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?
I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they’re exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I’ll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer’s colorful newspaper. Baker’s foreword and Brentano’s captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He’s essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn’t on my wishlist but they knew I’d like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
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