But that was before September 11, before the United States once again found itself at war, only this time with thousands of casualties piled up on the home front. To a generation that wasn't the Greatest Generation, a phrase that has made Tom Brokaw plenty of coin, World War II seemed but a speck in history's rearview mirror. Millions still watched Band of Brothers, a lovingly gung-ho adaptation of Stephen Ambrose's best-selling book that played like an episodic sequel to Saving Private Ryan, but no longer, it seemed, did they have much interest in reading about something that happened thousands of miles away, decades ago. Who needed Hitler or Tojo in 2001 when there was a new poster boy for hate? Who wanted to read about such distant places as Guadalcanal and Tinian when they need only look out their windows to witness, firsthand, the wasteland of war?
Where, only weeks ago, books about World War II filled the best-seller lists, suddenly climbing the charts--with a bullet--were titles about the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Muslim extremists, terrorists, the Twin Towers. Selling faster than latex gloves was Germs, the book on bioterrorism penned by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. Bookstores couldn't keep in stock The New Jackals, Simon Reeve's 1999 book on bin Laden and terrorism; Yossef Bodansky, heretofore the little-known director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, was selling by the thousands bin Laden and Al Qaeda books that, before September 11, sold in the dozens. Even Andre Kress Gillespie's 2-year-old history of the World Trade Center, Twin Towers, published by Rutgers University Press, still sits high atop The New York Times list of best-selling hardcover nonfiction titles. Of the 15 top books on The Times' current list, five are somehow related or relevant to the events of September 11.
Which left Miller and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, trying to sell a 704-page, 35-buck World War II book in what Miller calls the "black hole of publicity." The professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says he's been bumped from several major network shows in recent weeks, which not so long ago would have lined up to fete a book narrated, in large part, by the men who fought in the trenches. He says he and Joe Persico, author of the recently published and well-reviewed Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage, were scheduled to appear on one network talk show to discuss World War II. Instead, they were told by one programming executive, "Our audience wants to hear one thing. They want to hear about this war." In their stead, such authors as Peter Bergen, whose Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama bin Laden ranks among Amazon.com's top sellers, fill the hot seats and push their own product.
"You've got a situation today where an obscure, horribly written university-press book about bin Laden is selling 300,000 copies, where it sold 200 in its original edition, which is what it deserved to get," Miller says, though without a hint of bitterness in his voice. "Barnes & Noble had a huge order in for this book, and they cut back the order. Then, a week and a half later, they re-ordered and increased the order rather dramatically, thinking again there is a continuing interest in World War II and an interest in the parallels between then and now. My friend's a rep for Barnes & Noble, and he gave me the nitty-gritty on that one. Judith Miller's book is doing very well, and they didn't expect it to do that well. And neither did she." He laughs.