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Review: “D-Day: June 6, 1944” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Title: D-Day: June 6, 1944–The Climactic Battle Of World War II
Author: Stephen E. Ambrose
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Simon & Schuster, 1994

Well, this is awkward. I was all set to tell you how Stephen Ambrose was one of the greatest historians of the Second World War still living, and then tell you to read this book. Except that in looking up tidbits of fact to sprinkle in here and whet your fancy, I discovered two things. First, he died twelve years ago. Secondly, and more important, his reputation is not now as glowing as I had believed it to be. It seems that several of his books are riddled with improper citations and, in a couple places, even inaccuracies. Sentences or even paragraphs lifted almost verbatim from other sources, given a citation but not acknowledged within the text. An easy mistake to make, perhaps, but a rookie level one. Ambrose was one of the leading WWII scholars in the nation, even the world. You would think that indicated a level of care and professionalism that would preclude such sloppiness. (You can read about that whole mess here.) More troubling is the recent discovery that his relationship with General-turned-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not exactly as he had described. Instead of Eisenhower approaching him to write his biography, Ambrose approached the former president. Instead of the hundreds of hours they allegedly spent talking before Eisenhower’s death, the meticulous records kept by Eisenhower’s secretary and assistant show only five. Some of the interviews cited by Ambrose take place at times Eisenhower was recorded to be elsewhere. Later-used citations are vague as to the date and time, simply cited as “Interview with DDE.” (You can read that story here.) This saddens me, for I had intended to consume his entire bibliography. Now….now my plan is to still read his WWII histories (Pegasus Bridge, Citizen Soldiers, re-read Band Of Brothers) which are less controversial, but I doubt I’ll push beyond that. We’ll see when the time comes I suppose.

But you know what? I’m still recommending this book. It was incredibly engaging and well-written–even his harshest detractors admit that he was one heck of a writer. With two lone exceptions (discussed below), there is no controversy concerning the facts as Ambrose relates them here. There may be a few spurious interview bits from Eisenhower buried in the passages he cites from his own books, I can’t check the whole chain of citation since I only have this one book on hand, but across the board his sources for this one seem legit. Would I use this as a source for a scholarly paper? Maybe not, at least without doing some more serious digging, but that’s really not a question I think most of my readers are concerned with. So far as I can tell, most of my readers are simply concerned with finding good books to fill their reading time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. History degree or not, I’m under no delusions that my review blog is a scholarly source. So, let me be clear as to what this is: Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day is an incredibly compelling study of arguably the single most crucial operation in the Second World War, told mostly by the men who were there and survived the experience. It is a tale of incredible human ingenuity, courage, and resolve, and it is very much worth reading.

In the wee hours of the morning, June 6th, 1944, the Allied nations launched the single greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare. Hitler had spent years fortifying the French coast against this day, certain that it would have to come eventually, and the network of fortifications he had ordered constructed were intended to be impenetrable. Had any one of a hundred different factors played out differently, they may well have proved to be. Had the fortifications been better staffed, had Hitler proved more decisive and/or less inclined to micromanaging troop dispositions, had his staff even proved willing to wake him up when the invasion started so that he could give the proper orders, it would be a very different book I’m reviewing here. Had the invasion failed, what would the world look like today? That’s a question far too large for me to answer, at least here, but Ambrose believes that Berlin would have suffered the eventual fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, it’s no spoiler seventy years on to tell you that the invasion of Normandy was successful, if incredibly costly. I urge you to read this book and see the operation through the eyes of the men who were there.

I think I’ve pretty adequately communicated that I think you should read this. I’ve touched on how well it’s written, and how despite the controversy surrounding the author nobody really takes issue with this particular work, with two exceptions. First, Ambrose portrays the pilots ferrying the airborne troops to their dropzones as untrained for the degree of AA fire they were taking, and blames this factor (and, by extension, their fear) for how scattered the paratroopers became. These pilots take offense to this portrayal and have repeatedly lobbied for changes in this and other books that make the same claim. The second minor controversy concerns an incident occurring off of Omaha beach, where a landing craft skipper wanted to abort and the infantry captain aboard forced him to make the run in anyway at gunpoint. A fine story, a compelling anecdote, and properly sourced to boot. Ambrose didn’t simply make this up–it comes from a 1960 article in Atlantic Monthly, and is a story that has been much repeated in a number of other works since. The problem? The sole survivor of that landing craft denies it ever happened. Either way, Ambrose acted in good faith here, though I do somewhat question the reliability of Atlantic Monthly as a reliable source of historical fact. So do with that what you will. But read the book.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, depending on how the veterans being interviewed censored themselves and their stories. Some graphic depictions of violence, especially in the accounts from Omaha beach. No sexual content.

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Mini-reviews: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, part 1

This is a compilation of my review for the first three Hellboy collections. Why only the first three? Because that’s all my library has. I’m going to have to explore other avenues to get my hands on Hellboy’s further adventures…..

