Rick Atkinson is one of my favorite writers. Twice a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Washington Post, Atkinson is also the author of several books on military subjects, including The Long Gray Line, a narrative account of the West Point class of 1966; Crusade, a history of the Persian Gulf War; and In the Company of Soldiers, an account of the Iraq war, written from his perspective as an embedded reporter. An Army at Dawn, the first volume of a three volume history of the American army in the European theater in World War II, won him a third Pulitzer in 2002. Day of Battle, the second volume, has just been published to great reviews, which enthusiastically praise his masterful use of language and the adroit way he moves his focus between a grand overview and telling close-up. We’re delighted that Rick took time to answer some of our questions.
Today it often seems that what many younger Americans remember about the war is limited to Pearl Harbor, Omaha Beach and Hiroshima. Your book is book is about America’s second act in the war in Europe, if you will, the war in Italy. As with a lot of second acts, what happened there tends to get overshadowed. What should Americans know about our war in Italy?
First they should know, and hopefully never forget, that 23,501 Americans were killed in action in Italy between Sept. 1943 and May 1945, and that total Allied casualties exceeded 312,000. The Italian campaign was both a milestone on the road to victory in World War II and a stepping stone toward a free, stable Europe. It was a campaign of liberation that worked as planned by unshackling Italy from both the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and his alliance with Nazi Germany.
With the advantage of perfect hindsight, should we have fought in Italy? It seems that the best reason for fighting in Italy is that we had to fight Germany somewhere, and we weren’t ready to fight them in France. Does some more brilliant alternative present itself in retrospect?
As I write in The Day of Battle, “All criticism of the Italian strategy butts against an inconvenient riposte: if not Italy, where?” After the campaign in Tunisia ended in May 1943, there was no oceangoing fleet available to move a half million men from the African littoral to England, or anywhere else. Nor could British facilities have handled that horde in addition to the horde already staging for Normandy. More to the point, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have tolerated an idling of Allied armies during the ten months between the conquest of Sicily and the Normandy invasion. In my estimation, there was no brilliant alternative.
It’s interesting to read this history, which doesn’t shirk from pointing out the personal shortcomings of commanders and great mistakes in strategy, at a time when America is again at war. We seem to be reasonably well-informed of the mistakes of our entire military apparatus in Iraq, no doubt much more so that our parents and grandparents were of failures in Europe. Is it possible to believe that Americans would have turned against the war in Europe had they known of military ineptitude? Should some general been held accountable, for example, for the escape of large numbers of German troops from Sicily to continental Italy, or for the bombing of the irreplacable monastery Monte Cassino?
I guess I’d ask who has been held accountable for the mistakes and blunders of Iraq? Greater transparency doesn’t necessarily lead to greater acountability. A majority of the country in Nov. 2004 voted to ratify the course in Iraq and to validate the Bush administration’s decisions. The greatest ledger of accountability, whether in Iraq or in the Italian campaign, is history.
One can name a lot of American generals from WW II before mentioning Mark Clark, who was in charge of American troops in Italy. You seem very even-handed in your discussions of Clark, but his big attribute seems to be that he just kept keeping at it. What grade would you give Clark? Do you think someone else could have done better?
I think on a scale of A to F, I’d give Clark a B minus, which is higher than many historians would rate him. It’s important to note that he’s neither the theater commander–a role filled first by Dwight D. Eisenhower and then by the British general Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson–nor is he even the senior commander in Italy, which fell to the British Gen. Harold Alexander. Much of what Clark’s Fifth Army did or did not do in Italy was a consequence of orders from on high. Second, more than any other theater in World War II, Italy resembled the grinding inelegance of the Western Front in World War I. Clark was a capable if not brilliant tactician, who was more than capable in overseeing the enormous logistical tasks required in Italy. Finally, although he’s a very difficult man to love, Clark had the mental toughness required to absorb those enormous casualties and to press on. He does indeed keep at it.
America’s role in WW II is hardly an unexplored subject. What drew you to this topic? Why focus on Europe to the exclusion of the Pacific?
My father was a career infantry officer who joined the Army during World War II, and stayed in through Vietnam. Growing up on Army posts in the 1950s and 1960s, World War II was very much a presence, a living part of our heritage and culture. Then I lived in Berlin for several years in the mid-1990s, which rekindled my interest and showed me that the war, like all stupendous events, is bottomless. There’s more to write; there will always be more to write, particularly if you’re willing to go deep in the archives for years. I also recognized that the liberation of Europe was a three-act epic: Africa, Italy, Western Europe. You can’t really understand what happened from Normandy to Berlin without knowing what came before; the armies that landed in Normandy, and the men who made up those armies, did not spring from the ether. They had a long history, individually and collectively, which is what the first two volumes of this trilogy recount. I haven’t excluded the Pacific; I’m just working my way through Europe first.
Throughout your career you have written extensively (and brilliantly) about military topics. Today, with the all-volunteer army, it is hardly unusual not only that an adult has not served, but that he or she does not even know very many people who have served. What should those of us who are so insulated keep in mind about our troops during this time of war?
Not confusing the warrior with the war is hugely important. Regardless of whether you despise the Iraq war, endorse it, or are indifferent to it, those in uniform are not the policymakers who took us there. The disproportionate share of the burden borne by the U.S. military today is quite different from the total war waged by the United States in World War II. Today 300 milllion Americans can mostly lead their lives without being inconvenienced by two concomitant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; in 1944, say, virtually all of the 140 million Americans in this country at that time were profoundly intertwined with what was happening overseas.
I am convinced that one of the major benefits of the American experience in Italy was an appreciation of Italian femininity that led directly to the fortunate film careers of Sophia Loren, Gina Lolabrigida, Monica Vitti and Virna Lisi. Support or deny.
Liberation comes in many forms, and if we played a small role in letting these women fulfill their destinies, then it would be hard to argue that the Italian campaign was entirely a waste. I note in The Day of Battle that the Italian port of Pozzuoli, not far from Naples, where G.I.s staged for the invasion at Anzio in January 1944, was home to a skinny nine-year-old girl called Stuzzicadenti–the Toothpick–by her schoolmates. After the war, skinny no more, she’d be better known as Sophia Loren.
Your many fans are eagerly awaiting Part III of your trilogy. Can you give us any hint how it turns out?
No surprise endings in history. In this case, in the greatest story of the 20th century, the good guys win.