Conversation: Award Winner Rick Atkinson
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MARGARET WARNER: The Pulitzer for history went to Rick Atkinson for his book, “An Army at Dawn, the War in North Africa, 1942- ’43.” It’s the first volume in a proposed trilogy on the allied liberation of Europe in World War II. In November 1942, British and American forces invaded French Morocco and Algeria in a mission dubbed “Operation Torch.” It was the beginning of a seven- month campaign to take North Africa from the Vichy French and German forces at a cost of some 60,000 lives. Rick Atkinson has won the Pulitzer Prize twice before for his newspaper reporting. He’s presently on leave from the Washington Post to devote his time to book writing.
And welcome, Rick, and congratulations.
RICK ATKINSON: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: How did you hear the news? You were in the desert yourself.
RICK ATKINSON: I was in the desert. I was with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, really in the middle of nowhere, about 80 miles south of Baghdad. And it was almost midnight, and I got a computer message from the home office of the Washington Post asking me to call them. I did call them and was told that I’d won the Pulitzer Prize.
MARGARET WARNER: The North Africa campaign has not gotten much attention in popular literature, really, in our culture. Why did you want to start and write 600 pages about the North Africa campaign?
RICK ATKINSON: Well, that’s really where the story begins, and my premise was that you can’t really understand what happens in Normandy and beyond in 1944 and 1945 without understanding what comes first, because there’s a keynote of history of those armies that arrive on the beaches at Normandy, just as there’s a cumulative history of the men who command the armies. And it starts in Africa. That’s really where the great yarn, the greatest story of the 20th century begins.
MARGARET WARNER: You write in terms of its significance that you thought the Africa… North Africa campaign was… you called it a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power. What do you mean?
RICK ATKINSON: It’s really where you see the American government and the American military realize that it’s got the capability of being the great power of the 20th century; I mean, it’s no longer theory, it’s practice. And you see it play out strategically, diplomatically, militarily in North Africa. It’s where the United States begins to muscle up, both in terms of the logistical wherewithal of the American army and in terms of the fact that the British really slip into a role of junior partner in North Africa there forever, as it turns out.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also pointed out that the North Africa campaign was not an obvious first choice, that the Americans wanted to just drive straight for Berlin, and it was Churchill who wanted to do it this way. Tell us about that.
RICK ATKINSON: Yeah, there was a bitter debate that began in the spring of 1942, and it lasted right on into the middle of the summer of 1942, over where to strike first, where to throw the combined power of the Americans and the British against the Germans. The American impulse was to go right for the jugular, to stage in Britain, to cross the channel, to march toward Berlin. That was the simplest most direct way to go. It’s what General Marshal, the chief of the American military, wanted. It’s what almost every general wanted. Churchill and the British, having been engaged against the Germans for several years at that point, recognized first of all that the Germans were much tougher than the Americans gave them credit for and that the Americans were much greener than the Americans themselves realized. And they advocated a peripheral attack where the enemy would be taken on, on the fringe of the empire somehow and nibbled away at until he was weakened enough to go for the jugular. The decision was ultimately made by Franklin Roosevelt, against the advice of General Marshal and virtually everyone else in American uniform, to side with the British. In July of 1942, Roosevelt signed the order, saying we’re going to North Africa. He signed it “Franklin D. Roosevelt, commander in chief,” lest there be any doubt about where his authority lay.
MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, you write that the Americans were pretty green, the fighting men and the generals.
RICK ATKINSON: They were extraordinarily callow. How could they know how to fight a global war? The American army between world wars after World War I had virtually disintegrated. It was a very small force, given largely to practicing cavalry charges on western outposts. And you really see a sorting out underway in North Africa, where the competent from the incompetent are sorted out, the lucky from the unlucky, which is very important. And it’s where… as Churchill had foretold…it’s where the American army learned really to be an army and figured out how, among other things, to fight Germans.
MARGARET WARNER: And Eisenhower, you found, had a pretty steep learning curve himself.
RICK ATKINSON: Well, Eisenhower, who for most of his career had been a staff officer, had never commanded troops in combat before. He was extraordinarily gifted in many ways, but he arrived in North Africa in the fall of 1942 really untested, unsure of himself, beset with political problems involving the French, among other things, and it took him quite a while to find his legs. He came very close, I think, to being relieved because it wasn’t clear that he was going to become General Eisenhower. And that was a very hard winter for him.
MARGARET WARNER: And yet you write that strategically, I think your phrase was that along with Midway and Stalingrad, this is where the axis enemy forever lost the initiative in World War II, this early.
RICK ATKINSON: Well, it’s really the high water mark for the axis. If you put together Stalingrad, Midway, and North Africa, the losses are staggering, and the Germans never recovered, the Italians were completely spent by the end of North Africa in May 1943. And as the Germans had lost a very large army at Stalingrad, they lost a very large army in Tunisia, which was known as Tunisgrad, because the losses were just as catastrophic in a fundamental sense for the Germans and Italians there.
MARGARET WARNER: In this book, I can see you have a lot of respect for the fighting man, and you’ve read a lot of diaries and histories and so on, and yet you don’t… you have sort of a problem with this mythology of the greatest generation. Explain that.
RICK ATKINSON: Yeah, I think there’s a tendency toward hagiography these days, as if we’re writing biographies of the saints. In fact, the commanders and the average soldiers had flaws and faults just like we all do. They had enormous feet of clay, and to me that makes them more interesting, actually. There’s a tendency to think that all the brothers were valiant and all the sisters were virtuous, and in fact it’s not true. And to my way of thinking, I think putting the rough edges back on the war does them a service, not a disservice. I think elevating them to some kind of pantheon is really a caricature of who they really were and what they really accomplished.
MARGARET WARNER: When you were in Iraq with an army division, did you find echoes 60 years later, both sort of strategically and just in terms of how the army operated?
RICK ATKINSON: Oh, yeah, it’s absolutely fascinating to me, because the army, I think, is really a… it’s an organism, it’s a living, breathing thing. And the army of 2003 is really the direct heir of the army of 1942, 1943. There are many differences. The army of World War II is a dozen times bigger, for example. It’s drawn from a broader spectrum of American life than the army today is. But many of the values, many of the things they hold dear, many of the relationships within the army between enlisted men and officers, the ethic of the officer corps, is entirely recognizable today to anyone who has studied the army of World War II.
MARGARET WARNER: And your next project, is it next on the trilogy or Iraq?
RICK ATKINSON: Well, I’m certainly proceeding with the trilogy. The next volume will be the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, which come right after North Africa, and it’s the same cast of characters. It’s really a wonderful next step. I think I may try and write something about my pretty extraordinary experience with the 101st in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Rick Atkinson, congratulations again.
RICK ATKINSON: Thanks, Margaret.