Interview: Rick Atkinson, Author Of 'The Guns At Last Light' Historian Rick Atkinson's new book completes his trilogy on the second world war. He tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the events of the war may be 70 years in the past, but they're still very much a part of American culture.
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'Guns At Last Light' Illuminates Final Months Of World War II

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'Guns At Last Light' Illuminates Final Months Of World War II

'Guns At Last Light' Illuminates Final Months Of World War II

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One of the constant surprises of warfare is how often armies are taken by surprise. By December 1944, years of combat in World War II should have left the United States Army prepared for anything, and yet the American forces in Europe were not really ready for a possible attack in the snowy Ardennes Forest. The writer Rick Atkinson says that part of the frontline was considered a quiet rest area.

RICK ATKINSON: There would be entertainers coming through, including Marlene Dietrich, who was frequently at the frontlines. It's very cold in mid-December and she had wool underwear with drop drawers behind them, which was very racy for the soldiers.

INSKEEP: Atkinson's new book, "The Guns at Last Light," completes his trilogy on World War II in Europe. Part of that book describes the sudden German attack in the Ardennes that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

ATKINSON: You know, there was no real consideration that the Germans were going to do what they did. There was a belief that the Germans were badly beaten, and no one believed that the Germans could pull together the kind of attack that they mounted in the Ardennes.

INSKEEP: What was the attack like when it came?

ATKINSON: It was horrible. It was ferocious. Very heavy firing of all sorts, from machine guns to heavy artillery to tank fire. They blew through the front lines rather quickly. There were units that were overrun and massacred, essentially. There were other units that managed to fight a pretty good rear guard action, and it very quickly disrupted the German timetable, both in Belgium and farther south in Luxembourg, and I'd say within 72 hours the senior German commanders, other than Hitler, believed that it was going to be impossible.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, the Germans made a big advance. It created a bulge in the allied line, which is why it's knows as the Battle of the Bulge. And it's delightful - if I can use that word - in your telling the way that famous figures of that era appear in the narrative. We mentioned Marlene Dietrich, and we learn from her presence how unprepared the allies were. There were massive numbers of American casualties and Americans who surrendered, including a man whose name is well known to many readers today.

ATKINSON: Yes. One of the young soldiers in the 106th Infantry Division was a fellow from Indiana named Kurt Vonnegut - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He was captured, along with most of his division, and he ends up in Dresden, of all places, and he's in Dresden two months later when the terrible firebombing occurs.

INSKEEP: The reason he was able to write the novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" is because he was captured in the Battle of the Bulge?

ATKINSON: That's exactly right. The description that he has of that horrific scene in Dresden, with the firestorm that destroys this fabulous baroque city and kills thousands and thousands of Germans, is because he was there.

INSKEEP: I want to remind people that this book, "The Guns at Last Light," is your third book on World War II, focusing on this single war - for how many years have you been writing about it?

ATKINSON: It's been about 14, Steve.

INSKEEP: What has drawn you to this subject so deeply and for so long?

ATKINSON: You know, I stumbled into it a bit. I was a foreign correspondent in Berlin in the mid-'90s. I was born in Munich; my father was an army officer. So I always had an interest in both the war and in European politics and European warfare. I found that it got into my imagination in a way. The characters are fantastic. The stresses of war reveal character. You can see what they're made of. You can test their mettle because their mettle's being tested under the most adverse stresses of combat.

INSKEEP: Were you daunted at all by the immense pile of books that had been written before yours about every phase of this war?

ATKINSON: Of course it's daunting. I think lists 60,000 hardcovers on World War II. So that is a daunting thing. On the other hand, I think the greatest events in human history are really bottomless. So for World War II, the archive is stupendous. The U.S. Army records alone for World War II weigh 17,000 tons, and even the best historians have not done more than just scratch the surface. The story is such that 500 years from now people will be writing and reading about it.

INSKEEP: Is there a way in which this story feels like it's still with us? I mean, it's a lifetime away from us now and yet it still feels very present.

ATKINSON: It's 70 years later, but it so imprints us. Almost everything about American society is affected by World War II: our feelings about race, our feelings about gender and the empowerment of women, moving women into the workplace; our feelings about our role in the world. All of that comes in a very direct way out of World War II.

INSKEEP: I want to remind people that in addition to writing these histories of World War II, you have also reported on modern events and written some acclaimed books about more recent wars. Has your coverage of one era affected the way that you think about the other?

ATKINSON: You know, I went to Iraq in 2003 with then-Major General David Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division, and I think spending a couple of months at his elbow watching him grapple with all of the stresses of command. Now, it's not World War II. He's not fighting the Battle of the Bulge, as he would readily acknowledge. But things like sleep discipline, light discipline...

INSKEEP: You better explain what those things are.

ATKINSON: Sleep discipline is if you're so tired you're making poor decisions, it means that you've not been disciplined about your sleep; making sure there aren't lights burning so that the enemy can't see you. These are as old as Thucydides, and watching them play out on a contemporary battlefield I think really gives me, personally, a clearer understanding of exactly how it works. And when I write about it historically, I have a better, I think, intuitive and visceral understanding of the relationship between commander and commanded and all of these critical things that help put together warfare.

INSKEEP: Culturally, do you think it's the same institution as it was in World War II?

ATKINSON: It's more professional now. There's no doubt about. The soldiers are farther apart from the rest of us: 313 million people in America today; you've got about two million in uniform. Compare that to a country of 130 million in 1944 with 16 million in uniform. Everyone had skin in the game then. Almost none of us have skin in the game now.

INSKEEP: I wonder if you notice among the military today a kind of wistfulness that I think is present in the civilian population. They almost miss the era of World War II. Do you sense that in the military as well?

ATKINSON: I do. And it set in right away, a kind of dreadful nostalgia. And I think that that residually is still with us in some ways. For the military, the lines were clean then. You knew who the enemy was. You knew where the frontlines were. It's a much different kind of warfare that we're involved in in the 21st century. It's much murkier; it's more difficult. And I think it's more difficult also if you have a feeling that you are somewhat distanced from the rest of the country. You're the one who's fighting in a remote part of Afghanistan; it's not the country. Whereas if you're in the Battle of the Bulge, I think you really had a sense that you had the entire nation with you. I think today if you're a soldier, yes, you are respected, yes, people applaud you at baseball and football games, but what does that really mean if you're a soldier in Afghanistan? And I think that that's an issue that the country has not really come to grips with.

INSKEEP: Rick Atkinson is the author of many books, including his latest, "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945." Thanks for coming by.

ATKINSON: Thanks so much, Steve.

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