From Hampton Sides to Erik Larson to Gwyn Griffin: An Operational Necessity

Full disclosure: I have yet to read Erik Larson's new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I have only read Hampton Sides' review published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. 

In his review, Sides describes Larson's mastery as he places readers in the U-20 submarine that would sink the Lusitania with a single torpedo. Writes Sides, "The passages concerning the U-20 knife along with a clean and wicked élan."

But it was this revelation by Sides that caught my attention: "Maybe it’s a perverse thing to admit, but for much of the book I found myself rooting for the German submariners, sympathizing with their loneliness and claustrophobia, their mad dives and other maneuvers as they groped through the murk, the perils squeezing in from all sides." 

Americans have something of a fetish when it comes to WWI and WWII stories. Often little interested in nonfiction that dips into other geographies, we seem incapable to satiating a ravenous appetite for stories involving "The Greatest Generation" or our battles against the Germans. Maybe it is because, as the narratives tend to go, the sides were so clear cut. Good vs. Evil, the Allied Powers vs. the Axis Powers. fascism vs. democracy. New vs. Old. Things were simpler then... (I am often dubious of this claim.) 

Given all this, Sides' moment of ambivalence, his willingness to admit to briefly "rooting for the German submariners" jumped out at me and brought to mind a masterful war novel that I recently rediscovered on my bookshelf: An Operation Necessity by Gwyn Griffin.  My copy of Griffin's 1967 book means something to me. It was a Christmas gift from a family friend who participated in -- and barely survived -- WWII. 

While I haven't looked at Larson's bibliography and though his book discusses and earlier war, I would be surprised if he didn't read Griffin's novel as background. Much of Griffin's novel also takes place on a German submarine and his descriptions of life below the surface could hardly be etched with a tool less sharp than Larson's blade. Griffin's submarine destroys a merchant ship. Unlike the passenger ship, Lusitania, however, the freighter in An Operational Necessity carried no weapons and played no role in the outcome of the war. Its destruction, and that of (most -- don't want to give away the plot!) of its crew seemed gratuitous and had mostly to do with the Germans' attempt to save their own skins as the final days of the war played out.

As a study in moral ambiguity, of showing all sides of a conflict we think we understand, of allowing each character -- male and female -- to represent the good and bad in each of us, An Operational Necessity is hard to beat. 

The novel is based on the real-life Peleus Incident, which is the only recorded case of a U boat captain shooting the survivors of a sinking ship. As it did in real life, the novel leads to a war crimes trial where the truth is difficult to discern and the ethical (and ethnic) lines begin to blur. If you are interested in reading an absorbing war novel that eschews heroics in its search for truth, pick up a used copy of An Operational Necessity. Highly recommended!