Thursday, September 02, 2010

What We're Reading: An Army At Dawn

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944
by Rick Atkinson

These two books are not new publications, but they are the first two volumes of a trilogy in progress that very well may be the most well written and accessible overview to date of the American involvement in the European theatre of World War II. In 2003, the first volume, An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for history, and Atkinson’s second volume, where he has fully mastered his narrative technique, is even a better book than the prize winner.

I have remarked before in reviewing other books on World War II about how I have often wondered about why the war was not taught as a part of the school history curriculum of my generation, the so called “baby boom” generation. And I’m not sure that has changed so much in public education for subsequent younger generations. Just shortly before we were born, humankind experienced the greatest calamity in its history, a global conflict in which close to 60 million combatants and civilians lost their lives worldwide. There has been, relative to other events in American history, a cursory attention to what remains the seminal event of the last 100 years, a catastrophe that has shaped and still casts a long shadow over the modern world in which we all live.

I used to think that this neglect was because for the generation that taught us, World War II was for them part of what they had experienced themselves. It was thought of as a contemporary event rather than history. And perhaps too, maybe there was after so much evil and death a protective concern that resulted in a desire to raise a new generation in a kind of innocence about how terrible and violent the world could become. Maybe everyone needed some space and a general forgetting to recover from such a trauma. I’ve since come to think that (maybe instead, or maybe in addition) the sheer breadth and magnitude of the upheaval is something that is hard to fully encompass and comprehend. We have come to rely on a kind of synecdoche, where more discrete events like the Holocaust or Hiroshima have come to represent in their singularity the unwieldy range of evil and destruction of the war in its entirety. To the extent to which there has been a revival of interest in the war, it seems to focus mostly on the Pacific theatre and the war against Japan. I suppose part of this is because the war in the Pacific was more discretely an American battle. The Allies certainly were not as engaged or played as important a role in the victory in Pacific. It may be as simple a matter as that the producers of movies are located on the Pacific Rim and that a large part of our attention is now directed west because of the growing economic importance of the region. For a nation that has always had its eyes focused westward, the war in the Pacific has caught our imaginations as in some way a battle on our last frontier.

Certainly, other than Normandy, our knowledge about the war in North Africa and Europe is the thing about which we are most ignorant. This is the subject of Atkinson’s trilogy, and the project he has undertaken has caused me to think about some of the challenges an historian faces in attempting to write great narrative history, something that is a dying art. The first challenge it seems to me in writing about so global a conflict is deciding how to control the scope of what you will write about, in deciding what to leave out. A narrowed, manageable, and disciplined treatment of the subject is required. When the subject is broad, overreaching is always the danger. Atkinson has made the right choices. His intention is mostly to recount the American role in the war, and therefore the early fighting in Europe, the British action in North Africa before the arrival of American forces, and the war in Russia on the eastern front are not in the scope of this narrative.

The second important choice it seems to me is the perspective from which you tell the story. That too demands a certain focus if you are to carry along a story line. You can’t cover all the political, diplomatic, economic, social, civilian, and military history aspects of the conflict at each stage of the narrative and still produce something that reads very well, that connects coherently, and is of a manageable length. Atkinson’s perspective is primarily that of a military historian, but he includes where it may shed light on his narrative, the required discussions of politics and impact on civilian populations. “Military history” can be written as pretty arcane and incomprehensible fare, and there have been books I’ve put down simply because I had no idea what the author was talking about. I did not possess the military expertise from which I could draw the implications for this or that deployment, array of military resources, or timing of action. Atkinson has been sensitive to this. You understand what is going on in each campaign, the maps are clear, and the situational implications and difficulties are comprehensible to the common reader.

Atkinson has chosen this perspective because it is the one that allows us to best understand what is most essential about war, it allows him to focus on the experience of the common soldier and the military command and lets us understand, and ultimately come to appreciate, what they went through and what they accomplished. It is here, rather than in political history, or in a more general and removed perspective, that we can develop the narrative essentials of immediacy and empathy that give us the best sense of what historical events, abstracted by time and transfigured into the notations of facts and statistics, were actually like. Atkinson is not only a great researcher, but he is a very fine writer. His descriptions of the climate, smells, and tableau of life in Tunis the morning after the Allies entered the city make you feel like you are there. He is able to imbue his narrative with a reconstruction of all the sensual aspects of an engagement, to make it come alive for the reader. And he is able to “create” character, usually with the deft strokes of few quotes or some memorable actions, but also sometimes in simply remarkable character sketches of a paragraph of so. We come to feel that we know Patton or Eisenhower or Bernard Montgomery and other commanders very well. But Atkinson can also make you feel that you know the nameless and common solider. He is a master at finding the apposite comment or diary entry, the perfect bon mot, that conveys more knowledge and feeling of the situation than whole pages might be able to say. All of these literary skills combine to make this a remarkably accessible and poignant narrative that helps us understand what those fighting in World War II experienced. He gives us an unromanticized look at the nature of war, and in the process a new appreciation for the sacrifice and ordinary heroism of those who fought it. He has written an epic of the American soldier and a remarkable portrait of WW II that is a triumph of the art of historical narrative. It will be the standard reference on this subject for many years to come.

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