The greatest human catastrophe of the 20th century, World War II, was the last war in which almost every American had someone they loved in harm’s way. With a U.S. population of 130 million in 1944, 16.1 million were in uniform.
“What’s different today is that the percentage of Americans who are committed to the fight in one way or another is much, much smaller,” said Rick Atkinson, military historian. “We have 317 million people in America. The total armed forces, including the guard, reserve, and what not, is less than 2 million. Today, almost no one has skin in the game.”
Atkinson, who spent 15 years researching and writing about the war that left 60 million dead, will talk, answer questions, and sign books Thursday as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Last year, he concluded his Liberation Trilogy which covers U.S. involvement in Europe and North Africa from 1942 to 1945. Its first volume, The War in North Africa: 1942-1943, won a Pulitzer Prize for history in 2003.
He also penned The Long Gray Line about West Point’s class of 1966 and Vietnam; Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, and In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat, his observations on two months spent at the elbow of Gen. David Petraeus during our invasion of Iraq.
“As a historian I think part of my job is to make judgments; that’s what historians do, often with the pleasant position of hindsight,” he said in a telephone interview. Among those opinions are that our 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as Vietnam, were poor ideas.
On Vietnam: “You come away saying we have 58,000 names on the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and what was that all about? What did those 58,000 soldiers sailors, airmen, and marines die for? I am unable to answer that question and that’s a terrible thing.”
On Iraq: “The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was completely unwarranted. What did we get out of that? We got 4,400 dead and it’s hard to say that Iraq is a whole lot better now than it was. It’s hard to say that the region is any more stable than it was. We’ve certainly empowered Iran in a pretty significant way. And the cause of war turned out to be fraudulent.”
Atkinson, 61, writes at his home in Washington, where he’s raised two children with his wife, Jane Atkinson, a dentist and researcher of diseases of the mouth at the National Institutes of Health.
He was born Lawrence Rush Atkinson IV in Munich, where his father was a career Army officer and his mother a teacher. In high school, he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) but opted to pursue literature and writing instead. His father supported that decision.
As a journalist at the Kansas City Star, he won a Pulitzer Prize for excellent national reporting in 1982, which was a ticket in 1983 to the Washington Post, where he remained for 16 years, often covering war.
“I kind of blundered into it,” he said of battle reportage. “As an Army brat I grew up on military posts; I’m very comfortable with the culture. I think I understand the vocabulary of military service. World War II was certainly very much a part of the landscape of places where I lived in the 1950s and ’60s: there were lots of veterans and it was a dominant theme.
“The essence of war is suffering and sacrifice, and whether it’s a justifiable war, a war that has to be fought or not, it’s appalling.”
Paddling in its bloody waters, he wrote of great leaders, among them Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lucian K. Truscott.
“I’ve been living with Dwight for 15 years and my admiration has only grown for him.” Eisenhower’s strengths were not as a field marshall, but that wasn’t his charge.
“He’s extraordinarily adept at doing what he’s first and foremost asked to do and that is to hold together a factious, multinational coalition, and organize invasions of Africa, and then Sicily, and then southern Italy and of course, western Europe 70 years ago in May. He grows into it. And this is a guy who never heard a shot fired in anger before November, 1942.”
The general, who called himself chairman of the board and would lead the nation from 1953 to 1961, was known for probity, fairness, good organization, and surrounding himself with fine people. Moreover, he was articulate and precise both orally and in writing.
“You may not think much of him as a field marshall, but you will never doubt his fair dealings. He is just as square a can be.”
A master of battle was General Truscott, who taught in one-room schoolhouses in Oklahoma before entering World War I. He served again in World War II.
“He’s born to lead men in the dark of night which is the essence of a combat leader and we see him grow through the North African campaign. He’s commanding a division in the landings of Sicily. When we’re in serious trouble at Anzio [Italy] in the early months of 1944, Truscott is summoned … and he performs brilliantly,” said Atkinson. He’s skillful again at the landing in southern France in August, 1944.
“He’s unflappable, he’s relentlessly tough. He’s very literate; he writes exquisite letters home to his wife Sarah which are really endearing.”
Atkinson’s next undertaking is a tripartate history of the American Revolution, which will take him to the University of Michigan this week to research letters of British military leaders that are part of an extensive 18th century collection.
He’ll write about “not only Washington and other American leaders, but also British leaders. I’m fascinated by the British and to a lesser extent the Germans and eventually the French. So we will bounce back and forth from one side to the other and we will elevate from the lowest perspective of the battlefield to the highest perspective of those making decisions.
“As always it will be character driven; that’s how I write. I’m interested not in the guns and bugles part of war but the extent to which war is a great revealer of character.”
Contact Tahree Lane at: email@example.com or 419-724-6075.