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An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 ()

Pulitzer Prize (History)

Rick Atkinson, who's already won the Pulitzer Prize in History for this first volume of his WWII trilogy, has made no secret of the ambitious goal he's set himself, as here, on Booknotes:
BRIAN LAMB: Rick Atkinson...what is the "liberation trilogy"?

RICK ATKINSON: Well, the liberation trilogy is my effort to tell the narrative story of the American army's role in the liberation in Europe in World War II. The liberation in Europe is really a tryptich. There are three panels that inform one another. The first one is North Africa. The second is Sicily and Italy. The third is Western Europe. So this is volume 1 of the liberation trilogy.

LAMB: Where'd you get the idea?

ATKINSON: I got the idea partly from Shelby Foote, partly from Bruce Caton. I wanted to try to do justice to the sweep of this tremendous story, the greatest epic of the 20th century, in the way that they did justice to the Civil War with their trilogies.
Caton and Foote are heady company, but obviously the critics think he's off to a good start. Despite a couple of quibbles, we'd concur.

Since the focus of the narrative in the series is the American Army, the story begins with the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. The War had, of course, been going on for some time by then -- in fact, one of the first important things to note is that despite FDR's provocations, the U.S. was so unprepared for war that this invasion, in November 1942, came almost a full year after Pearl Harbor. By this time, Nazi Germany had already gotten well and truly bogged down in the Soviet Union and, if we ignore our own patriotic myth-making, it's not too much to say that the simple fact of our entry into the war doomed the Third Reich. Consider that in early November 1942, 230 of the 260 German divisions were already on the defensive. In addition, the Allies had broken the German codes and could read virtually all communications to the front. Realistically, there was no way Hitler could win the war; the only thing remaining to be determined was how badly he and Germany would lose it.

This must rob any history of the war of even more drama than just our knowing the outcome does, but Mr. Atkinson has a well conceived plan for dealing with his topic. It's common to hear folks dismiss the quality of American fighting forces and attribute our relentless string of victorious wars to nothing more than a marshaling of industrial might and an application of lethal technology and raw numbers to what are generally accepted as militarily superior but outnumbered and outgunned foes. Historians like Victor Davis Hanson have gone some ways to dispelling that canard, and Mr. Atkinson is having none of it either. His theme will be the progression by which the initially shaky American troops and sketchy leadership turned into a great Army and history-making commanders:
North Africa established the patterns and motifs of the next two years, including the tension between coalition unity and disunity. Here were staged the first substantial tests of Allied landpower against Axis landpower, and the initial clashes between American troops and German troops. Like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of their martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough finally to prevail.

North Africa is where the prodigious weight of American industrial might began to tell, where brute strength emerged as the most conspicuous feature of the Allied arsenal -- although not, as some historians suggest, its only redeeming feature. Here the Americans in particular first recognized, viscerally, the importance of generalship and audacity, guile and celerity, initiative and tenacity.

North Africa is where the the Allies agreed on unconditional surrender as the only circumstance under which the war could end.

It is where the controversial strategy of first contesting the Axis in a peripheral theater -- the Mediterranean -- was effected at the expense of an immediate assault on northwest Europe, with the campaigns in Sicily, Italy, and southern France following in train.

It is where Allied soldiers figured out, tactically, how to destroy Germans; where the fable of the Third Reich's invincibility dissolved; where, as one senior German general later acknowledged, many Axis soldiers lost confidence in their commanders and "were no longer willing to fight to the last man."

It is where most of the West's great battle captains emerged, including men whose names would remain familiar generations later -- Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Rommel -- and others who deserve rescue from obscurity. It is where the truth of William Tecumseh Sherman's postulate on command was reaffirmed: "There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs." Here men capable of such leadership stepped forward, and those incapable fell by the wayside.

North Africa is where American soldiers became killing mad, where the hard truth about combat was first revealed to many. "It is a very, very horrible war, dirty and dishonest, not at all that glamour war that we read about in the hometown papers," one soldier wrote his mother in Ohio. "For myself and the other men here, we will show no mercy. We have seen too much for that." The correspondent Ernie Pyle noted a "new professional outlook, where killing is a craft." North Africa is where irony and skepticism, the twin lenses of modern consciousness, began refracting the experiences of countless ordinary soldiers. "The last war was a war to end war. This war's to start 'em up again," said a British Tommy, thus perfectly capturing the ironic spirit that flowered in North Africa.

So that's where we're headed, but in the meantime, North Africa is an unlikely jumping off point. As Mr. Atkinson notes, the War was one to liberate Europe, so why begin on an entirely different continent, freeing peoples whose freedom we--if we're honest with ourselves--were utterly uninterested in. Why? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a series of mistakes. First, and foremost, he took seriously Stalin's demands that the Allies engage the Nazis and relieve some of the pressure the Soviets were under. Such relief was not in our own interest--we'd have been better served by letting Nazis and Communists fight and kill each other until one or another were too exhausted to continue. However, if we were going to get into the Beyond this understood we weren't ready to undertake it as yet and, in fairness to FDR, were skeptical about taking Africa because they distrusted Imperial Britain's motives there.

Africa was chosen instead because it was what we thought we could handle this lesser task, because FDR thought he needed to get boots on the ground immediately for his own partisan political purposes, and because he failed to comprehend that attacking the far periphery of the Third Reich would have massive consequences and long delay the necessary frontal attack. And, make no mistake, it was FDR's call:
The president had made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than with his countrymen. He had repudiated an American military tradition of annihilation, choosing to encircle the enemy and hack at his limbs rather thrust directly at his heart. And he had based his fiat on instinct and a political calculation that the time was ripe.

