From today's Times and News-Star
Fitting on this Veterans Day Eve to share the best book I read all summer, which was actually three books in one, what columnist George Will describes as “history written at the level of literature,” Rick Atkinson’s “unsparing” Liberation Trilogy of World War II.
I began in the war’s middle with “The Day of Battle,” set in Italy. Proceeded to Europe and the best and final book of the trilogy, “The Guns at Last Light,” released in May. Then backtracked to the war’s beginning to finish with the first book of the trilogy, “An Army at Dawn,” published in 2007 and covering America’s infant Army in North Africa.
I have read lots of World War II history, but, like Hollywood, I’ve concentrated mostly on the war in 1944 and 1945, the “more glamorous” part of the war when the Allies landed in Europe on D-Day and fought their way into Germany.
What I knew about North Africa came from the movie “Patton,” and about Italy, I knew little at all.
But there’s so much more here. This is history alive, in many layers, and handled by a master of the craft, not only of research but of writing. It’s hard to imagine a better testimony to the Allied soldiers and citizens of that world-saving event. This trilogy is insight and education, but it’s also tender in language, both haunting and harsh in reality and emotionally moving in rhythm and sense of place. These snapshots from “The Guns at Last Light” help to illustrate:
Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces, tells his fellow planners of D-Day that all egos will be checked at the door. “I consider it to be the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in the plan NOT to hesitate to say so,” Eisenhower said. “I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.”…
Patton, trapped in Italy after success there but now in a bit of a disciplinary military time out, writes to his wife as the battle in Europe continues: “I fear the war will be over before I get loose, but who can say? Fate and the hand of God still run most shows.” …
Eisenhower often quoted Napoleon’s definition of a military genius as “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” …
Atkinson captures the chaos, not only of battle, but also of rose-colored planning. About Market Garden, a failed Allied enterprise for sure, he takes you into the war room and lets you hear one of the Allies, a Polish commander, “after listening to an excessively chipper review (from the British commanders) of the battle plan on Sept 14, burst out, ‘But the Germans, how about the Germans, what about THEM?’ A British brigadier acknowledged a tendency ‘to make a beautiful airborne plan and then add the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards.’” …
The war’s final colossal battle – the 600,000 Americans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge were four times the number of soldiers at Gettysburg – “affirmed once again,” Atkinson writes, “that war is never linear, but rather a chaotic, desultory enterprise of reversal and advance, blunder and elan, despair and elation. Valor, cowardice, courage – each had been displayed in this spectacle of a marching world.”
It’s almost as if the writer put the war to music. History as opera.
Atkinson is a two-time Pulitzer winner, so I don’t know what else to give him but a pat on the back and a word of encouragement. Other than that, we just need to be quiet. (Shhhhhhh…he’s at work on a history of the American Revolution.)