Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bright new dawn.

Man. Sometimes I think it was kind of a miracle that the Allies won World War II. Rick Atkinson's An Army At Dawn makes it seem even more improbable, what with how outmatched the American Army was at the start of World War II.

An Army At Dawn is the first in Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, and it's an excellent chronicle of the war in North Africa during the first years of World War II (a front that often gets short shrift, otherwise).

It was in North Africa that the American military, having atrophied since World War I, really came into its own. Atkinson takes an interesting perspective on the war, focusing on the personalities of the men involved, that makes familiar names like Patton, Eisenhower, Darlan, and Montgomery come alive in new and vivid ways.

Atkinson opens with a prologue set in the American military cemetary in Carthage, home of nearly 3,000 graves of soldiers who died in Tunisia. From the names and dates on the headstones, he imagines the fate of a handful of soldiers. This approach - opening with a narrow look at a handful of men, instead of a sweeping battle - characterizes Atkinson's skill at close examination.

Atkinson also reminds us that the North African front was the first testing ground of the American military: "North African defined the coalition and its strategic course, prescribing how and where the Allies would fight for the rest of the war."

Mistakes were made, lives were lost, and the battle for North Africa would weed out the incompetent commanders from the leaders.

Atkinson creates a vivid picture of the often larger-than-life personalities involved, from General Ted Roosevelt, the riding-crop-wielding, Rough Rider-emblazoned-Jeep-riding son of the famous Teddy, to Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Infantry Division commander and the "fightingest man" on the battlefield, and of course, the aforementioned Patton, Eisenhower, and Montgomery. Fortunately Atkinson doesn't let Army become a hagiography of leaders, and uses the diaries and letters of the grounds troops to create a more complete portrait of the military, from the young privates from the Midwest to the lieutenant colonels shepherding their men into battle. Atkinson also has a grim appreciation for the improbable humor often found in life-or-death situations.

Against the rolling groves, hills, and deserts of Tunisia, Atkinson's Army at Dawn is a meticulously researched, remarkably alive portrait of a world power coming into its own.


  1. I have read Atkinson's book and found it excellent but you write:

    "It was in North Africa that the American military, having atrophied since World War I, really came into its own."

    I think you mean the American ARMY as the Marines had been coming into their own at Guadalcanal for several months before Torch and the Navy for months before then