Military Historian Writes Of Wars Past And Present
NEAL CONAN, host:
Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Atkinson covered war firsthand in Kuwait, Bosnia, Somalia and in Iraq. He's also the author of military histories that followed the creation and growth of the United States Army in the Second World War. He's just received the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. He joins us in just a moment.
We'd like to hear from military historians, writers and students in our audience. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Rick Atkinson joins us here in Studio 3A. And congratulations.
Mr. RICK ATKINSON (Author, "An Army at Dawn"): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And I see a little gray around the temples, but a lifetime award?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: A little scary.
Mr. ATKINSON: How could this be? I'm way too young.
CONAN: And I think this comes with a sizable cash bonus.
Mr. ATKINSON: It does. It's - I got a $100,000 honorarium. This is the fourth year it's been given by Jim Pritzker of the hotel chain and a man who's devoted to give part of his life both to being in the military - he's a retired colonel in the Illinois National Guard - and to supporting military history as part of our common heritage.
CONAN: What is the difference, as you sit as a writer, between writing a book like "In the Company of Soldiers," where you went into the - Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and General Petraeus, who we got to know a little bit better through the years, and a book like "An Army at Dawn," which is about the United States Army in the North Africa campaign in the Second World War back in 1942, '43?
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, a part of it is the length of the lens you're allowed the use. "In the Company of Soldiers," I was embedded with Dave Petraeus and the 101st Airborne and went with them from Fort Campbell, Kentucky all the way to Baghdad. And I was at Petraeus' elbow every day all day for a couple of months. That's really journalism, I think.
And "An Army at Dawn," which is the first volume in a trilogy that I'm writing about the role of the American military in the liberation of Europe in World War II, that's clearly history. And I think that when you're looking at a 65-year distance, when you've got the wide-angle lens that a historian can use -virtually everything is now unclassified. All the memoirs have been written. Most of the principals are dead, certainly all the senior generals. So you have a perspective on it that is quite different than doing journalism, where the ambiguity of immediate experience makes it hard to see with a wide-angle lens...
Mr. ATKINSON: ...makes it hard sometimes to have some distance on what's happening in front of you.
CONAN: Well, in one aspect, you pretty well know what the presidents and the prime ministers and the generals were all thinking. But to find out what the soldiers were thinking, you have to rely on second-hand and third-hand sources. You don't get to talk to them yourself.
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, that's true. Of course, there are still a couple million alive World War II veterans here. I tend not to interview them much. I believe that there's a received version of events after 65 years. Fortunately, the contemporaneous record is spectacular. It's very rich. It's very broad. It consists often of interviews that were done within days or weeks of the actual events - the Battle of the Bulge, the invasion of Normandy. And it consists also of memoirs and diaries that were written contemporaneously or near contemporaneously. And that trove is spectacular, and that's exclusive of the official record.
The U.S. Army alone in World War II created 17,000 tons of records. No one has ever gone through more than a very small fraction of that trove. And it's wonderfully rich. There are things to discover. There will be things to discover in that collective archive for 500 years.
CONAN: As you went through that experience, there was this idea in the early 1940s, after the start of the war, that the United States Army, its role was go direct to Berlin as quickly as possible and that the road to Berlin did not start in North Africa. The military commanders were highly opposed to this idea of what they saw as a sideshow and something that would be going along with the British idea, and this soft underbelly was ridiculous. They needed to land troops in northern Europe and move on to Germany. And as your book, "An Army at Dawn," amply demonstrates, this was an army that needed to learn some lessons.
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, that's right. Your history is absolutely right, Neal. The spring of 1942 was given over to a very impassioned, strategic debate about where we should first attack in counterpunching against the Germans and Italians. The British argued very persuasively on the part of Winston Churchill, prime minister, that this was a very green American Army, green soldiers, green commanders. It was building itself from 190,000 in the late '30s to 8.5 million, ultimately.
