An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy

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War Issues


Some weeks my New Yorker shows up on Tuesday; other weeks it doesn’t arrive until the weekend. This week it showed up late, and that’s why I’m writing about it even as it’s being removed from news stands to make way for next week’s issue. But I was glad to finally get to it, especially after noting that it was the summer fiction issue. But it’s not the typical summer fiction issue and certainly doesn’t fit the accepted idea of “Summer Reading.” This issue is about war, and I’m glad that the New Yorker decided to put together an issue like this, since it is shockingly easy – three years after we invaded Iraq – to forget that this country is at war right now. It’s also fitting since we’ve been discussing war quite a bit at The Millions lately. Last month I reviewed An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, which led readers to help me compile lists of World War 2 fiction and nonfiction. Vasily Grossman appeared on both lists, and his story “In Kislovodsk” (not available online) is in this New Yorker. Also contributing is Uwem Akpan with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Akpan was in last year’s debut fiction issue.But more broadly, the issue is a nice reminder that as life goes on here in the States, war rages on in Iraq. The New Yorker has done this most vividly by providing “Soldiers’ Stories: Letters, e-mails, and journals from the Gulf.” The magazine has also created an audio slide show for the online version of the piece:This week, The New Yorker publishes a selection of letters, journal entries, and personal essays by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who served in the current war in Iraq. The writings are part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming. An anthology of the work, edited by the historian Andrew Carroll, will be published this fall by Random House. Here, in an Audio Slide Show produced by Matt Dellinger, five of the servicemen read from their work, accompanied by their photographs.

A Review of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

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The more I learn about World War II, the more it fascinates me. I feel like most people have a vague, middle-ground understanding of the war. Two generations removed from the war, I have trouble fathoming both the global scale of the conflict and the impact it had on hundreds of millions of individuals. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more. I also realized that I ought to know more about the war that both of my grandfathers fought in, one in Europe and one in the Pacific.Wanting to get an overview, I opted for John Keegan’s The Second World War, which turned out to be an ideal choice in that it was the broad, readable overview of the war that I had been looking for. (I would later read Keegan’s history of the First World War and review it.) But after Keegan, I wanted to delve into the war more, to take a narrower view and learn about some of the hundreds of smaller conflicts that, taken together, comprised the war. I turned to Rick Atkinson, not least because I had the chance to meet him twice and because I read and enjoyed his book, In the Company of Soldiers, about being embedded in Iraq.An Army at Dawn is the first book in Atkinson’s trilogy about the liberation of Europe during WWII. This book covered North Africa, while the forthcoming books will cover Italy and France. An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer in 2003 and deservedly so. I don’t think I’ve ever read a history book that flowed so well. The book is an incredible marriage of storytelling and historical fact, so that the reader feels both entertained and very well informed. Atkinson relied on battle memoirs and letters from soldiers to augment traditional, official sources and it shows. The war’s narrative is textured at every turn with the words of the men who were there, providing an insight I’ve not gotten from other history books. Along with using the men’s words directly, Atkinson also combines these collective observations in his own way to paint a vivid picture of the goings on. An example:The rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped for the first time in two days. A monstrous, blood-orange moon drifted behind the breaking clouds. Backlit by desultory shell fire, British victualers darted up with tins of cold plum pudding for men who spooned it down behind their pathetic fieldstone parapets. Flares rose to define the dead.That scene occurred near Longstop Hill as the conflict raged back and forth in Tunisia. We all know about World War II, but beyond the most familiar aspects of the War – the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust – how much do we really know? For me, it didn’t go much deeper than that, but as Atkinson makes so vividly clear, the world once watched North Africa, and battles like Kesserine Pass, Mareth, and El Guettar made headlines. To me, though, the book is powerful in that it goes beyond just knowing when and where and how these battles happened, it gives us a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the men who were there. In that sense I found this book both incredibly informative while also conveying the unfathomable (to me in this day and age) emotions of war.An Army at Dawn was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’ll certainly read Atkinson’s next two books when they come out, but in the meantime, as I look at my queue of books to read, I see that only Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is about WWII. I need to read more books about World War II. Any suggestions?

