June 2013

Rick Atkinson

Capturing the calamitous tapestry of war
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Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Atkinson left the Washington Post in 1999 “to raise my game, to become a historian and use the longer lens of history” to write about World War II in Western Europe. He didn’t know that it would be 14 years before he typed the final words of The Guns at Last Light, the brilliant, more-than-worth-the-wait final volume of his epic Liberation Trilogy.

Atkinson did know from the outset that he faced daunting odds. An online search, for example, revealed something like 60,000 books devoted to World War II. The “Green Books,” the surprisingly well-written official U.S. Army history of WWII, run to 117 volumes. And the WWII archives of the Allied nations are seemingly endless. “The U.S. Army records alone—one service, one country—for World War II weigh 17,000 tons,” exclaims Atkinson, a self-described “archive rat,” during a call to the home he shares with his wife of 34 years, in Washington, D.C., abutting Rock Creek Park.

But for Atkinson, who was born in Munich in 1952 while his father, a career U.S. Army infantry officer, was serving in the occupation forces, WWII was “a part of the culture, a part of the landscape I grew up in. I think it’s part of my DNA.”

Then in the mid-1990s as a journalist, Atkinson “covered the endless successions of 50th-anniversary commemorations”—D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, VE Day—and had two epiphanies. “One was that because this was one of the greatest catastrophes in human history, it was the greatest story of the 20th century, and it was just bottomless. I don’t think you tap out the greatest events in human history. There will be more to write about this forever. The other epiphany I had was that World War II did not start at Omaha Beach for the Americans. There were earlier D-days in Africa and in Sicily and southern Italy. It’s a triptych, and the three panels are Africa, Italy and Western Europe.”

Atkinson published An Army at Dawn, the first volume of the Liberation Trilogy, in 2002. Hailed for its narrative power, vivid detail and riveting blend of the human experiences of common soldiers and battlefield commanders alike, it won the Pulitzer Prize for history. It also established the narrative style that would serve Atkinson so well throughout the trilogy. Each volume has a prologue, an epilogue and 12 chapters divided into four parts.

WWII was “a part of the culture, a part of the landscape I grew up in. I think it’s part of my DNA.”

“I sort of stumbled on the structure for volume one,” Atkinson explains. “Like a gem cutter, I think, I was trying to understand the structure of the story and how the facets naturally cleave. Then because I wanted to signal that this is really one story and that each volume mirrors the others, I thought having a similar structure would help me accomplish that, if I could do it without it being forced.”

The shared narrative structure does not feel at all forced in The Day of Battle, Atkinson’s brilliant account of the war in Sicily and Italy in 1943-44. Nor in The Guns at Last Light, the new and final volume of the trilogy, which takes readers from D-Day preparations to German surrender.

In fact, the exceptionally well-written new volume possesses an epic grandeur, draws from a broad range of historical and literary references, mobilizes an astonishing array of little-known detail and illuminates both the strategic and human dramas of all-out warfare in ways that allow it to shine even more brightly than the other panels in the triptych. In the 14 years since he began work on the trilogy, Atkinson’s children have grown into adulthood—his son is a Justice Department lawyer in Washington, and his daughter is a surgical resident in Cincinnati—and Atkinson himself has grown into mastery. The Guns at Last Light should be read not just as a great work of narrative military history, but as an accomplished work of American literature.

“By the time we get to the third book,” Atkinson says, deftly side-stepping a question about his literary ambitions, “the war has metastasized from company-level actions of a few score or a few hundred men in North Africa to Army Groups in which literally millions are fighting one another. It allows a sweep. There’s a tapestry quality to the whole thing. It’s almost as if you’re trying to write the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s just a big, huge, sprawling, awful calamity that you have an opportunity to write about in the grandest terms as a military historian.”

Atkinson says he turned down an appointment to West Point after high school because he already knew he wanted to be a writer, and the military academy “was not only all male at the time, it was all engineering. That didn’t play to my strong suit.” He thought he might become a college English professor but left the University of Chicago after earning a master’s degree because he “decided teaching was just too sedentary for me.” He became a journalist instead, and then, 14 years ago, a military historian.

“The challenge,” Atkinson says of his craft, “is to take a story that people think they know and about which much has been written—good stuff, too, in many cases—and try to make it fresh, try to make it sound in the reader’s inner ear as if this is a story they haven’t heard before.”

To that end, Atkinson first recruits the extraordinary detail gleaned from burrowing deep into the archives, examining not just official records but personal journals, letters and memoirs. Then, like a good novelist, he writes his chapters in dramatic scenes, highlighting the titanic (and petty) clashes of ego among the Allied leadership and the harrowing efforts of troops on the ground. Even more importantly, throughout the trilogy and especially in this final volume, Atkinson writes with great power about the wrenching human cost of the conflict.

“There’s something at play here that’s just so heartbreaking,” he says. “So I try to take this industrial-strength catastrophe that we call World War II and bring it down to an individual level so that the singularity of death—it’s like a snowflake or a fingerprint—comes home to the reader periodically to remind them of what this is really all about.”

Atkinson adds, “My feeling is that the true ambition of a narrative historian should be to bring people back from the dead.” To which an avid reader can only say, amen.

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