So Jeff Shaara, master of the war novel, starts off with immense advantages in "The Steel Wave." But unlike the American Revolution and the Civil War, where Shaara thus far has taken his stand, he is dealing with an event and a battle that are within the memories of the living. Less room for the off-key note here. Plus, like his other battle novels, he deals with an inherent problem for the novelist, whose arsenal ordinarily includes intrigue and a surprise ending. We know how this one turns out. The Allies land, the Allies win.
World War II but not a scholarly tome, a reminder for our time about one of the greatest confrontations, and one of the greatest achievements, of all time.
Because, of course, despite all the impediments, despite the equipment challenges, despite the determination of the Germans to defend their Fortress Europa, despite the vagaries of weather and moonlight, despite the seasickness, the botched plans, the hedgerows and the obstacles Rommel placed in French fields to ward off aircraft intent on setting down on farmlands and open spaces, the Allies land, the Allies win.
This is the second volume of Shaara's three-volume World War II drama, and he opens it with a note to readers that includes some reflections on the novelist's art and, in consideration of the subject he has chosen, the difficulties of making fresh a story that is now nearly two-thirds-of-a-century old. The result is a critical insight, important to readers of novels and to students of war and to abusers of history:
"I realized that the greatest drama here is not the event but the raw and frightening uncertainty for everyone involved. It is easy to view history in hindsight, as though it were a foregone conclusion how the war, or this particular piece of it, would turn out. But for those men whose deeds and accomplishments created this history, there were no foregone conclusions at all."
This is a novel about men big and small (there are almost no women in it) who left big footprints in the sands of Normandy, footprints washed away by tide but not by time. And so through this novel march George Patton, Arthur "Bomber" Harris, Matthew Ridgway,Churchill and even Adolf Hitler, who makes cameo appearances. The heroes, of course, are the men who fought and died, and the ones who fought and survived to see the sunlit uplands not only of France but also of a world freed from the dictators who held Europe in their thrall in the 1930s and '40s.
Little need be said about the plot here. It is well-known and well-loved. But Shaara hangs on this familiar story the tale of the men on the sea and in the air and then, finally and for some of them fatally, on the beaches, in the hedgerows and higher ground (the armor and artillery following), in the fields and the villages and towns, en route to Paris and Germany and a liberated Europe and, though few of them could have suspected this, a Cold War for their children.
Along the way we are reminded of how time and tide wait for no man. There are lots of logistics involved in this undertaking of men and machines, and lots of uncertainties, not least the weather. And through it all, Shaara shares the telling detail that gives texture to his text, such as this small but emblematic one: "The instrument panels were lit only by faint specks of red, one more precaution to keep any glimpse of light from escaping the plane."
But where this novel shines is in conveying what this battle—so renowned but now, with World War II veterans dying at a sad and startling rate, so little remembered—felt like for the fighters:
"The awful noises returned: screaming wails, the air above them ripped and shattered. The shells began to thunder above them, jolting him, the men tumbling again, more dust, the concrete shaking, deafening blasts. He lay flat, held his helmet to his head, curled his legs in tight, felt himself bouncing on the concrete, his hands hard on his ears, his brain screaming into the roar of fire, the terror grabbing him, pulling him into a complete and perfect hell."
And here is a pitch-perfect description of what it must have been like to leave the nausea-inducing landing vessels for the nausea-inducing terror of the most nightmarish run on a beach in history: "He . . . looked straight ahead, smoke rolling past, screaming men, more blasts, more fighter planes overhead, wide flat sand, the cliffs so far away."
One episode in this novel—the death of Gen. Lesley J. McNair, the highest-ranking American to be killed in the war, by friendly fire—establishes the horror and the heartache, the courage and the cruel caprice, of war. In Shaara's rendering, Eisenhower thinks to himself, "Can't something go right for a change?"
Remember that that's the prevailing sentiment on the side that was winning the war. The reader is left with two conclusions. The first is that William Tecumseh Sherman was right: War is hell. The second is that this is a hell of a war novel.
The Steel Wave
By Jeff Shaara
Ballantine, 493 pages, $28