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An Army at Dawn Hardcover – 2002
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These books, as the titles imply, cover the war in North Africa and Europe in WWII. Representing a 15-year effort by its author, Rick Atkinson, it is a monumental work. Moreover, it is engrossing, interesting, and intensely readable. The author weaves an exciting narrative that is more like a novel than a history book. He takes you from the highest pinnacles of power to the anguish of generals and colonels on the battlefield making hard decisions, decisions that affect not only their own men but also those of other allied forces and civilians who just happened to be in the way. There he paints a whirling picture of huge armies wrapped in the throes of deadly combat. From Kasserine Pass to Anzio to the Normandy Beaches to Bastogne, thence to Berlin, Mr. Atkinson lets you see war through the eyes of the dog face soldier as it really is - a bloody, dirty, deadly, weary, mostly terrifying, no-holds-barred matchup between two fiercely dangerous wild animals chewing up 30-ton panzers and individual soldiers with equal ease. He walks you through the blazing sands of Morocco, the all-consuming mud of the Italian peninsula, to the frozen days and nights of the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge. This was the 1940s equivalent of “the times that try men’s souls”, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Paine.
He spares no one. Even household names like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in the conference room or Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, and DeGaulle on the battlefield are held accountable with his pen, as sharp as the point of a bayonet, when they foul up, which is far too often. After all, the well-known WWII acronym SNAFU – situation normal, all fouled up – was devised by the lowly American GI in the fourth decade of the twentieth Century. For in the final analysis, it was he who would pay the ultimate price for ineptitude.
Atkinson writes of the education of the American armed forces, an education achieved the hard way - on the battlefield. It is sometimes painful to read how inept our armies were in the early days when they naively pitted themselves against Irwin Rommel's veteran Afrika Korps. The British have a saying, “you do not know war until you have fought the German.” We didn’t know and we got murdered. The American GI had to become dog-mean, merciless, and he had to learn to hate. In Mr. Atkinson's words, “the wolf had to rise in the throat." When that finally happened, the GI became one of the most effective fighting men ever to grace any battlefield. Not until he learned would he have some chance of prevailing and surviving. And so, he did.
His writing is often poetic. For example here is the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book in the trilogy:
For the first time in nearly six years, the sun set on a Europe without front lines, a Europe at peace. Lights scintillated - truck lights, jeep lights, tent lights, flashlights, building lights, farmhouse lights, everything lit up. Night stole over the Continent, creeping west from the Vistula to the Oder, and then to the Elbe and the Rhine and the Seine. Darkness enfolded a thousand battlefields, at Remagen and St. Vith, Arnem and St. Lo, Caen and Omaha Beach. Darkness fell and the lights came on again.
If you are a WWII buff, this trilogy should be part of your library as it is part of mine.