Monday, February 17, 2014

Atkinson's WWII books

I've read the first two of Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy" on World War II. (Two out of three ain't bad, right?) An Army at Dawn (AD) covers the war in North Africa (1942-43) and The Day of Battle (DB) covers the war in Sicily and Italy (1943-44). I was as familiar as the average bear on World War II. In other words, I knew virtually nothing about the first two parts of the European campaign-- the warm-ups and tightening-the-noose that were the African and Southern European campaigns.

The African campaign was useful for clearing the Mediterranean and to provide a base of operations to attack Italy. The Italian campaign was useful for knocking out the Italians, diverting German resources, and providing us with a place nearer to Germany's doorstep. Atkinson makes clear that, as well, Africa and Italy were vital for revving up the American war machine (production), training soldiers, and working out (some of) the kinks in everything from supply processes to command structure.

A key theme is the role of Africa (and then Italy to a lesser extent) in the development of rookie soldiers and its leaders. At least initially, "war was fought by ignorant armies on a darkling plain" (AD, 116). "A callow, clumsy army had arrived in North Africa with little notion of how to act as a world power. The balance of the campaign-- indeed, the balance of the war-- would require learning not only how to fight but how to rule" (AD, 159). In a way, the early parts of the African campaign were deceiving since victory (over the French) was relatively easy (AD, 160). But that would change, soon enough. As such, Atkinson describes how the troops "matured" from naïve to hardened and cynical to "hating" the enemy (AD, 461-463).

Without these experiences, the European campaign (or an earlier European campaign)-- against the best German troops-- would have been a logistical, leadership and fighting disaster (AD, 377, 539-540). Along the way, the Allies had poor strategy-- a combo of both sins of commission and omission; foolhardy attacks and failures to pursue. Two surprising (and counterproductive) angles were that the leaders tried to combine troops of different nationalities and that the leaders (especially the Brits) valued personal glory or better corporate outcomes (AD, 276, 373, 403, 499)

But the Allies, particularly America, had overwhelming production (AD, 413-415; DB, 252). A lot of this was the result of diverting a lot of effort from personal consumption (forced rationing) and peacetime industrial production (DB, 8-9, 450). Given the material advantages, in one sense, the war became a matter of competitive attrition: the Allies inevitably wearing down the Axis vs. the Allies tiring of trying to wear them down. (See: DB, 254, 582-583. See also: North vs. South in the American Civil War.) This led to unintended consequences, such as the development of the bikini (DB, 9)! And quite surprisingly, production began moving back toward normal in 1944 (DB, 313). In one sense, the war was "a struggle not between rival ideologies or opposing tacticians, but between systems-- the integration of political, economic, and military forces needed for sustained offensive power (452). Of course, the "ideologies" included politics and economics-- impacting our ability to produce (vs. Germany), but I know what Atkinson means.

A series of small observations:

--There was much more back and forth than I had realized on what to do with Japan: short-term vs. long-term; and whether to focus on them vs. work with England to deal with Germany/Italy (10-18, 289-290).

--The initial landing in Africa (airborne and amphibious) is virtually unknown, but rivaled the landing on D-day in relative size (then), its overall importance to the war (without it...), and its ambition (31, 87, 88).

--The amazing (and often senseless) troop loss in World War II. (See also: World War I.)

--Two key battles: The Americans almost losing their beachhead at Salerno, including mixed decisions on whether to evacuate or not (DB, 226ff). And the French General Juin leading his troops to an important victory in a large-scale battle that turned the tide, late in the Italian campaign (DB, 511ff).

-Rome was more psychological than tactical per se. Not much was gained once they had a substantial beachhead/occupation in Sicily and then Italy. But it was good for morale-- there and at home-- to conquer Rome.

