Prisoner of war

IN 1945, a few months after VE Day, the Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead was in London sweating on the reviews of his new book, Eclipse, about the collapse of Nazi Germany. He confessed to his diary: ''How anyone can bear to read a book about the war at this moment is entirely beyond me.'' Indeed, some couldn't. His American publishers initially passed on the book, citing market saturation of reporters' books about the war.

No such concerns about a grisly surfeit of war stories exist today. Seventy years on, the flow of books about World War II shows no sign of letting up. Along with countless new accounts of particular campaigns, the last couple of years have seen three gigantic new global histories of what one hails as ''the cruellest and most destructive conflict the world has ever known''.

Instead of slowly receding since 1945, as you might expect, World War II has established itself as the unique historical catastrophe that never goes away. It seems to exist in its own parallel universe, replaying itself on permanent loop and constantly popping up in various cultural forms, from Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, to The English Patient or Casablanca-style nostalgia for wartime romance, to the untiring commitment of SBS programmers to Hitler and his works. And, of course, in all those history books rolling off the presses like T-34s off the Soviet production lines at Tankograd.

Who reads them all? That's the question - or it would be, if I couldn't count at least 20 volumes devoted to World War II sitting on my own shelves. This is not something I'm necessarily proud of, given that enthusiasm for war generally grows in direct proportion to one's distance from its reality. As World War I veteran and journalist C. E. Montague famously wrote, ''War hath no fury like a non-combatant''. Of course, there's nothing wrong with informing yourself about the past. ''What happened?'' is always a good question, and ''how could it have happened?'' is, in the context of this war especially, an even better one. But I suspect that many World War II buffs are interested in something else. I suspect the question bugging many rusted-on readers of the war is less elevated, if perfectly reasonable: ''What was it like?''

I can't help wondering whether obsessive re-reading of war history is a sign of not having fully emerged from an essentially adolescent, and largely male, fascination with war. Female historians including Hannah Arendt, Inga Clendinnen and Gitta Sereny have made leading contributions to the study of Nazi psychology and the Holocaust, but it's mostly men who write the books of battles and strategy. Amassing a Mastermind-level general knowledge about the war seems to be a peculiarly male pastime, too, one that feels just a short step from building Airfix models of Tiger tanks, or spending your weekends blasting your way onto Omaha beach on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

If war wasn't so fascinating to men, of course, there wouldn't be so much of it to read about. Musing on Homer's The Iliad, classicist Bernard Knox wrote: ''It is just as sentimental to pretend that war does not have its monstrous ugliness as it is to deny that it has its own strange and fatal beauty.'' Knox was a World War II combat veteran who had seen plenty of the ugliness. So had Moorehead, who by 1945 was utterly sick of the filth and misery of war, the ruins ''piled on ruins'' he was seeing during the Allied advance across Germany. He nonetheless passed the evenings in his billet playing a table-top war game called l'Attaque. As if he just couldn't get enough.

I keep telling myself I've had enough, but there was never any question of my not reading the latest blockbuster overviews, Max Hastings' All Hell Let Loose, and then Antony Beevor's The Second World War. So I cracked them open and immediately wondered, as I have before, how exactly one should read about something so reliably terrible. With an attitude of interested but grave dismay? In an uncomfortable chair? It seems wrong to enjoy yourself too much, though not according to the cover of Len Deighton's 1993 history of the war, Blood, Tears and Folly, with its reviewer's quote in bold: ''What wonderful stuff it is!'' We'd recoil from any book about, say, the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, that advertised itself in this way. Yet I find myself agreeing with the reviewer.

I may never know what the Second World War was like, but by now I sure know what it's like to read about. There's the feeling of acceleration from the war's stuttering beginnings, the evacuations and muddled rearmament, then the Phoney War (the Sitzkrieg, the Germans called it) then the Blitzkrieg, then the Blitz, and on to exponentially greater extravagances of violence and terror.

Familiar themes are canvassed. US and Soviet industrial production was or wasn't the single biggest factor in the outcome; the Allied bombing campaign of Germany was an opportunist war crime or a strategically vital ''second front'' that left an over-stretched Luftwaffe unable to support German armies in the vast offensives of 1944-45. North Africa was a mere distraction for Hitler, or a vital strategic hinge in the fight for the Suez Canal, and Persian and Caucasian oil. Hitler really only wanted peace with Britain so that he could fight a race-war for lebensraum in the east, or his main purpose in knocking the Soviet Union out of the war in 1941 was to force Britain to the negotiating table.

The trouble with revisiting the same fundamental sequence of events over and over is that you tend to gulp it all down too fast. This is a particular problem with the war's statistics, which tend to be so staggeringly large they're hard to properly register. Hastings informs us, to pick one such figure at random, that in January 1945 alone, 450,000 Germans were killed in bombing raids or battle - a number, like so many others, that seems to demand its own minute of silence.

But there's no time. Like an addict, you find yourself scanning ahead for new details capable of delivering a real hit of revelation, or a fresh shock of horror. And there's always a corner of catastrophe you'd not properly noticed before - the siege of Budapest, for example, or the terrifying conditions for Allied merchant seamen enduring the Arctic run.

