Ken Burns' 6 favorite books about World War II
With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge (Presidio, $16). The single best memoir I've read about World War II. Gripping, difficult, honest, and horrific. Sledge fought at Peleliu and Okinawa, two of the worst places you'd ever want to be during the war. Years later, he had a nervous breakdown. His wife urged him to write down his experiences, and the exercise really helped save him, as it does so many soldiers beset by the demons of war.
The Soldiers' Tale by Samuel Hynes (Penguin, $17). A Marine pilot who flew more than 100 missions out of Okinawa, Sam is now a professor emeritus at Princeton. He's the first talking head you see in our film, and the first thing he says is, "There's no such thing as a good war, there are only necessary wars." The same kinds of literate observations fill The Soldiers' Tale.
Flights of Passage by Samuel Hynes (Penguin, $14). If The Soldiers' Tale gives you a sense of Sam's reflective side, Flights of Passage gives you a sense of his goodness. It begins as a young man heads to a Minneapolis recruiting station, and becomes his story about learning to be a soldier. It really teaches you stuff. A wonderful book.
The Boys' Crusade by Paul Fussell (Modern Library, $14). Fussell was an infantryman in Western Europe, where the average life expectancy on the line was 17 days. He survived six months before being severely wounded. His intimate, moment-to-moment memoir is filled with the kinds of things you can't believe a 19-year-old has ever seen.
Wartime by Paul Fussell (Oxford, $20). As a 19-year-old, Fussell was good at killing other people, and what that allowed him to do was provide the rest of us with some of the most searing observations about war I've ever come across. Like Sam Hynes, he's now a professor. Wartime is a partly personal, partly scholarly look at battlefield realities.
The Story of World War II by Donald L. Miller (Simon & Schuster, $22). Whenever you do a film, there's always a book that you want in your hip pocket to settle all questions. The Story of World War II was that book.