If you got all your history from the History Channel, you’d probably think World War II was the Hundred Years War. The power of the same endlessly reblended black-and-white footage to enthrall viewers of a certain age has kept that conflict a constant on the tube. The Greatest Generation never tires of flipping through its scrapbook.
A writer looking for a TV tie-in, then, would be dumb if he didn’t make the Second World War the core of a book called “Days of Infamy: Great Military Blunders of the 20th Century.” Two years ago, author Michael Coffey edited “The Irish in America,” a companion tome to the PBS docu-saga of the same name, and since then he’s led seminars on how to synergize. With “Days of Infamy,” he’s got the requisite WWII reference in his title and the History Channel series link. He’s even got an intro penned by Mike Wallace, a superstar to the gray-haired target demographic.
Evaluated as history, though, “Days of Infamy” fails. There are sins of commission, like implying that Britain granted India independence (rather than conceding it), and there are worse sins of omission. Should more than half a book about a whole century be devoted to one short stretch of it? For every German and Japanese battle Coffey cites, there are whole chunks of the globe missing. Lost, for example, are 50 years of Arab-Israeli bloodshed; there might not be much of a PLO today if not for catastrophic miscues by Egypt’s President Nasser and Jordan’s King Hussein. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, symbolic end of the age of colonialism, receives only two pages.
Coffey prefers anecdotes from the Last Good War and, failing that, any other English-speaking war. And even these stories he retells with little drama and perfunctory detail. In his hands, MacArthur’s breach of the 38th parallel in Korea becomes a mere stumble instead of a near-Armageddon. Perhaps that’s because Coffey is the sort of tone-deaf writer who can title a chapter, without irony, “World War II Gets Ugly.”
His more serious problem is deciding just what constitutes a “military blunder”; he uses both parts of the term so inclusively that “Days of Infamy” ends up as a broad, shallow, high school-textbook account of the century’s geopolitics rather than as a useful history of armed struggle. When the very existence of the Cold War is a “military blunder,” then so is every unfortunate event of the past 100 years.
“Days of Infamy” fares better when assessed purely as a video-derived product aimed at a certain market. At least its omissions become understandable. Consumers want to hear and see stories about U.S. involvement in familiar wars. Though 20 Americans died in Somalia in 1993 (the how and why became the recent encyclopedically detailed treasure published as “Black Hawk Down”), Coffey’s readers probably wouldn’t have wanted to revisit Mogadishu any more than they’d have enjoyed reading about car-bombed Marines in Beirut or about HMS Sheffield getting shot up in the Falklands.
But a book with no higher ambition than riding shotgun to a TV series risks being compared to that show and found wanting. Now airing, the History Channel’s “Great Military Blunders” tells the same stories as the book with more vigor and greater detail, and with the benefit of eye-catching computer simulations. Coffey’s last tube-tied book included such print-only extras as essays by Frank McCourt and other famous Irish-Americans. This time, there’s no reason to follow along in the libretto.