"When Books Went to War" by Molly Guptill Manning

Brian Gongol

One-paragraph review: It's a cliche to call just about anything a "battle of ideas", but World War II truly did represent an epic clash of ideas -- or, perhaps more accurately, a clash of ideas versus a nihilistic ideology that actively sought to destroy the freedom of ideas. Thus, when the Nazis sought to destroy ideas by destroying books, it was a fitting response that the United States fought back by printing them and distributing them in massive numbers to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen deployed to fight on behalf of the Allied response. The mechanics behind what became the "Armed Services Editions" of paperback books were impressive, from production (in a creative new format designed specifically for utility on the front lines) to distribution (in quantities large enough to reach towards a goal of about one new book in the hands of each servicemember each month). But the story is philosophically impressive, too. Books not only served the purpose of boosting morale and providing cheap, portable entertainment, they also served a supporting role in reminding the men at war that there was a greater purpose to their fight. As Dwight Eisenhower noted in his memoir of the war, "[T]he American soldier, in spite of wisecracking, sometimes cynical speech, is an intelligent human being who demands and deserves basic understanding of the reasons why his country took up arms and of the conflicting consequences of victory or defeat." The armed forces of the United States in WWII were largely composed of men plucked from ordinary civilian life and asked to make great sacrifices overseas. That they deserved to be reminded that they were not just fighting a geographical adversary, but rather a full-on "war of ideas", is no matter for idle dismissal. "When Books Went to War" tells the full spectrum of this story in a thoughtful, carefully documented manner. It's an inspirational story in its own right amid a storied historical event of epic proportions.

Verdict: Tells an important story about arming a vast army with ideas at a time when the world hung in the balance