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Review: Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War

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Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War
Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War by Paul M. Kennedy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War is a very interesting read. Unlike many histories of World War II, it isn’t a combat history, nor is it a chronological history. Author Paul Kennedy doesn’t focus on the who, what, when and where as much as the WHY and HOW. To me, this is the most interesting kind of history. You need to know the who, what, when and where of course, but you really don’t learn anything from history unless you explore why things happened and how they happened. In my opinion, this is where our schools and educational system fall flat; they teach students what happened, when it happened, where it happened, who did it and who it was done to but they often times neglect to encourage students to contemplate explanations of why things happened the way they did. In Engineers of Victory, Kennedy takes a look at how the Allies won World War II and how they went about doing it.

“This is a book about the Second World War that attempts a new way of treating that epic conflict. It is not another general history of the war; it does not focus upon a single campaign, nor upon a single war leader. It focuses instead upon problem solving and problem solvers…”

In doing so, Kennedy illustrates how the Allies didn’t win the war through simple brute force or through the use of a single weapon system, project, or doctrine. He insists and explains how victory had many causes and concentrates on five problems in the middle period of the war, from late 1942 to summer of 1944, to show how the “middle men” in the war used problem solving, technology, and doctrine to win the war against the Axis Powers.

“Each chapter tell a story of how small groups of individuals and institutions, both civilian and military, succeeded in enabling their political masters to achieve victory in the critical middle years of the Second World War. It is about what the military-operational problems were, who the problem solvers were, how they got things done, and thus why their work constitutes an important field of study.”

Kennedy divides Engineers of Victory into five chapters plus a conclusion. Those five chapters look at the five military-operational problems that the Allies had to solve in order to win the war:

  1. How to Get Convoys Safely Across the Atlantic
  2. How to Win Command of the Air
  3. How to Stop a Blitzkrieg
  4. How to Seize an Enemy-Held Shore
  5. How to Defeat the “Tyranny of Distance”

Kennedy doesn’t look at each problem within a vacuum either, he shows how the problems were related and how solving one helped solve the others. The Allies couldn’t just solve one of the above problems, they had to solve them all.

“The more interesting question, for this book, has been the how question: how did some of these politico-military systems do it more effectively than others? A good portion of the answer has to be that that the successful systems were so because they possessed smarter feedback loops between top, middle, and bottom; because they stimulated initiative, innovation, and ingenuity; and because they encouraged problem solvers to tackle large, apparently intractable problems.”

I come away from reading Engineers of Victory with a better appreciation of three things:

  1. The problem solvers in the middle who were allowed and enabled by command staff at the top to come up with the solutions to problems
  2. The feedback loops between the command staff, the problem solvers, and the end users which provided the ability to learn from mistakes
  3. The “Culture of Encouragement” that allowed the problem solvers to experiment and offer unusual solutions or opinions

If you’ve read any of my recent book reviews, you’ve read my rants about the poor maps or poor placement of maps in Kindle versions of books and E-books. This book, I’m pleased to say, has good maps and they are placed within the text of the book in the appropriate sections. Links are also provided with the maps to download them in .pdf format. Thankfully, someone has finally got it right!

If you read this book, prepare to have some of your opinions and traditional theories challenged. You may or may not agree with Kennedy’s analysis but in the end Engineers of Victory is a very thought provoking book. I’ll be honest, it started out slow but I quickly found myself more interested in the book and relating it to other histories I’ve read. I would definitely not consider it light reading – it is a challenging read; you may often find yourself putting it down to think about and consider what you’ve just read. At the end of the day, however, that is what a good read is and what history is all about. If you’ve been made to think and you’re considering the why and how in addition to the who, what, when, and where then you’re truly studying history.

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