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an army at dawn

11 december 2008

The second volume of Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," The Day of Battle, is now in paperback from Holt. But who can read the second volume of a trilogy without going back to catch up with the first? I know I can't. Fortunately, the first volume, An Army at Dawn, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for History, and is readily available in libraries. It is an exemplary history of a military campaign, and leaves me looking eagerly forward to the second volume and the as-yet-unwritten third.

An Army at Dawn is the story of the 1942-43 Allied invasion of North Africa, weighted toward, but not exclusively about, the American perspective. For many Americans, certainly for me, the North Africa campaign has been memorable mainly as a context for two great film classics. In the movies, the first major American land campaign of the Second World War is a touchstone for the abandonment of neutrality (Casablanca) and initiation into combat (Patton). (Casablanca was filmed before, but released after, the invasion.)

In fact, Operation TORCH and the subsequent conquest of Tunisia have become so archetypal in popular culture that, till Atkinson's book was published and won acclaim, there was some danger of the campaigns becoming merely symbolic. Atkinson makes them present and real. The theme of "dawn" permeates his book. American forces were making their first great move off the parade ground and onto the battlefield.

Atkinson scorns "greatest generation" rhetoric. Yes, our grandfathers had considerable bravery, and yes, they defeated fascism. This does not mean that they initially had a clue as to how to go about defeating anybody. Atkinson waxes eloquent about the utter disorganization of the American military. Overproduction of luxuries, which were then shipped liberally to the battlefront while essential equipment remained on docks or buried deep in cargo holds, threatened to choke the U.S. war effort. Bureaucracy hampered combat units, but combat units themselves behaved with either too much brashness or too much timidity.

At times Atkinson's mode seems almost comic, but he is ever-aware of the horrors of war. Fighting in hilly Tunisia was not the "tactician's dream" of the Montgomery-Rommel battles in the Eastern deserts. Land mines, improvised fortifications, and hill redoubts had to be won step by step. Good leaders flourished, and inept ones circulated in and out of command until the fittest survived.

If Atkinson's writing has a major weakness, it's in his fondness for arch anecdote about the great stars of the campaign: Patton, General Ted Roosevelt, Ted's cousin FDR, Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Rommel. They all begin to seem a bit like boys playing with an oversized and quite deadly set of tin soldiers. But that too, perhaps, is the essence of the Second World War: imperious, scout-masterish leaders with a literary bent playing at being "magnificent anachronisms" (to quote Patton, the movie) while the world changed around them.

The war in Africa was ultimately won by the very overproduction that threatened to choke it. Rommel, who arrived in Tunisia pursued by Montgomery and immediately went on the offensive against the Americans, won the greatest battle victory of the campaign at Kasserine Pass, routing the advancing Yanks. But then he almost immediately ran out of gas (literally), as well as ammunition and many other needfuls. Even the best-designed tanks in history were powerless against the American oil industry. All the panache in the world could not defeat the mechanism of American warmaking. Robert E. Lee had learned that lesson in 1865, and Rommel would learn it again in 1943.

Atkinson, Rick. An Army at Dawn: The war in north Africa, 1942-1943. Volume one of the liberation trilogy. New York: Holt, 2002.