World War II lasted six years, but Rick Atkinson needed 14 years to complete his massive trilogy on the conflict. That turned out to be time well spent. Now the wait for the concluding volume of “The Liberation Trilogy,” his magisterial study of the American and Allied efforts in the European Theater, is finally over.
The same qualities that garnered Atkinson a Pulitzer Prize for the first volume, "An Army at Dawn" (2002) — meticulous research married to masterful narrative — are apparent in "The Guns at Last Light." "An Army at Dawn" covered the North African campaign. "The Day of Battle" (2007) followed the Allies into Italy. The new book relates the oft-told (but never better) story of the war's final year, from D-Day to the German surrender.
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Atkinson, 60, a former Washington Post reporter (where he also won the Pulitzer), spoke to us from his home in Washington, D.C., near the eve of publication and just before his Chicago-area for appearances later this month. An edited transcript follows:
Q: Like World War II itself, your trilogy took a little bit longer than expected.
A: I anticipated I could finish it in nine or 10 years. After the first volume came out, I went back to work at the Washington Post and went to Iraq with David Petraeus and the101st Airborne Division and wrote a book about that adventure ("In the Company of Soldiers"). That diverted me for about a year and a half. And I went back to the Post in 2007 for about seven months, spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote a project called "Left of Boom," about something very much in the news these days, improvised explosive devices.
Q. Were those other assignments a welcome vacation from writing about World War II?
A: If I was going on vacation, I'm not sure I'd go to Iraq! They were helpful diversions. They gave me a chance to catch my breath and think with a different part of my brain. And it's useful for a military historian to spend time with the latter-day Army. You realize that there are aspects of warfare that are simply eternal. There are things that happened in 1944 or things that happen in 2013 that would be entirely recognizable to Thucydides.
Q: You've said that part of your inspiration for this project were the great, narrative trilogies by Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton about the Civil War.
A: I was an admirer of (them), not least because both had experience as journalists. And they showed that at least in theory something like this could be done. I was also interested in taking on a subject that I felt had not been done as popular narrative, accessible to a wide audience. And had not been taken on as one story ... the liberation of Europe.
Q: You were born in Germany and grew up as an Army brat. Did that create a special affinity for this topic?
A: I was born in Munich, and my father was stationed in Salzburg. For the first three years of my life I lived in Austria back when the American Army was still in Austria. I grew up subsequently in posts around the country around veterans. When you grew up in the Army in the 1950s and 60s, WWII was a relatively recent thing, and it had a real resonance to those of us who were in that culture.
Q: Did we need 60 or 70 years to get a fuller perspective on the war?
A: The people who write official histories for the Army believe that a generation needs to pass before you can tackle the official history. It's useful to have some distance. Sources become available. Passions cool. It allows an opportunity to make some real assessments and judgments about personalities and characters. You can see a bit better through the hagiography.
Q: It seems like we know — or think we know — a lot about World War II. Is it still an area that can surprise and yield discoveries for the historian?
A: There is quite a lot of new information in (the book). I have seen the statistics for the U.S. Army in WWII, and they weigh 17,000 tons. It's staggering. No one has ever done more than scratch the surface of those records — including me — and I'm a real archive rat. I can say with some confidence that there's quite a bit that's new in the book. There are revelations about what happened, even at Normandy, as well-studied as that is. Part of my task is also bringing back the dead, reviving characters who had slipped into oblivion.
Q: Who is example of that?
A: Jacob Devers. There were only three Army Groups in Western Europe for the Western Allies. One was commanded by (British Gen. Bernard) Montgomery. One was commanded by Omar Bradley. And the other was commanded by Jacob Devers. If you asked the average American who he was, you will typically get a blank stare. And yet he is a fantastically interesting! Quite an accomplished officer, a good commander. He and Eisenhower didn't get along at all, but Eisenhower recognized that Devers was second only to (him) in his ability to get along with the other allied armies. He's someone we ought to know about.
Q: While most recognize D-Day as the commencement of the Allied victory in Europe, the 11 months that followed it were anything but easy.
A: So true. People believe that there was D-Day, and then something happened at the Bulge, and after that it was smooth sailing. There were almost 11,000 American soldiers killed in Germany in April of 1945, the last full month of the war. That's almost as many as died in June, 1944. Right to the very end it was absolutely brutal. The harshness of the task was compounded by the revelations beginning in early April when the (concentration) camps were liberated. That took a toll on soldiers that isn't fully appreciated.
Q: You write about how war is a "merciless revealer of character." No real surprises with Montgomery or Patton, but your takes on generals Eisenhower and Bradley are more shaded than we've come to expect.
A: They all have feet of clay ... as we all do. I've lived with Dwight David Eisenhower for 14 years now, and my admiration for him has only deepened. And yet it's important to recognize that he is, in fact, flawed. He is not a particularly talented field marshal. He makes mistakes from the beginning. He is not a natural battle captain. His job is to be chairman of this enormous, fractious martial enterprise. But it's important to see that he has defects and deficiencies. It makes him much more interesting and accessible to us. We can appreciate him more.
Omar Bradley was a contributor — by virtue of two memoirs — to the mythology about his role and his level of competence. But he was what you see in war frequently and in WWII, in particular. It's the Peter Principle at play, where people are promoted above their natural level of competence. Bradley is commanding a corps in Tunisia in 1943, and then in the blink of an eye he's commanding an Army Group. That is a huge leap. So many of them had no real experience in commanding large units under the most stressful circumstances. I'm admiring of the fact that they are able to do it as well as they can, but it's important not to sugarcoat it.
Q: What feedback do you get from veterans?
A: I hear from them a lot. And from their children and grandchildren. I want to feel that I've done right by them, that I've told a story they recognize — good and bad, dark and light. There are now about 1.3 million of them left out of 16.1 million who were in uniform in WWII for this country. They are dying at the rate of about 800 a day. It's very pleasing to get notes or emails from them saying "I was in this unit or that unit, and you helped me understand the bigger picture."
Q: What does experience as a journalist bring to your role as historian?
A: I can type very fast! That's useful trying to amass this much information. The books are about 750,000 words. The other skills — observing deadlines, having a plan, a discipline about the art of writing, and a certain lack of self-consciousness about it — you get from the culture of the newsroom.
Q: What's next?
A: I'm going to leave WWII. I considered and rejected doing something on the Pacific. Fourteen years is enough. I'd like to take on a different challenge and probably a different era. But it will be another war. It's what I do.
John Barron is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Oak Park.
"The Guns at Last Light"
By Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt, 896 pages, $38
Rick Atkinson will make two public Chicagoland appearances on May 15 and 16. Visit liberationtrilogy.com for details.
"The Day of Battle"
By Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt, 848 pages, $17
"An Army at Dawn"
By Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt, 768 pages, $17Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun