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The Winds of War and War and Remembrance

by Herman Wouk


Titles:     The Winds of War and War and Remembrance

Author:     Herman Wouk

Dates:     1971 and 1978

Genre:     Historical Fiction


Titles:     The Winds of War

War and Remembrance

Dates:     1983 and 1988

Director:     Dan Curtis

Written by:     Wouk, Curtis, and others

This duology explores the lives and relationships of the Henries.

Victor ‘Pug’ Henry is a strict and sturdy naval officer who is the American Naval Attaché to Nazi Germany and a trusted messenger for President Roosevelt. While on his various missions, Pug becomes involved in the lives and affairs of a popular British radio journalist, Alistair ‘Talky’ Tudsbury and his daughter Pamela.

Pug’s middle child, Byron Henry, is also a central character in the duology. Byron in name and nature, he drops out of graduate school and wanders aimlessly through Europe until he becomes involved with notable author Aaron Jastrow, a Polish-American Jew, and, more importantly, Jastrow’s headstrong niece Nathalie, who leads Byron on a merry chase through fascist Italy, Poland during the German invasion, Nazi Germany, an o’er hasty marriage in Lisbon, Vichy France, and into the submarine service in the Pacific.

The Winds of Wars covers the period from mid 1939 to just after Pearl Harbor. War and Remembrance covers the war, the growing relationships, Pug’s continued brushes with the key figures of the period, Byron’s experiences as a submariner, and Nathalie and Aaron’s incarceration at Terezin. Each book is a massive work over a thousand pages long. They are by the author of 1951’s The Caine Mutiny, which won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1952.

Near the end of The Caine Mutiny, Barney Greenwald puts the case in a certain perspective when he points out that the Queegs of the world, unimaginative and unintellectual as they might be, were the ones standing guard against the onslaught of fascism while the rest of America was playing in university quads, reading Proust, enjoying art, and ignoring the cloud of tyranny that was fast approaching these shores. Victor Henry is one of the Queegs of the world. Or, rather, he is the flipside of the same coin. There are differences, of course. Henry is a World War I veteran, but most of his career has been in peacetime. His lucky prediction on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that brings him to FDR’s attention (he himself chalks it up to math: someone was bound to get it right; it just happened to be him), a smattering of foreign languages (during the course of the books, we learn that he speaks German, Italian, and Russian), and a group of loyal friends and family propel him forward and support him when he has doubts or falters—unlike Queeg, who is immediately disliked by his subordinates for his by-the-book sternness and stolidity (in this, he is much like Henry, but Henry has had a career surrounded mostly by professional sailors and officers who expect, respect, and demand the rigid rules; Queeg, however, is surrounded by wartime dilettantes who see war as an inconvenient game) and has no emotional support.

The Pamela-Pug relationship is core of Pug’s story. It is an unusual relationship in that Pug is at least twenty years Pamela’s senior. Pug tries to remain faithful to his wife, Rhoda, who does not return the favor. It is Henry’s conservative and American senses of propriety, loyalty, and obedience that make him a character who is attractive to the readers and to young Pamela Tudsbury. It is these same characteristics that drive a wedge between him and his wife Rhoda.

Pamela has lived a life of dissolution. She has wandered the world with her father and never set down roots. She has never followed the conventional rules. (Her past indiscretions are referred to, but almost never detailed. Her insane driving, with its complete disregard for the safety of herself, her passengers, or other drivers, is an oft-repeated joke throughout the duology).

Rhoda, on the other hand, long ago gave up her dreams of excitement (she wanted to be an actress) to be a long-suffering naval wife and mother. When given a taste of life outside the confines of the naval base, she rushes headlong into the the fray.

Pug Henry, loyal husband, might overlook Rhoda’s indiscretion, but he does so in the same manner he has overlooked his wife for their entire married life: he pushes it to the back of his mind and pretends that there is no problem that might need to be fixed. On a personal and emotional level, he rejects his wife for failing to stand up to his own standards of perfection. He overlooks the fact that while she may have been physically unfaithful, he was emotionally unfaithful. Indeed, the only reason he does not divorce his wife to marry twenty-something Pamela is because he feels that the relationship might be unseemly and interfere with his career. (Spoilers) When Pug finally does marry Pamela, he is happy to overlook the past of a self-confessed ‘slut’ who brings him a taste of the sexual adventure he never really experienced as a young man (poor Rhoda, by the way — during her affair, we learn that she has a bit of a wild streak to her and is clearly open to experimentation, but when she ultimately remarries, it is to a renowned Lothario who pursues her because he is looking for the same dull relationship that neither Pug nor Rhoda could tolerate). Of course, Pamela is twenty years younger than Pug.

Pug is an American everyman. He is not a professional highflyer, but he accepts promotion and acclamation when they are handed to him. He works hard, but is above playing political games and maneuvering for position or advancement. His is not an ‘Horatio-Algerian’ rags-to-riches success story. He is a plodding professional. He finds himself surrounded by exceptional people. We, as readers, are reminded that those once-in-a-generation personalities would not get very far in life and history were it not for the grind-away-at-the-job Pug-Henry types.

Pug and Rhoda’s children fit the traditional mold. Warren, the navy pilot, is the eldest child. He is the child whom everyone looks on to carry on the family tradition of boring responsibility. He certainly sows his wild oats, but his sense of duty, his navy training, and his highly appropriate wife (her father, ever the politician and war profiteer, turns from isolationist congressman to Army general is a matter of months—pinning on his star years before Pug Henry does his), ground him. Warren is also the potential high flyer. A natural leader, a natural pilot, well liked, everyone expects great things from Warren. He meets every expectation, until his untimely, and rather disappointing, death on the last day of the Battle of Midway.

Byron, the novels’ truly dynamic character, is a traditional middle son. No one knows what to do with him. He does not know what to do with himself. He is appropriately Byronic, angry, and ready to lash out at everyone and blame them for his failings—especially his father. Byron is in desperate need of a controlling hand in his life. He enters an ill-advised affair with Nathalie Jastrow, a liberally educated intellectual Jewess (this is central to books) with a past every bit as disreputable as Pamela’s (they ran in the same crowd as students in Paris). His father’s son, he is perfectly willing to forgive moral failings in a love interest, even though he holds everyone else he meets to almost impossibly rigid and high standards—including his father.

When he does return to the States to join the Navy, he enters the submarine service, a service, his father points out, filled with weird individualists such as Byron. As far as Byron is concerned, his father is responsible for most of the negative occurrences in his life: the Navy’s insistence that Byron enroll in the submarine school on time; Nathalie’s return to Europe to help her Uncle; her refusal to return to the States, even after several rather scary run ins with Nazi officials and after she becomes pregnant with Byron’s child (they did, of course, get married before conception – indeed, their wedding is a remarkably amusing section in the first book, something of a comic relief before Nathalie and Jastrow’s lives quickly go from bad to worse when they are interned by the Germans and finally sent to Terezin [Teresienstadt], the ‘Model Ghetto’); Byron’s assignments as a submariner; and just about any obstacle to Byron’s personal happiness.

Eventually, of course, he comes to terms with his father. The discipline he encounters and the responsibility he earns in the Navy have a lot to do with his growth. Ironically, even though he is strongly opposed to a life in service, it is the only life that he truly succeeds in. As a student, he was barely mediocre; he admits that he only got into Columbia by charming a woman in the admissions office and graduated because he became friends with a professor. His ability to catch and keep Nathalie are more a testament to her need for stability than his skill as a wooer—his strategy is limited to mooning around, complaining about how hard his life is, storming off in a funk whenever they have a disagreement (saying that he thinks his time in the besieged city of Warsaw is fun does not earn him many points, either). As a naval officer, he rises to be one of the first reservists given command of a fleet submarine. Throughout the novels, it is often said, usually by his father, that when Byron wants something he can move at the speed of light in a vacuum. Most of the time, though, he is a bit of a slacker. This makes him something of a disappointment to his driven and self-disciplined father.

Madeline is the youngest child. When her parents move to Germany, she drops out of school and begins a successful and lucrative career in show business. In the end, though, she quits her experiment as an independent woman, marries, and moves off to be the housewife of an underpaid naval officer her father approves of. It is convenient that when Warren plays around, he is being a guy, Madeline’s indiscretions are youthful dalliances, Byron’s mistakes are indicative of character flaws—at least as far as the family seems to think. The resolution of her story is a bit too pat and offhand. She all but disappears in the last part of the second book.

Nathalie and Aaron Jastrow become more central characters in the second book. Much of War and Remembrance is told through Aaron Jastrow’s diaries, which recount his journeys from fascist Italy, through Vichy France, occupied France, Terezin, and ultimately Auschwitz. Aaron goes from being a somewhat arch and cynical scholar to rediscovering his Jewish heritage and coming to terms with God, all while the noose of Nazism is being lowered around his neck. The Nathalie and Aaron Jastrow sections of the books, especially the second book, are intense and often heartrending.  They are also somewhat frustrating. Throughout both books, the two are told to leave Europe. They are given opportunities to leave legally and illegally. Some of these opportunities come not only from their allies, but their enemies as well. Perversely, they persist in finding reasons to stay. Of course, this was not uncommon. Many Jews, American and European, who had the resources to leave found excuses not to believe the mounting evidence that the Nazi’s anti-Semitic policies were resulting in mass deportations and murders. By the end, the two cease to become actors in their drama and become victims, and the reader is left emotionally exhausted by their plight. Perhaps this is a result of Wouk simply being too effective as a writer.