Occasionally a startling new fact appears that alters the entire picture. It might be, as Richard Overy informs us in Why the Allies Won, that for every American soldier in the Pacific, there were four tons of supplies but only two pounds for every Japanese soldier. Or that more Frenchmen fought against than with the Allies. Or, as Beevor notes, that the senior officers of Hitler's murderous Einsatzgruppen represented the intellectual elite of the SS: more than half had doctorates.

All this is the vital work of historiography, of course: clarifying, chipping away at old myths, replacing faulty premises with ones based on stronger proofs. This used to be my war-buff's meat and drink. But my interest in this stuff is fading. I don't read now in the hope of a fresh insight into the questions of whether Hitler's failure to send the panzers into Dunkirk cost him the war, or whether Montgomery was a tactical whiz or fatuous egoist. The battles and fateful decisions increasingly pass in a fantastical blur, with XVII Corps or whoever forever trying to break through on the right flank, Hitler seemingly always sacking another general in a splenetic rage.

What I find myself noticing now are the individual faces glimpsed inside the gross statistics, the families eking out a subsistence in ruins, the conscripts maimed in forgotten sideshows. People such as the ''utterly worn out and desperate'' Leningrad woman, one of 12 arrested for cannibalism in February 1942, who admitted that ''when her husband fainted through exhaustion and lack of food, she hacked off part of his leg to feed herself and her children''.

Perhaps I'm just seeing more of these people because the historians are showing them to us more. That Leningrad woman is from Hastings, but the haunting flash of individual testimony is a signature of Beevor's best-selling war books, and is probably the key to his success in returning a genre for retired brigadiers and army surplus nuts to a mainstream audience.

It makes sense that readers might come closest to grasping the war's enormities by contemplating real faces picked out from the starving cities and the boggling mass of the battlefields. But encountering so many and so variously doomed individuals can be just as befuddling as the stats. Attempts to fix clear meaning to the war, or to draw lessons from it, can be lost in a symphonic impression of suffering and near infinite sorrow. Where Eagles Dare it ain't.

In other respects, too, the Second World War is not quite the war it once was. In English-language histories the war's centre of gravity has slowly shifted to eastern Europe and China; at the same time, some of the ''Good War'' certitudes have faltered, leaving a much more complicated set of ruins to mull over.

Anyone who picks up a contemporary global history of the war thinking of Churchill's bulldog spirit or hoping for a gung-ho refresher on dambusters, Spitfires and D-Day glory won't be disappointed. The excitement at the novelty and unrepeatable scale of the war still can't be denied: Hastings gives us the Australian coast-watcher who ''watched exultantly from his jungle hideout as the Americans came ashore [at Japanese-held Guadalcanal], writing in his diary, 'Wizard!!! - Caloo, Callay, Oh! What a day!'''

But we also get an unflinching view of the British failure to defend its subject peoples in Burma, Malaya and Singapore; of the death by starvation and disease of 3 million people during the Bengal famine (''There is no reason why all parts of the British Empire should not feel the pinch,'' Churchill rather carelessly remarked). They'll find that an estimated 300,000 Red Army soldiers were executed by their own side, that systematic rape was common in almost all theatres, and that Allied bombing killed nearly 70,000 French civilians during the war.

Even if the ''Good War'' now seems more like the ''Mostly Good War, mostly won by the Red Army and American industry'', the moral justification doesn't seem to have made it any more delightful to participate in, or easier to understand.

Up close, the war was, American veteran Paul Fussell wrote, ''a savage, insensate affair, barely conceivable to the well-conducted imagination (the main reason there's so little good writing about it)''. A literary critic, Fussell made it his life's mission to denounce the propaganda and censorship that gave people at home a helplessly euphemistic idea of what war was like.

Fussell died earlier this year, but not before seeing some of what he wanted. The history of his war grows ever more plain-spoken about its costs both in and beyond the great battles. The atrocities stage-managed by Hitler and Stalin in eastern Europe, for instance, have long been on the record. But on the very first page of his Bloodlands, a recent book devoted to these facts, Timothy Snyder depicts some individuals' experience of them with such appalling clarity it's almost unbearable to read.

Describing what he'd seen in Treblinka, the Red Army reporter Vasily Grossman wrote: ''It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it.'' To learn it, yes, and perhaps to bring it within the scope of comprehensible by trying to imagine our way across the bewildering cultural gap of 70 years. But for how long? At what point does honouring others' experience by contemplating it become merely morbid or prurient? There are, after all, enough horrors to contemplate in our own time, as Susan Sontag notes in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others. But she adds: ''Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one's sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others … Remembering is an ethical act.''

I think that's true. Even if so much happened to so many people between 1937 and 1945, it feels as though we can never quite acknowledge it all, will never quite get to the end of what it all meant. But my interest in World War II doesn't feel like an act of remembrance. It feels more like a haunting, as if it's the inexhaustible mystery of the war that won't let go: the simple fact that such things could be real, and within living memory, and still so strangely nearby.

This story Prisoner of war first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.