Writing World War II

Today, there is no more popular war than World War II. No other war in history has been the focus of so much attention, attention that spans the gap between nonfiction and fiction. And for good reason, too. World War II gave us some of the most inspiring stories, some of the most epic battles (in the dramatic and FX senses), and an overarching narrative that perfectly fits so many of the common conflicts and tropes known to writers.

The list of WWII-related stories is far too big for this post to even scratch the surface, so I won’t even try. Suffice to say, in the 70 years since the war ended, thousands of works have been penned, ranging from the sappy (Pearl Harbor) to the gritty (Saving Private Ryan), from lighthearted romp (Red Tails) to cold drama (Schindler’s List). Oh, and those are only the movies. That’s not counting the excellent TV series (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) or the myriad books concerning this chapter of our history.

World War II, then, is practically a genre of its own, and it’s a very cluttered one. No matter the media, a writer wishing to tackle this subject will have a harder time than usual. Most of the “good” stories have been done, and done well. In America, at least, many the heroes are household names: Easy Company, the Tuskegee Airmen, the USS Arizona and the Enola Gay. The places are etched into our collective memory, as well, from Omaha Beach and Bastogne to Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, and Hiroshima. It’s a crowded field, to put it mildly.

Time is running out

But you’re a writer. You’re undaunted. You’ve got this great idea for a story set in WWII, and you want to tell it. Okay, that’s great. Just because something happened within the last century doesn’t get you out of doing your homework.

First and foremost, now is the last good chance to write a WWII story. By “now”, I mean within the next decade, and there’s a very good reason for that. This is 2016. The war ended right around 70 years ago. Since most of the soldiers were conscripted, many right out of high school, or young volunteers, they were typically about 18 to 25 years old when they went into service. The youngest WWII veterans are at least in their late 80s, with most in their 90s. They won’t live forever. We’ve seen that in this decade, as the final World War I veterans passed on, and an entire era left living memory.

Yes, there are uncountably many interviews, written or recorded, with WWII vets. The History Channel used to show nothing else. But nothing compares to a face-to-face conversation with someone who literally lived through history. One of the few good things to come out of my public education was the chance to meet one of the real Tuskegee Airmen, about twenty years ago. The next generation of schoolchildren likely won’t have that same opportunity.

Give it a shot

Whether through personal contact or the archives and annals of a generation, you’ll need research. Partly, that’s for the same reason: WWII is within living memory, so you have eyewitnesses who can serve as fact-checkers. (Holocaust deniers, for instance, will only get bolder once there’s no one left who can directly prove them wrong.) Also, WWII was probably the most documented war of all time. Whatever battle you can think of, there’s some record of it. Unlike previous conflicts, there’s not a lot of room to slip through the cracks.

On the face of it, that seems to limit the space available for historical fiction. But it’s not that bad. Yes, the battles were documented, as were many of the units, the aircraft, and even the strategies. However, they didn’t write down everything. It’s easy enough to pick a unit—bonus points if it’s one that was historically wiped out to the man, so there’s no one left to argue—and use it as the basis for your tale.

And that highlights another thing about WWII. War stories of older times often fixate on a single soldier, a solitary hero. With World War II, though, we begin to see the unit itself becoming a character. That’s how it worked with Band of Brothers, for instance. And this unit-based approach is a good one for a story focused on military actions. Soldiers don’t fight alone, and so many of the great field accomplishments of WWII were because of the bravery of a squad, a company, or a squadron.

If your story happens away from the front lines, on the other hand, then it’s back to individuals. And what a cast of characters you have. Officers, generals, politicians, spies…you name it, you can find it. But these tend to be more well-known, and that does limit your choices for deviating from history.

Diverging parallels

While the war itself is popular enough, as are some of the events that occurred at the same time, what happened after is just as ripe for storytelling. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name) is one such example of an alternate WWII, and I’ve previously written a post that briefly touched on another possible outcome.

I think the reason why WWII gets so much attention from the alternate-history crowd is the potential for disaster. The “other” side—the Axis—was so evil that giving them a victory forces a dystopian future, and dystopia is a storyteller’s favorite condition, because it’s a breeding ground for dramatic conflict and tension. And there’s also a general sense that we got the best possible outcome from the war; thus, following that logic, any other outcome is an exercise in contrast. It’s not the escapism that I like from my fiction, but it’s a powerful statement in its own right, and it may be what draws you into the realm of what-ifs.

The post I linked above is all about making an alternate timeline, but I’ll give a bit of a summary here. The assumption is that everything before a certain point happened exactly as it did, but one key event didn’t. From there, everything changes, causing a ripple effect up to the present. For World War II, that’s only 70 years, but that’s more than enough time for great upheaval.

Most people will jump to one conclusion there: the Nazis win. True, that’s one possible (but unlikely, in my opinion) outcome, but it’s not the only one. Some among the allies argued for a continuation of the war, moving to attack the Soviets next. That would have preempted the entire Cold War, with all the knock-on effects that would have caused. What if Japan hadn’t surrendered? Imagine a nuclear bomb dropped on Tokyo, and what that would do to history. The list goes on, ad infinitum.

Fun, fun, fun

Any genre fits World War II. Any kind of story can be told within that span of years. Millions of people were involved, and billions are still experiencing its reverberations. Although it’s hard to talk of a war lasting more than half a decade as a single event, WWII is, collectively speaking, the most defining event of the last century. It’s a magnet for storytelling, as the past 70 years have shown. In a way, despite the horrors visited upon the world during that time, we can even see it as fun.

Too many people see World War II as Hitler, D-Day, Call of Duty, and nukes. But it was far more than that. It was the last great war, in many ways. And great wars make for great stories, real or fictional.

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