Nathalie’s erstwhile fiancé, and Byron’s sometime competitor, Lesley Slote is the character who raises the battle standard and tries to get the United States government to take action in response to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. He is driven, in part, by guilt over having dropped Nathalie in the first place—because her Jewishness might affect his career as a diplomat. He is also trying to make up for his own cowardice when he was obliged to go to the front lines during the German’s assault on Warsaw. Slote, another philanderer, is our moral conscience. Like us, he chose to overlook what was going on in Europe—he does so by over-intellectualizing it. When he does take action, he is blocked at every turn by career opportunists and politicians who are more concerned with avoiding controversy than doing the right thing.

Wouk has peopled this massive work with compelling and human characters. Even historical figures, who have often become caricatures and stereotypes or even icons in literature and film, come across as flesh and blood. Although Pug is disgusted by Hitler, he is also impressed by the man. Roosevelt is not only friendly and personable; he is also manipulative and petty. At one point, when given a choice of assignments—one a dream assignment, the other a rather dull bureaucratic job—Pug is left with the clear impression that any favor he might have curried would be lost if he chooses the wrong (dream) one. Stalin, a monster on par with Hitler, is personable with Pug and treats him politely, remembering obscure details about Pug’s life even though they only meet once or twice. Churchill, who spends a fair amount of time with Pug, fails to recognize him from one time to the next. Pug even meets Mussolini, though Il Duce is explored more amusingly with the Jastrows.

Not all of Wouk’s characters are of world-historical importance, but they are all engaging and many of them are memorable. Branch Hoban, Byron’s first submarine skipper, has the misfortune of being the duology’s clear reflection of Queeg. He is competent as a peacetime officer, but unable to handle the stresses of combat. Hoban is replaced by ‘Lady’ Aster, another career officer, but one who has more personality than most of the other characters in the novels. That is not to say that Wouk’s characters are flat, but many are rather dull as people. Those who lead interesting lives proactively seek out quiet ones. Aster is an unabashed skirt-chaser (his target is the recently widowed Janice Henry—those Henry girls are certainly magnets for womanizers) and Halsey wannabe. He reminds us, when he has his men gun down defenseless Japanese sailors in the water, that our moral superiority was not so much more moral or superior. Aster is the new breed of Americans. Pug and his generation might speak softly and carry a big stick; Aster and his generation still have the big stick, but want to hoot and holler as they smash heads in with it. Aster is a good foil for both Pug and Byron. His aggressive personality shows us that the military does not have to be filled with professional sticks in the mud like Pug. Perhaps if he were of Pug’s generation, he would be Halsey to Pug’s Spruance. Of course, Halsey blustered his way through the Pacific making splashy headlines but having little real military impact while Spruance quietly did more to win the war than any other commander except, arguably, Patton. Aster also shows us, and Byron, that a headstrong personality needs to be reigned in and focused on the issue at hand. Aster’s fate—part result of his overweening pride and part karma for his sins as a leader and a lover—serve as a wake-up call to Byron. The needs of his country do little to force Byron to grow up; being a husband and father only make matters worse; seeing his friend and mentor gunned down and then being thrust into command of a submarine in enemy waters do the trick—for the most part (Byron still has father issues).

Interspersed throughout both novels are chapters that explore the politics and the war from a German point of view in the form of memoirs by a former German general, Armin von Roon, an acquaintance of Pug Henry’s. Roon is neither a monstrous Hans Landa, nor a craven Colonel Klink. He is simply a German soldier who admires and follows his leader, and only has doubts when his side starts losing. Von Roon’s arguments and shifting loyalties remind us that just a few years after the war, Germany became our ally. The language of World War II was changed, ex post facto. It became a war that we fought against the Nazis, rather than the Germans. This is a distinction that continues to this day. It may have been politically expedient and it may make some people feel better about themselves, but it is simply wrong. The citizens of a victorious Germany would have had no qualms about idolizing their Fuhrer. Von Roon goes so far as practically to accuse the Allies of winning through unfair means: by having more men, more tanks, more supplies, and tricking Germany into a two-front war. Von Roon also serves to give some of the clearest most concise descriptions of some of World War II’s most important campaigns. His—or rather, Wouk’s—discussions on Midway and Leyte Gulf should be used in textbooks. Indeed, one historian in a book on Leyte Gulf singles out Wouk’s section on the battle as being one of the best for general-interest readers.