Rick Atkinson and Battle Memoirs


Rick Atkinson, sometime reporter for the Washington Post and author of several books, most recently An Army at Dawn and In the Company of Soldiers, stopped by school today and gave a brief talk to a gathering of students and faculty. Atkinson describes himself as a narrative non-fiction writer and “recovering journalist,” and he divided his writing into three categories: journalism, instant history and true history – or history’s first, second and third drafts. He also said that great events like World War II are “bottomless” and thus can have no final draft. Atkinson called journalists “paid eyewitnesses.”During the talk, he listed a series of books that are examples of first-hand accounts of war, several of which he encountered researching An Army at Dawn, which is about the Allied liberation of North Africa. Atkinson’s list fits into that second category, instant history in the form of the battle memoir:The Battle is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll – WWII, North AfricaRoad to Tunis by David Rame – WWII, North AfricaBrave Men by Ernie Pyle – WWII, EuropeSlightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa (the famous war photographer) – WWII, North Africa and EuropeThe Road Back to Paris by A.J. Liebling (writing for the New Yorker) WWII, EuropeThe End in Africa by Alan Moorhead – WWII, North AfricaMartyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War by Michael Kelly (who died in a humvee accident in Iraq in 2003) – Persian Gulf War

Naked in Baghdad by Anne Garrels and In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson


As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels’ strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime’s final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN’s arrogance and Geraldo Rivera’s foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson’s narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote — or ancient history — compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson’s daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels’ concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson’s epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.

Lots More Books to Read


I’ve acquired some books over the last month in various ways, and now I have added them to the reading queue, which at its current swollen proportions will take me over a year to get through. Here’s what I’ve added. As mentioned in this post, I snagged a copy of The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the early years of baseball by Lawrence Ritter. I can’t believe that spring training is only a couple of weeks away. I also got some books from my mom, who is great about sending books my way. She passed along two books by Virginia Woolf (whose work I have never read), To the Lighthouse as well as a collection of her shorter fiction. She also got me the first play to be added to my young reading queue, Jumpers by Tom Stoppard. I rarely read any drama though I should probably read more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a play since college… another Stoppard play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Going in a completely different direction, I’ve added a graphic novel that my friend Chris, insisting that I would enjoy it, kindly lent to me: I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. I also secured a copy of Absolutely American, a book that David Lipsky wrote after spending four years following one cadet class through West Point. And finally I acquired a couple of advance copies of some books that’ll be out this spring. The first is You Remind Me of Me, a new novel by up and comer Dan Chaon. The other is Rick Atkinson’s book about being embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. Check out the post where I broke the news on this book back in October. Atkinson won the Pulitzer last year for the first book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” An Army at Dawn (also on the reading queue!)Insider ReviewsEver since Amazon instituted the customer review feature there have been a fair amount of complaints from authors and publishers that one vengeful reader’s review can kill their sales. Other improprieties have also been alleged, like authors anonymously reviewing their own books glowingly while disparaging the books of rivals and enemies. A recent glitch at Amazon’s Canadian site lifted the veil of anonymity from the process. This New York Times article describes the fallout. The highlights: John Rechy giving glowing reviews to his own novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens and Dave Eggers writing a positive review of his friend Heidi Julavits’ novel, The Effect of Living Backwards.

A Reading Queue for 2004


I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.

Author Sighting


Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson stopped by yesterday to sign copies of An Army at Dawn. This book is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy that will describe the liberation of Europe in World War II. This first book is about the liberation of North Africa, and the next two will cover Italy and France. Naturally, I asked him how the books were coming along, and he told me that he had put them on hold while he was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and now he is writing a book about that experience. It will be exciting to see the many quality books that are being written by journalists and writers who spent time over there. We also discussed John Keegan, who seems to be the authority when it comes to popular histories of war. Atkinson professed to loving both The Mask of Command, which studies generals and commanders in wars from Ancient Greece to the present, and The Face of Battle, which gives similar treatment to the common soldier. Later on, while I was reading about those two Keegan books, I was pleased to discover that he has a new book that is a mere two weeks from hitting the shelves. It is enticingly titled, Intelligence in Warfare: From Nelson to Hitler.

Surprise Me!