Best-selling author Herman Wouk passed away last week, ten days short of his 104th birthday. Wouk is probably best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” (1951), if only for Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the cowardly and paranoid Capt. Queeg in the movie adaptation (of which Wouk was not a fan).
However, the best way to remember—or discover—Wouk may be his World War II epics: “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978). As a writer whose Jewish faith often informed his work, Wouk set out to write a novel about the Holocaust. It is a doubly impressive achievement that he first wrote another highly entertaining novel just to provide the context for the second.
The “War” novels are melodramas told through the lives of two families. The first is led by a U.S. naval officer, Victor “Pug” Henry, the other by a Jewish-American scholar and author, Aaron Jastrow (paralleling Wouk, Jastrow found popular success when his book, “A Jew’s Jesus,” became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection). The families become connected when Pug’s youngest son Byron goes to work for Jastrow in Italy and falls in love with Jastrow’s niece, Natalie.
The chief conceit of the books is that Pug, while serving as a naval attaché in Berlin, becomes an informal errand-runner for President Roosevelt. As a result, Pug finds himself dispatched to Washington, London, Rome, Moscow, Tehran, and the Pacific. Pug’s brushes with historical figures—Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill, to name a few—may give modern readers a Forrest Gump feeling, but there are historical examples of FDR using these sorts of emissaries.
The journeys of Pug, his family, and their associates reach many less-known aspects of the war. For example, in “War and Remembrance,” Pug visits Leningrad after a brutal siege that reduced the population from 2,000,000 to 600,000. As Wouk notes in an aside, Soviet historians avoided highlighting the city’s three-year resistance of the Nazis due to the Communist Party’s failures to prepare for the German invasion (of which they were warned by multiple sources). But in both novels, Wouk draws an insightful portrait of the Russian people that remains useful to understanding their national psychology today.
Wouk also sheds light on better-known events like the Battle of Midway, noting the code-breaking that gave America the intelligence advantage was aided by Japanese sloppiness after the Doolittle raid. In addition, the decisive coordinated attack by American air forces was a “freak accident,” although one which would not have happened without the sacrifice of heroic young men.
Wouk’s writing is occasionally criticized as workmanlike; the literary reviews were often dismissive. But the “War” novels became best-sellers, in part because Wouk has an excellent sense of character.
Pug is stolid and career-obsessed, but unable to resist bucking conventional wisdom when he believes himself right. His wife Rhoda is beautiful, but often unserious and manipulative. His son Byron is immature, but with more of his father’s morality than his brother Warren has. Aaron Jastrow’s intelligence and aloofness renders him blind to the true danger of Hitler’s rise. Natalie Jastrow is accurately described by other characters as a lioness.
Even minor figures in the large cast usually pass the test made famous in the Red Letter Media review of “The Phanton Menace,” with easily recognized personality traits. Major or minor, the war leaves its mark on almost all of them.
Wouk’s approach both personalizes otherwise impersonal history and places otherwise senseless personal tragedies into a larger historical context. Wouk’s method has a cinematic quality, as his facility with character is matched by his ability to create a sense of place, whether it is London at the height of the Battle of Britain or the quiet forest outside the historic home of Leo Tolstoy. Wouk’s “War” novels do not reach the heights of Tolstoy’s “War And Peace,” but that would be an exceedingly high bar.
This is not to say the “War” novels lack telling observations, both large and small. Introducing Pug, Rhoda, and the state of their marriage, Wouk notes that “talk, not sex, constitutes most of the intercourse between a man and his wife.” The text deals in the melodrama of wartime romances, but there is subtext on the toll world wars took on fidelity, traditional morality, and (with a notable exception) religious faith.
Sometimes, the observations are about Americans. On one return home, “Victor Henry loved being back among American faces, American talk, offhand open manners, laughter from the diaphragm and not from the face muscles, not a bow or a clicked pair of heels, not a woman’s European smile, gleaming on and off like an electric sign.”
In contrast, after Pearl Harbor, scientist Palmer Kirby is offended by the country carrying on at Christmastime: “The Lucky Strike ads showed jolly red-cheeked old Santa Claus wearing a tin soldier hat, cutely tilted. In one sickening image, that was the national attitude.”
Occasionally, the observations are global. While traveling for the Tehran Conference, an old British hand advises Pug: “Should you succeed in getting Stalin out [of Iran], for God’s sake don’t try to install your free enterprise system here, with party elections and the rest… A democracy in a backward or unstable country simply gets smashed by the best-organized power gang.”
Lastly, there is the overarching reason Wouk wrote both books: the Holocaust. The enormity of the horror is made personal in all its details as the Jastrows get sucked into the maelstrom by miscalculations and misfortune. Although the tragedy is a focus of “War and Remembrance,” both novels portray the era’s casual anti-Semitism, which blinded some, left some in denial and others impotent to do much other than to defeat Hitler as the only remaining option.
Wouk wrote that the beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance. His “War” novels serve that function, as did the TV miniseries he crafted from them in the 1980s (52 million watched “The Winds of War”; tens of millions watched “War And Remembrance” despite being hurt by a writers’ strike). With a 2018 poll indicating two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was, it can only be hoped that Wouk’s passing revives interest in these gripping and educational page-turners.