Wouk has been a best-selling author for decades. He has a Pulitzer Prize as well as an enduring reputation. He is an author whose work is interesting to read. The reader is drawn to the story. World War II is the watershed of the twentieth century. It is America’s greatest moment. It is central to any number of films and books during and since. That war and the associated horrors still resonate in hearts minds across all borders: temporal, physical, and political. Wouk plops us into these grand global events in medias res. Perhaps, from time to time, Wouk gets bogged down with a bit too much history, but that is understandable and forgivable. Moreover, he always returns to what matters in literature: the stories of people who have run up against obstacles and need to overcome them. The personal obstacles are those that we all face from time to time, if not in detail at least in spirit: love, hate, family, work, despair. The historical, global obstacles are so vivid and so compelling that we want to be there, helping the characters mount their assaults on them. In the end, Wouk tells us, assures us, that the world is saved and preserved, not by the great figures of history like FDR or Churchill but by the everymen who drag their sorry asses through the mundane pitfalls of real life, unencumbered by the trappings of power and greatness. Pug and Byron may be great. However, they are great not because they are heroes who strive for greatness, but because they are people who have to be great, if only for a moment, so that they can return to their cherished anonymity.

If there are any drawbacks to these books, only two stand out. The first is that they are so long. For over two thousand pages, the reader lives through the six years of World War II, feeling as if he or she has experienced all the upheavals, all the pain, all the joy. It is an draining experience. The second is that it ends. There is a sequel there, even if Wouk does not write it. He later wrote the Hope and the Glory duology about the founding of Israel, and one half expects and hopes to see Byron Henry somewhere in it with his family.

For those of you who do not want to read the books, there are also three miniseries that were made on them in the 1980s. The miniseries are available on DVD. With about forty hours to watch, they are well worth the money. They stray slightly from the novels, but that is to be expected. Television is a different medium than literature. WoW was shown as one 883 minute long miniseries of seven episodes. WaR was divided into two miniseries totaling 1620 minutes and twelve episodes.

Robert Mitchum, in his mid to late 60s, is a bit old to be playing a 50-year-old Pug Henry. While the age difference in the books is unusual, in the miniseries, a geriatric Pug pursuing a Pamela (Victoria Tennant) half his age is unseemly.

Jan-Michael Vincent plays the brooding Byron. He was recast between The Winds of War and the first part of War and Remembrance. The official word is that he was busy making Airwolf, though scuttlebutt has it that he partied too much and was difficult to work with. Whatever the truth may be, he was replaced with the eminently less interesting Hart Bochner.

The much-too-old Ali McGraw was replaced by Jane Seymour as Nathalie. John Houseman was too ill to repeat his performance as Aaron Jastrow. John Gielgud was a acceptable replacement, but he pales in comparison with Houseman’s polished cynic. There are some other cast changes from WoW to WaR, but the only other one that is notable is that they put the much prettier Sharon Stone in for Deborah Winters as Janice, Warren’s debutante wife. Of course, Janice becomes a major player in the second book, especially after her husband dies, so the actress has to be prettier and more of a match for the young Aster (Barry Bostwick, taking over for Joseph Hacker). Jeremy Kemp, stern and forbidding, is von Roon, a much larger role in the miniseries than in the books. Typically, to make him sympathetic, the writers of the miniseries (which included Wouk) make von Roon part of the 20 of July Plot to assassinate Hitler. Ralph Bellamy as FDR is a delight. Günter Meisner (WoW) and Stephen Berkoff (WaR), make Hitler come alive in all his charismatic creepiness. Berkoff is given a much more interesting role: Hitler’s decline.

Both the duology and the miniseries serve as landmarks in their respective media. The books are compelling. They are epic. To my mind, they are the best fictional books on World War II. Perhaps Pug Henry is the truly American epic hero: the everyman who is forced to take center stage because everyone else who wants to be there is mucking it up so badly. The miniseries is one of the finest miniseries ever made—and it does not even have Richard Chamberlain in it.


The Books

Winds of War     A+

War and Remembrance     A+

The Miniseries

WoW     A

(Mitchum is just too old, so it cannot have the +)

WaR (both)     A

(Mitchum keeps getting older. And the Holocaust scenes make The Passion seem cheerful)

(posted: 22 December 2011; reposted/revised 7 may 2012)