And Franklin Roosevelt listened to Churchill over the protests and the advice of his senior military commanders, including George Marshall, the chief of staff, Dwight Eisenhower, who was just becoming a large figure then, and agreed that they would - that we, collectively, the Anglo-Americans, would attack on the periphery. And contrary to Marshall's advice, and the advice of virtually everyone in uniform, that you stage in Britain, you cross the English Channel and you march straight for Berlin. It's in the great tradition of the American Army. You go right for the jugular right away.
I think indeed you're right. The invasion of North Africa on November 8th, 1942, in which our first adversary was not the Germans or the Italians but actually was the French, proved that we had a long way to go. Churchill was quite right. It was a green army. They were green commanders. They had a lot to learn, and a lot of that learning was done in the Mediterranean, first in North Africa and then in Sicily in Italy.
CONAN: You mentioned that small pre-war armies of the commanders in that army that landed in North Africa, they all knew each other extremely well, for decades, as they had been captains and majors who hadn't been promoted for many, many years. They all served together (unintelligible) it must have been -one of the most difficult things was for some of those men to fire some of the others.
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, this is true. They had grown up in a very sleepy inter-war army. They did know each other. Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower were classmates, class of 1915 at West Point. George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower considered each other best friends. And when push came to shove and some could cut it and some could not, which is always something that happens in wars, we've seen recently with General McChrystal, the hardest duty sometimes for a commander is to sack someone, someone that you may personally like, someone who may actually be senior to you. So we find in the case of George Patton, that he is the senior, he is commander over Omar Bradley.
For instance, in Sicily, Patton gets into trouble. He slaps two soldiers in a rather disgraceful episode in the summer of 1943. He's left on the sidelines. And when he does get back into the war after the invasion of Normandy, he finds that he is subordinate to Omar Bradley. That's part of the twist and turn of personalities and different fates whenever you've got a big-time war.
CONAN: You grew up in the Army. Your father was an officer. You grew up a military brat. This has been pretty much your life. Why have you ended up being a correspondent and not, at your age, getting a lifetime achievement award as a, well, a colonel?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ATKINSON: Or a general.
CONAN: You're not old enough to be a general.
Mr. ATKINSON: I'm Dave Petraeus's age. Actually, we would have been in the same West Point class together...
Mr. ATKINSON: ...class of '74. And I did have an appointment to the class of '74 and decided at the last minute not to go, saved the Army quite a lot of trouble, I think.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ATKINSON: I wanted to write. And ultimately, I wanted to write narratively. I wanted to have an opportunity to find a literary voice. And, for me, yes, I did grow up in the Army, my father, who's about to turn 86, retired infantry officer. And World War II was very much part of the landscape, growing up on Army posts in the 1950s and 1960s. There were many, many veterans like my father. And it's a culture that I felt comfortable in, still feel comfortable in. I know the language. I know the special argot of the military life. And frankly, if you're a storyteller, there is no greater story from the 20th century than that of World War II. And I find that it's just bottomless. There's more to write. There will always be more to write.
CONAN: There is also the character of yourself as a war correspondent. Does this long lens on the history of the United States Army - something you feel viscerally as well as a scholar - does it give you insight when you go to places like Iraq?
Mr. ATKINSON: I think it does, Neal. My theory was that it would, and I think over time the theory has proven correct. I think when I'm with Dave Petraeus, I see and feel and hear resonances of all sorts. I understand historically as a historian what a commander goes through. I understand things that are subtle yet very, very important - the importance of sleep discipline. If you dont get enough sleep, you've got a serious problem making decisions that affect the lives of your soldiers.
And so when I watch Dave Petraeus, I very much see playing out these ancient verities of command and struggling with the issues that surround command.
CONAN: It is - you just made me think of the Roman legions who, every night as they marched, would erect a camp, and the discipline involved in it. Oh, well maybe tonight, we don't have to do the darn thing, and they did it every single night. When they didn't, they got into serious trouble. The discipline that is involved in keeping a crack army crack is extraordinary.
Mr. ATKINSON: It's hard to build. It's very easy to break. We saw it in Vietnam. That was a pretty fine Army that we had in 1965. By 1973, it was in tatters. It was a disgrace to the country and to itself, to its own heritage, really. So it's, you know, the Army belongs to all 307 million of us. It is our common possession, it's our common heritage. As goes the Army, so goes the republic. It's something that I personally feel all Americans need to understand better. You can't just say, well, they volunteered. They're in Afghanistan, I'm not, because they wanted to be in the Army. I don't think it works that way in a democracy.
