History can be viewed from a variety of distances. It can be the grand literary sweep of a Bruce Catton, or the gritty in-your-face details of Robert Leckie. But no one brings alive the heartbreak and pain, especially of military history, like Rick Atkinson.
In this latest book, “The Guns at Last Light,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian finished his Liberation Trilogy, which traced American war efforts in the Mediterranean and Europe from 1942-45.
Atkinson has written another masterpiece, weaving broad strategic concepts with foxhole terror. But as good as it is, it is difficult reading because the subject matter is so heart-breaking.
For people raised on war movies and violent fantasies about good guys triumphing cleanly over evil men and their schemes, this 878-page tome will come as much more than a sobering surprise. It shows war, even a “good war” like World War II, as a brutal, uncertain enterprise that makes victims out of nearly everyone it touches.
“Guns” begins with the preparations – on both sides – for the great invasion of France in the summer of 1944. Although the landings and subsequent victories by Allied armies may seem like foregone conclusions at this distance, Atkinson ably demonstrates that it issue was much more uncertain that that.
The marble heroes of high school history books take on a more mortal look. Commander Dwight Eisenhower nervously chain-smoking hundred of cigarettes makes for a different image than we saw in the newsreels and photos.
More than that, the soldiers in the front lines are depicted as real men with realistic views of their own mortality. “I walked slowly, dragging my unwilling soul with me,” admitted one 29th Infantry Division soldier on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Atkinson gives a complete picture of each epic Allied triumph with honest warts: B-17 bombs that fell on American troops; enraged American paratroopers machine-gunning unarmed SS guards after the liberation of a concentration camp; American and French troops shooting each other in the confusion of battle.
This is not to say that Atkinson is some kind of neo-Marxist revisionist; he never equates the misdeeds of the Allies with the monstrous evil of Naziism. But he does show war in all its bloody, muddy, mindless horror, while giving much honor to those who experienced (and sometimes survived) it to free Europe for a great tyranny.
Anyone who is anxious to send other people to war should spend a week with “Guns.” It won’t necessarily make a pacifist out of a warmonger, but it will make reasonable men understand what another general – William Sherman – meant in another war.
“Some people think that war is all glory,” said the Civil War icon. “But war is all hell.”
“Guns at Last Light” by Rick Atkinson is published in hard-cover by Henry Holt and Co. of New York, $40. An electronic version is also available for $9.99 in a Kindle electronic version.