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How to Win

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist turned historian, who is currently writing the third volume of his Liberation Trilogy on World War II in Europe, makes a convincing case that his subject is inexhaustible (see Interview, this issue). Atkinson cites the 17,000 tons of World War II records held by the U.S. Army alone and pronounces that war’s military history “bottomless” in the depth of available material. Such tonnage of source material is crucially important to historical accuracy, to establishing the facts and answering big-picture questions.

But meaningful history is also a summary of individual experiences, the type of first-person stories that characterized the innovative 1958–63 television drama series Naked City and led to its legendary tagline: “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City.” So in that sense, the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, surely offer a potential minimum of 250,000 stories, reflecting the number of attackers and defenders on the ground that day.

The importance of such individual soldiers’ stories is spotlighted in this issue in the paired tales of two forts at Verdun, France, in 1916. The big-picture view of the Battle of Verdun is difficult to comprehend: It lasted about 10 months and cost each side more than 300,000 casualties. But in the fights for Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, a handful of soldiers on both the German and French sides determined—through their decisions and exemplary leadership—who won and who lost that phase of the Verdun campaign.

At Douaumont, regarded by many as the strongest fortification in the world, a pioneer squad led by Feldwebel Felix Kunze boldly snuck in and confronted the surprised French defenders, who chose to surrender rather than fight. Later, at Vaux, the French defenders, led by a thrice-wounded, crippled 49-year-old commander, Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, chose to fight rather than surrender and refused to yield to vastly superior German forces. Raynal’s men fought nonstop for five days in conditions beyond imagining, costing the German attackers almost 3,000 casualties.

Part of the inexhaustible appeal of military history is that while the issue of how to win a war often involves high-level strategic decisions about which nations to invade or defend, and when and how to attack with whole armies, winning or losing also depends on individual soldiers’ behaviors, which are as decisive as they are unpredictable.