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Conversation with Rick Atkinson: American Army’s Bloody Coming of Age

By Gene Santoro
8/9/2018 • World War II Magazine

Ten years ago, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson began a three-volume history entitled The Liberation Trilogy. Atkinson, an army brat whose father made lieutenant colonel, grew up hearing officers swap World War II stories. He started as a journalist in 1976, copping his first Pulitzer in 1982. He joined the Washington Post in 1983; ten years later he became the paper’s Berlin bureau chief. In 2002, An Army At Dawn, about the North Africa campaign, appeared; it snared Atkinson his third Pulitzer.

He spent 2003 “embedded” with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, writing In the Company of Soldiers. Now, with The Day of Battle, the second volume in the trilogy, he follows the Allies into the Italian crucible.

Your Berlin stint launched all this.

I wrote a series of stories about the endless succession of D-Day commemorations, which fired my imagination. I’d take my family to Rome for a vacation and drag them down to San Pietro, a little town that doesn’t exist anymore because of the war. The more I thought about it, the more I realized two things. First, like all great stories World War II is bottomless. Second, like most Americans I thought of World War II as Pearl Harbor, Normandy, the Bulge, and the end. Yet the leaders and men of the army that came ashore at Normandy had a personal and institutional history that I could conceptualize in Europe in a way I don’t think I could have from Washington. That history starts in Africa with Operation Torch, then migrates to Sicily and Italy. The army that comes ashore at Normandy has a long, profound, troubling history.

Your models are the Civil War writers Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton, right?

Guilty. Their works are so elegant they’re works of art. I saw how my concept was a triptych, and decided to try to commit art while meeting the requirements of serious historical scholar ship. My aspiration was to move between the tactical, the operational, and the strategic. Typically, even good storytelling dwells in one realm. But to me, each informs the others. You can be with [Lt. Gen. Mark] Clark on the operational level and Churchill on the strategic level to understand why we’re at the Rapido River, but unless you’re with those guys at the Rapido on January 22, 1944, the emotional resonance is gone and the full story isn’t told.

The full story being the American army’s bloody transformation.

You see the need to be blooded and what results. The four divisions in North Africa are full of killers by the end. Some of those killers move on to Sicily and Italy, but it becomes necessary for commanders to somehow have that metastasize into the other sixteen divisions in Italy and all eighty-nine divisions in the American army. It’s a timeless verity of war: killers win battles and wars. It’s something Americans don’t like to think about much. We like our wars more sanitary. But the truth is, to understand war’s impact on these individuals, you have to go there.

Instead of just giving it the “greatest generation” gloss?

To me that’s a caricature. Greater than what? The founding fathers? The Civil War generation? It’s kind of ludicrous. It wasn’t even a single generation. Patton was born in 1885, Eisenhower in 1890, my father in 1924. The notion that they’ve achieved demigod status through their doughty triumph over Nazism is preposterous and undercuts the contributions of our allies, notably the Russians, who died by the tens of millions. I think it’s more comforting to recognize that even the best of them were flawed in fundamental ways. I admire Eisenhower greatly, but he was not a very good field marshal.

Your treatment of Mark Clark is revealing in the opposite way.

He’s been vilified, I think. The Brits can’t stand him to this day. He was so bent on self-aggrandizement; it really does run counter to the army officer corps we prefer to believe is embodied by somebody like George Marshall. But he’s a very compelling character, and to at least some extent he was the right man for a bad job in Italy. He’s extraordinarily competent at running an army in the nitty-gritty logistical ways Patton had no use for, under very difficult circumstances. Frankly, the hard time had come and it took hard men, and here was somebody who could incur tens of thousands of casualties. It’s not that it didn’t bother him; he’s not heart less. Far from it. But he’s fundamentally very flinty, and the Italian campaign needed that. Now that his letters are available finally, you can see he was an interesting man, broad-gauged, that he wasn’t the youngest major general in the army by accident or because he sucked up to superiors. In Eisenhower’s opinion, he was the army’s best trainer and organizer. As his force gets bigger and bigger, he’s got the capability to handle it. His personal bravery is indisputable; he was not a chateau general, as some claim. Even [British general Harold] Alexander, who built sandcastles at Dunkirk, remember, remarks on that. Clark is insufferable, but he has his positive attributes.

The demigods are all human.

Very human. We still read Homer because his people are human; even the gods are human.

Which is one reason you follow the field commanders.

There’s a regimental commander named John Toffey, who I follow; he stands in for his brethren. What you find is the necessity for the American army to breed and then replicate battalion and regimental commanders. Because when the rubber meets the road, those are the guys who are going to win battles for you. Yeah, it takes guys with stars on their shoulders and big arrows on maps, but field-grade officers determine your tactical proficiency in battle. The Germans had great organizational depth and flexibility; they were better at it in some ways. But we see guys like Toffey grow into the job and grow very tired, as the enervating nature of close combat eats up those trying to lead and motivate soldiers in a war of attrition.

The Italian campaign had no real strategic goals.

The whole Mediterranean campaign was a compromise, and Italy became a sad cul de-sac, a war of attrition—deliberately, to some extent, to tie up as many Germans as possible before Normandy, but accidentally too. It was a failure of imagination of the senior Allied leadership; they just couldn’t foresee having army groups in a war of attrition in Italy for two consecutive winters. It’s a sad campaign but a really interesting place to study war.

What surprised you most in your research?

The levels of Anglophobia in the American officer corps, especially the general officer corps. Almost to a man they have a deep, visceral loathing of the British. Many had experience in World War I, and the Brits’ superciliousness was galling. That makes Eisenhower more remarkable; he’s transcended that. He likes them personally and they respond to that.

The antipathy was mutual.

Well, with the Brits it may have been a more sophisticated disdain; with the Americans it was more animal. They were nineteenth-century men, remember. The Revolution and War of 1812 were not that far from their frame of reference. They studied the Civil War at the Point, and Britain’s involvement in it. American planning into the twentieth century posited war with Britain. So the shoulder-to shoulder thing is really a postwar phenomenon. Behind the façade, Eisenhower had to threaten them with the destruction of their careers if they didn’t make nice.

Churchill plays a complicated role in this entire chapter of the war.

Italy was his brainchild at every stage. Once you’re in North Africa it’s a slippery slope. Just being in the Mediterranean is an argument for remaining there. Did he want to reimpose British hegemony there? The Americans at the time were convinced that was it, but it’s more complex. Certainly he’s owed a debt of gratitude for convincing Roosevelt that landing in France with a green, untutored army would be catastrophic. The Americans’ steep learning curve takes place in the Mediterranean.

 

Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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