VOLUME I: SEED OF DESTRUCTION (****)
Story and art by Mike Mignola, Written by John Byrne

I’m a huge fan of the Hellboy films—the character, the world it creates, all of it. I didn’t realize until after watching it that there was a comic it was based on, and for a while I had no good way to access those comics even after discovering their existence. I did eventually get my hands on a collection of shorts, including the source for that talking corpse from the movie, but never the original miniseries they mainly drew from for the main thrust of the film. That eluded me….until now. The problem is, that first miniseries was created a long time ago and the character and world have had a long time to mature and grow since then. As a result, this first effort didn’t compare well. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but not nearly as epic in scale as the film. A vast underground complex in Russia, accessible through Rasputin’s tomb? I’m sorry, but that trumps the comic’s crumbling lakeside manor. Though I suppose that manor is a bit more Lovecraftian, which was probably what Mignola was going for….Some other stuff kind of bugged me—such as the moment Hellboy and Abe identify someone from a photograph of a doomed expedition that has been talked about but never seen by the reader. It felt like we should have been able to make that leap too, and I spent five minutes hunting for where we had been shown that picture only to find it doesn’t exist. I’m told it all gets better as it goes, and there’s not a chance this disappointing start will get me to quit, but it saddened me nonetheless. On the other hand, there was some interesting material as well, such as the aliens monitoring the Ogdru Jahad’s prison. I’ll be interested to see if they appear again.

VOLUME II: WAKE THE DEVIL (*****)
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola

This is more like it! You may recall I was disappointed in the first Hellboy volume’s lack of scope. This volume, however, hits the mark without fail.

So you thought the death of Rasputin in volume I was the end of Project Ragna Rok? Think again! The rest of Rasputin’s cult is still at large and newly-awakened, and Rasputin himself is not so dead as Hellboy and company would like to think. In a Nazi castle above the arctic circle, plans are being set into motion to once more try and bring about the end of the world…..unless Hellboy and his friends can once more stave off the apocalypse!

We are introduced to more of the BPRD crew this time around, as well as getting more of an idea of Hellboy’s origins and destiny. On the whole, I love this series!

VOLUME III: THE CHAINED COFFIN AND OTHERS (*****)
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola

This is so far my favorite collection of Hellboy comics. Instead of a long, cosmically-significant storyarc, here we have a number of shorter works–vignettes, even. This collection is really an anthology, collecting various one-offs or short serials Mignola created as backups to other features. While I enjoy the longer storyarcs, I think for my money that Hellboy works best in this format. Introduce monster, give backstory for monster, have Hellboy fight monster, get his butt kicked, and finally win. Rinse and repeat. And yet it never gets boring or repetitive as Mignola uses each tale to build the occult-encrusted world Hellboy inhabits. This collection by rights ought to be read alongside the first two volumes, as some of the stories happen in the interim between Seed Of Destruction and Wake The Devil. The stories included are:

  • The Corpse (Ireland, 1959): Hellboy challenges the Little People for the return of a kidnapped child. Remember the bit in the first Hellboy film with the talking corpse Hellboy carries around for a while? That’s inspired by this story, I believe.
  • The Iron Shoes (Ireland, 1961): Hellboy takes on one of the Fae who does not share the usual faery aversion to iron.
  • The Baba Yaga (Russia, years before Wake The Devil): Mignola planned out this story as a backup feature in a canceled miniseries, so it never actually got published. The events therein, however, are referenced in Wake The Devil, so Mignola went ahead and wrote it specially for this collection.
  • A Christmas Underground (England, Christmas Eve 1989): Hellboy takes on an ancient evil and ends the curse haunting an English manor.
  • The Chained Coffin (England, immediately after Seed Of Destruction): Shaken by Rasputin’s allegations regarding his origin and fate in Seed Of Destruction, Hellboy travels to the ruined church where he entered this world in search of answers.
  • The Wolves Of Saint August (The Balkans, 1994): Father Kelly, an old friend and compatriot of Hellboy’s, is murdered along with an entire village. Hellboy wants to know why….and who he’s going to make pay!
  • Almost Colossus (Romania, immediately after Wake The Devil): This serves to tie up some loose ends from the Wake The Devil story–namely, the fates of Liz Sherman and the homunculous.

Content: Mild language. A fair amount of violence, some of it bloody, but given the stylized nature of Mignola’s art this is usually not too disturbing. Likewise the nudity that occasionally creeps in–female monsters are not going to wear clothes just because the Comic Code Authority thinks they should…..

Occult content: A fair amount. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Vampires show up, and the particular vampires in question are implied to be the unholy offspring of a man and the godess Hecate. In one story Hellboy has to find a burial place for a reanimated and talkative skeleton before dawn. The Russian…..godess? Superstition? How do you describe Baba Yaga?….anyway, Baba Yaga shows up. There is a werewolf tale that has its root in a curse leveled on the local nobility by a wandering priest outraged at their idolatry. The Colossus story in itself doesn’t have any real occult elements, but the characters do debate matters of theology and the role of creation.

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