, the April 5 entry points out that on that date in 1941, Yugoslavian and Soviet representatives signed a treaty of nonaggression, and in 1945, Russia renounced its neutrality toward Japan.

At the same time, the top 75 percent of the page is devoted to an ongoing history of the war – so the same April 5 pages that contain the mentioned entries from 1941 and 1945 also contain a lengthy entry on the British Empire on the eve of war, which has nothing to do with April 5.

The narrative text is just-the-facts history; author Wagner eschews the sort of fantasizing so popular among many contemporary historians. The facts are familiar to anyone who's studied the war, and Wagner breaks no new ground here.

The heart of the book, though, is the more than 600 photographs and reproductions taken from the library's vast collection. Both the familiar and lesser-known are here, from the cover photo of Ike giving troops a pep talk on the eve of D-Day to a photo of future Vietnamese Communist dictator Ho Chi Minh posing with his fellow partisans and American advisers in 1945.

There are also numerous pages taken from a Japanese history of the war, propaganda posters from all sides of the war, and drawings and paintings done by front-line soldiers of the hell they'd lived through.

In the end, "World War II 365 Days" is a solid overview of the war, told primarily from an American point of view, but with frequent peeks into the perspective of both our allies and enemies. It's sometimes confusing trying to remember that the two different sections on the page aren't tied together, and the lack of either a table of contents or an index makes finding any specific entry a game of concentration.

Despite this unorthodox approach to organization, however, the book is a welcome addition to the WWII literature for its many unique images not readily available elsewhere and its solid history of the conflict.