War Is Hell

3 minute read
Michael Duffy

In late March 1945, as Allied armies coiled for their final assault on the doomed Third Reich, General George Patton launched a truly foolish raid on a small prison camp 60 miles behind German lines to rescue his son-in-law. The 300-man task force quickly ran into trouble. Within hours, the Wehrmacht had destroyed all 53 American vehicles and sent scores of GIs running for their lives down a wooded hillside, bloodhounds in pursuit. “The baying of dogs echoed across the slope,” Rick Atkinson writes. “One by one, the GIs were captured or shot down.” Patton’s son-in-law, wounded in the rout, was soon back in German custody.

The tale of the raid that failed comes near the end of The Guns at Last Light, the final volume of Atkinson’s trilogy on the liberation of Western Europe. It’s emblematic of his work: detailed in its research, unsparing in its judgments and confident in its prose. After about 750,000 words, Atkinson is capable of delivering succinct and sweeping verdicts like this: “Hitler’s death, like his life, would prove predicate to a lie.”

A Pulitzer Prize winner for history and journalism, Atkinson began writing books about war nearly 25 years ago. This trilogy–on which he’s spent 12 years, twice as long as the war itself–may well be his masterpiece. The first volume, An Army at Dawn, follows untested (and dangerously unready) U.S. forces in 1942 to North Africa, where only German overreach and superior Allied numbers prevented an early embarrassment. The Day of Battle, a grimmer read, describes the costly (and poorly generaled) Italian campaign. Atkinson’s great lesson is that we cannot appreciate the supposedly mythic liberation of France in 1944 unless we recall the precarious and occasionally disastrous campaigns in Morocco, Algeria and Italy before that. American history too often overlooks those touch-and-go precursors.

Along the way, Atkinson sows the grittiest, most horrifying combat details next to teenage-level squabbling among U.S. and British generals–above which General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the chain-smoking supreme commander and father figure, seems to float unbothered. For every example of Yankee mechanical know-how that somehow gets the better of the Nazis, there is a far-too-familiar story about a hastily designed American device (the C-46 transport plane comes to mind) that has a way of killing servicemen long before they reach the action. War, in Atkinson’s rendering, isn’t the only thing that’s hell. Getting to it can be fatal.

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