Not surprisingly, Atkinson gives space to develop key characters:

Patton goes from back-burner to celebrated to seemingly buried and headed for Western Europe. A year later, he was dead. "He was a paradox and would always remain one...Well-read, fluent in French, and the wealthy child of privilege, he could be crude, rude, and plain foolish." (AD; 35-36). "But the caricature of a raging martinet failed to capture Patton's nuances. Few officers had studied the art of war with greater care." And "He had proposed riding his horse up the stairs and onto the terrace of her house." (DB; 45)

But Eisenhower is the most important figure-- particularly his strengths/weaknesses and his development into the general who would emerge to lead the Allies to victory in Western Europe. (AD; 59-60, 411-412) At the end of the African campaign, Atkinson writes "No soldier in Africa had changed more-- grown more-- than Eisenhower. He continued to pose as a small-town Kansan...retained the winning traits of authenticity, vigor and integrity...displayed admirable grace and character under crushing strain. But...naivete provided a convenient screen for a man who was complex, shrewd and sometimes Machiavellian." (AD, 533)

Others make smaller but noteworthy appearances. Other key military leaders such as Henry Hewitt, Terry Allen, Lucian Truscott, Mark Clark, and Omar Bradley. Teddy Roosevelt's son was a compelling figure. (See: AD, p. 86, for how little TR expected of him!) Audie Murphy's storied military career gets quite a bit of play. Newsman Ernie Pyle pops up over and over again. And I didn't know that FDR had been so adamant to aim for the unconditional surrender of the Axis from the beginning (AD, 293-294, 298). In this, he sounded like Reagan with the USSR.

Others make cameo appearances: for example, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who tried to oust/assassinate Hitler (AD, 464-465); "Kilroy"-- who always, already been "here" (AD, 517); novelist Joseph Heller and actor Jimmy Stewart (497).

A few other topics of interest:

1.) The sexual immorality and drunkenness of many troops in WWII comes up quite a bit (p. 39, 195-196, 435, 462-463 in AD; p. 29, 30, 136, 175, 247, 321, 446-449 in DB; see also: AD's 5, 462-463 on rape, murder, etc.; and DB's 308, 375 on gluttony by leaders.) "The Arab soldier is interested in just three things: women, horses and guns. The American soldier is the same, except that he doesn't care anything about horses and guns." (DB, 529). I don't bring this up to denigrate our troops. People-- particularly the young, away from home, influenced by peer pressure-- can do rough and even nasty things. On top of that, war presumably brings out the worst (and best) in people. But I find it interesting in light of the claims about 1950s morality-- that they represent some high-water mark (or at least the end of that tide)-- and the implications of those claims. (Stephen Ambrose makes similar observations in his work.)

Atkinson also gives us a few glimpses into religion directly. Ike believed that "the Almighty would provide him with a decent set of cards. [But] he appeared not to share the metaphysical feeling that God owed him anything specific." (DB, 50). But Ike's lucky coins also point to superstition (246). See also: Clark's 4-leaf clovers [DB, 183] and Truscott's Thomas Jefferson "Bible" [DB, 385]). But he also provides a picture of a baptism (DB, 428; see also: Randall Harris' prayer [DB, 70]). Given so few mentions, I'd guess that this not a point of emphasis/interest for the author. 

2.) In DB, Atkinson explores a number of "Prisoner's Dilemmas". The initial reference is to two prisoners who are separated and incentivized to break a cartel that would otherwise be in their best interests. Both individuals have an incentive to collude, but especially with the right pay-offs, both can have a tremendous incentive to cheat on the (implied) cartel. The term is a big deal in "game theory" and economics-- based on imperfect information, in less-than-competitive market settings-- where collusion can be useful, at least on paper.

Examples? Soldiers were told that the other side would "cut off the balls" of prisoners (116). Atkinson shares the story of a Lt. Colonel who "repeatedly lecture" that "a captive can't fight", exhorting them to fight to the death-- before surrendering himself (116). News reporters agreed to kill a story that Patton had slapped a soldier (170), but the story broke a few months later (296). Soldiers were supposed to treat enemy soldiers well, but sometimes it was a little too inconvenient: "A soldier told to escort a captured German officer down the mountain soon reappeared. 'The son of a bitch died of pneumonia.'" (283) And apparently, the Germans had white-flag ruses (474), which led to a general distrust on both sides and a reduction in what would have been an optimal arrangement for the soldiers. Likewise, there was distrust about the use of (forbidden) mustard gas, which seems to have been caused by the U.S. (271-278)

3.) Miscellaneous topics: segregation (DB, 381ff); typhus and DDT (DB, 448); the mistreatment of Jews in Rome by the Germans (DB, 475-476), the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the middle of the war! (DB, 483ff).


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home