Jeff Shaara on No Less Than Victory
In all the stories I’ve written, from the American Revolution, up through World War Two, one of the most gratifying comments I have received from readers has been, "I didn’t know that." Whether writing about Benjamin Franklin or The Red Baron, Robert E. Lee or Black Jack Pershing, my favorite moments have come when a discovery is made, when I can offer the reader some tidbit or episode of history that is an entertaining surprise.
By any pure definition, I am not a historian. My job is not to bathe you with the raw facts and figures, all those things many of us dread when opening the high school history text book. Instead, my goal is to tell you a historically accurate story through the eyes of those special characters, by digging deeply into their memoirs and diaries, letters and the accounts of those who stood beside them. The most satisfying part of that to me is that I do not have to "fudge" history. Unlike Hollywood, where too often filmmakers seem not to trust that an honest historical tale can be sufficiently entertaining, I have been surprised by how the characters themselves, so many of them familiar names, can tell us a true story that not only entertains but reveals something of our past. My job is to be the storyteller, to bring these characters out of their world and into ours. History is not about numbers, but about us.
When I began to tackle the subject of the Second World War, I was concerned that I would be unable to find a story to tell that you did not already know. This is one subject that even Hollywood has (sometimes) treated with an honest hand, magnificent stories that may or may not be genuine history, but at least are honest in their ambitions. What can I add to that? What can I tell you about George Patton or D-Day or the Holocaust that you don’t already know? The answer to that was a surprise to me, and it is my fervent hope that in the trilogy I’ve just completed, it is a surprise to you.
Heroes come in strange packages, and often, the decent and the honorable emerge in places we don’t expect to find them. Throughout my research on World War Two, I was caught off guard many times by the strength of character that came not just from the familiar names, the leaders, but the unfamiliar: the men of the Airborne and the tanks and the men who carried the rifle. I was surprised as well by the enemy, in this case, the Germans. Not every man who obeyed Hitler was simply a goose-stepping monster, and so, some of them, Rommel and Kesselring and von Rundstedt and Speer... add to these stories in ways I did not expect.
Ultimately, the stories I write must entertain, which, when writing about war, can seem terribly inappropriate. World War Two gave us more horror than most of us can possibly absorb. But we must not forget that many did absorb it. Many carry those stories still, often unspoken, unrevealed, those aging GIs whose memories have always been stirred by the sights and smells and the horrific loss. And throughout the horror there are different memories, the uplifting, the humorous, and alongside the tears and the screams there is laughter. It is after all, how the veteran survives.
Their numbers are fewer every day, and as they leave us, many will carry the stories with them. Often, as we watched them grow older, we dared not ask for the tales, cautioned by a parent perhaps, warned against prying or digging too deeply into the old veteran’s silent horror. Even in the name of research, it is not my place to probe where I am not invited. But the history is there for us to explore, the events real, the people true to life, the heroism and the horror a part of their legacy, a legacy we must not forget. It’s the least we can do. --Jeff Shaara
(Photo © Adrian Kinloch)
Firmly straddling the ground between war novel and military history, the conclusion to Shaara's WWII European theater series contains the usual mix of real life military leaders and fictional soldiers in combat, recapitulating the last five months of the war, from the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of concentration camps. Shaara's real-life figures (generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt) mostly appear in stilted scenes to discuss strategy, while fictional characters carry the narrative by doing the fighting. Thanks to Shaara's visceral descriptive powers, we ride on a bombing mission with bombardier Sergeant Buckley as his B-17 flies through the flak-filled skies over Germany. With Private Benson, we feel the cold, deprivation and sense of dislocation of the Ardennes. And we sit in an observation post right on the Germans' doorstep as Captain Harroway calls down artillery fire on the enemy. In the end, Shaara delivers nothing we haven't already read in Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers
or Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle
, but fans of military fiction will definitely gobble this up. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.