And so part of my mission in life, I suppose, is to try to be a bridge between that wider republic that may or may not have much experience with military things, generally, and the military both past and present.
CONAN: We're talking with Rick Atkinson - I would pronounce his name properly one of these times. He's just received the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement. His books include "An Army at Dawn," the first of a trilogy - the third one not out yet - on the U.S. Army in World War II. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And as you think back, the Army that you're writing about in the World War II, as close to a universal service, I think, as the United States has come perhaps, I guess, since the Civil War. And we have a very different situation today. Obviously, this goes through the lens of Vietnam, that experience, that Army that was, as you suggested, in tatters in 1975. And there was extraordinary work. You think of the Colin Powell generation to say, how are we going to fix this? Well, part of it is discipline.
Part of it is, we will figure out a way to own the night. We will never lose that advantage again. We are going to go to an all-volunteer service. That was not necessarily the military's decision, but it is a decision which they embraced. We have a very different force today that we did in 1975.
Mr. ATKINSON: That's true. We have a very different force today than we did, obviously, in 1945. Then we had 130 million people in America, 16 million served in uniform. Everybody had skin in the game somehow. Everyone had a loved one who was in harm's way to one degree or another. Today, again in a country of 307 million, we've got about 2 million in uniform. Almost no one has skin in the game. It's really a quite different emotional engagement.
And in between, there was that Vietnam era Army which had a quick tumble from competence and national esteem, to fundamental incompetence, indiscipline and something approaching national loathing by many corridors of our country. And so, what you saw in that generation - Colin Powell being among them - that inherited that Army, those guys who were mid-level officers in Vietnam and then rose to senior ranks afterward was, I think first of all, a universal decision that this isn't going to happen again. We can't allow this to happen again. It's too important. It's too important, the institution we love of the Army, it's too important to the country.
And so the things that you cited were very important. And obviously, the military has been restructured. It became a volunteer force in the early 1970s. It's a force now that is quite different in fundamental ways. It's - I wrote a book about the West Point Class of 1966. There were three black cadets in that class out of 579 men.
Now, if you go to West Point or any of the other academies today, you will see that it's really a rainbow corps of cadets and midshipmen and whatnot. There are women. There are blacks, Hispanics. It's much more a melting pot like the nation as a whole. And that's part of the reforms that were brought in to try to rebuild that tattered institution of the U.S. Army after Vietnam.
CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left. And again, you talked about going through that trough of information about the Army during the Second World War. I have to ask you, given that, what do you make of your predecessors, men like Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent, men like S.L.A. Marshall who conducted so many interviews with men fresh off the battlefield?
Mr. ATKINSON: You know, I don't believe in the greatest generation concept. I think it does a disservice, first of all, to other generations, the Founding Fathers and so on. I'm almost inclined to subscribe to it for journalists. That was a very fine cadre of journalists who were working on behalf of all of us, our spiritual forerunners, you and me, Ernie Pyle just one of a number of them. And again, the relationship is quite different to the institution they're covering. Those journalists are in uniform.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Some carried weapons.
Mr. ATKINSON: Some carried weapons. Hemmingway was there. Hemmingway was heavily armed himself in violation of the Geneva Convention.
They were subject to essentially the chain of command in a way that's unthinkable today. And yet, they managed to maintain a certain level of independence. I think a respect for the institution they were covering but they weren't slavishly devoted to it. They were subject to censorship, very vigorous censorship at times. And yet, when you go back and read those dispatches, they're very, very impressive.
And we all owe a debt and particularly those of us who are now two or three generations removed. I use them a lot. I find that they are vivid and they bring you right there when you need to be there.
CONAN: There's a link to some of Rick Atkinson's writing. His series on IEDs for The Washington Post, "Left Of Boom," at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Rick Atkinson just received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pritzker Military Library. He was kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Congratulations again.
Mr. ATKINSON: Thank you, Neal.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.