In choosing Operation TORCH as the North Africa invasion was now called, Roosevelt made several miscalculations. Despite Marshall's warnings, he refused to believe that a diversion to North Africa in 1942 precluded a cross-Channel invasion in 1943. He failed to see that the Mediterranean strategy of encirclement precluded other strategies, or that more than a million American soldiers, and millions of tons of materiel, would be sucked into the Mediterranean in the next three years, utterly eviscerating the buildup in Britain. He continued to argue that "defeat of Germany means defeat of Japan, probably without firing a shot or losing a life."
This last is spectacular nonsense, of course -- FDR's strategic blindness would be revealed even further with his insistence on Germany's "unconditional surrender" -- but, nonetheless, the merely diversionary campaign was on.

For some sense of just how much easier a chore FDR had set the armed forces, consider the little remembered fact that Mr. Atkinson resurrects in full infuriating detail: the opposition to the Torch landings was not even offered by the Germans, but by the French. It's obvious why the climate of the Cold War encouraged the playing down of this debacle in the history books, but by the time French Morocco was taken there had been something in the vicinity of 2200 Allied casualties, including over 1000 dead, and French casualties were closer to 3000. This recovered history was actually my favorite part of the book, but I'm a terrible Francophobe.

If the greatest strength of the book is Mr. Atkinson's imposition of a coherent and compelling storyline on the material and the most delightful aspect of the tale is our fighting the French, the other especially notable features are the clarity of the battle scenes, a tribute to his narrative skills, and the wonderful cast of characters, which he had handed to him by history. Mr. Atkinson is able to sketch the various personalities in a few paragraphs, which is unsurprising when it comes to a Patton or an Eisenhower, who we know well, but very useful when it comes to less famous/infamous men, like Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen:
[E]ven his name swaggered, an admirer once wrote. Commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Terry Allen embodied the unofficial motto of the Big Red One: "Work hard and drink much, for somewhere they're dreamin' up a battle for the First." His exotic middle name came from his mother, daughter of a Spaniard who fought as a Union colonel in the Civil War. From his father, an artillery officer posted mostly in Texas, Allen derived extraordinary equestrian abilities as well as a proclivity for chewing, drinking, and shooting dice. After flunking ordnance and gunnery his final year at West Point, Allen left the academy, graduated from Catholic University, and took a commission in 1912. Wounded at Saint-Mihiel in 1918 and carried from the field on a stretcher, he regained consciousness, ripped off the first-aid tag, and dashed back to rally his men. The next bullet drilled him through the jaw, right to left, but not before he had broken his fist on a German machine-gunner's head.
By the time you're done with the rest of this introduction you're so fascinated you regret he has to leave the stage and eagerly await his reappearances. And though Terry Allen is perhaps the most flamboyant of the secondary cast, there are twenty or thirty of his peers who command our attention as well. All well and good to have taken Africa, but we're ready to follow their exploits across Europe. Bring on the subsequent volumes.

I do have one quibble about the book, and it's really more a quarrel with the editor--if there was one--and with modern editing in general. I'm not competent to know if all the facts and figures are correct, but there are some inexcusable mistakes in the basic story-telling -- and this in the paperback edition, when they've had ample time to correct them. They include thing like repeating the same George Bernard Shaw quotation about Montgomery in two different places and saying that one doesn't associate Teddy Roosevelt with peacemaking, this despite the fact that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. An author, going back to try and reread his own work afresh, can be forgiven such slips, but editors can't. They are though representative of the generally shoddy editorial work one finds in too much literature the last few years, especially in books by celebrated authors. It's as if editors are afraid to suggest changes to their authors, but neither author nor reader is well served by this servility.

At any rate, the faults are few and far between while the rest is truly outstanding. Since writing the book, Mr. Atkinson has served as an imbedded reporter in Iraq, so, besides gaining street cred for himself, the successors seem likely to benefit from firsthand knowledge of combat and the the camaraderie and tensions of army life. When all is said and done, Mr. Atkinson may just meet those lofty goals he's set himself.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Rick Atkinson (3 books reviewed)
Pulitzer Prize (History)
Rick Atkinson Links:

    -WAR IN IRAQ: Rick Atkinson (Washington Post)
    -BOOK SITE: An Army at Dawn
    -BOOK SITE: Day of Battle
    -EXCERPT: Prologue from An Army at Dawn
    -BOOKNOTES: An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson (C-SPAN, November 17, 2002)
    -AWARD: Pulitzer Prize for History: An Army at Dawn (2003)
    -INTERVIEW: CONVERSATION: AWARD WINNER: Margaret Warner speaks with Rick Atkinson, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, An Army at Dawn. (Online Newshour, May 5, 2003)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Back from the Frontlines (On Point, April 21, 2003)
    -ONLINE CHAT: Confronting Iraq: In The Field With The 101st Airborne (With Rick Atkinson, March 19, 2003, Washington Post)
    -INTERVIEW: frontline: the gulf war: oral history: rick atkinson
    -ARTICLE: Post Recalls Vets for War Coverageā€”Puts New Recruits on Front Lines (Harry Jaffe, 3/21/03, The Washingtonian)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Russell F. Weigley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Lawrence D. Freedman, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Ray Locker, Associated Press)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Patrick J. Garrity, The Ashbrook Center )
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Hew Strachan, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (ROBERT KUCHEM, Alaska Star)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (ALAN PRINCE, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (W.J. Rayment, Conservative Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Geeta Sharma-Jensen, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Seth Stern, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Day of Battle (Robert Killebrew, Washington Post)

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